Today, words like “tea,” “serve,” and “shade” have new meanings, with famous shows and people like Comedy Central’s Broad City and GOT’s Sophie Turner using their alternative definitions as part of their lexicon. Yet these terms go further back, originating in queer Black Femme and Latinx subcultures—“reading” for example can be traced back to African American women in the 1950s, and the often overused “yasss” is heard in the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” the documentary that first exposed drag culture and its witty vernacular to the mainstream public.
And while these terms originated with queer Black Femme and Latinx subcultures, drag has played a key role in popularizing them. Once seen as taboo and often frowned upon, drag and its vernacular has infiltrated the Instagram feeds and households of millions of Americans today through vehicles like RuPaul's Drag Race. So much so that a charge has been led by young straight cis women, a demographic notoriously known for picking up and popularizing linguistic trends. A prime example is Taylor Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down” music video released during Pride Month, June 2019, a showcase of queer culture with lyrics like “shade never made anybody less gay.”
So, led by our associate director of design, we set out to give queens the credit they deserve for their contribution to today’s catchy and often snarky vernacular, by partnering with Merriam-Webster to launch “Thank a Queen,” a 100% organic, agency-led social awareness campaign born out of 100% passion.
What made this campaign so unique was that we didn’t have a client for it when it began. It was inspired by our internal agency initiative “Voices of The Many,” which encourages staff to use their voices and the tools we have in advertising to share positive messages with the world.
Our associate director of design, Jorge Andrade, had been observing the history of popular terminology—from queer Black Femme to Latinx origins—and the prevalence of this terminology in the world today, especially all over entertainment and social media. Shade is now thrown and spilling tea just isn’t what it used to be!
As a designer, Jorge wanted to visually represent the connection between these terms and drag queens. So he began by creating a six-poster series, each conceptually tied to a word and its alternative “queen” definition and each representing a color of the rainbow. But the posters had to be as vibrant as the cultures and queens themselves, so six real-life Drag Race queens were carefully selected and illustrated to represent each term, pairing their sass and style with the catchy phrases themselves.
We were set to release these into the world for everyone to appreciate during Pride month, but something was missing. As we looked more closely at our insight and idea, we realized this message needed to make a bigger impact beyond the walls of our agency and our own social channels.
So we reached out to Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher helping millions of people understand and use language better for nearly two centuries, with the idea of launching a drag dictionary week. The goal? To help the world realize that the next time they use these terms they can “thank a queen.” Long familiar with the ways creative expression fuels language expansion, Merriam-Webster jumped at the chance to bring this campaign to life because of the striking way it illuminates how words from one corner of language can spread to language at large.
The budget? Tons of shared passion and zero dollars. Which meant tapping into Merriam-Webster’s social reach was essential. We identified the Instagram feed and stories as the perfect visual platform, making sharing and screenshotting for background art even more accessible to our audience.
We even engaged Merriam-Webster’s professional lexicographer to validate our insight using serious research, calling out the actual use of these words and their “queen definitions” in printed and published media and entertainment.
Art directionally, these posters were inspired by vintage Art Deco posters with a bit of a modern and contemporary spin. They were treated almost monochromatically, so that when lined up together, they represent the heritage LGBTQ+ flag. The details were focused on the face, with the queen’s outfits as a secondary storyline.
“Thank a Queen” kicked off on Merriam-Webster’s Instagram and Twitter channels on RuPaul’s birthday, November 17, 2019. One post daily for a week, putting the visuals front and center to draw attention to each term and its real-world use. That’s some realness!
The campaign did exactly what it was supposed to do—it reached the world using art and expression as a means to draw attention to subcultures and their role in how we communicate as a society today.
Did we mention there was zero paid support behind this campaign? Through pure organic means, “Thank a Queen” received over 520K organic impressions and 15.3K engagements across Merriam-Webster’s social channels, with RuPaul’s Drag Race queens like Milk and Valentina chiming in to “gag” and give praise, salute their own image, and even re-share each post to their millions of combined followers.
The campaign was also picked up by @LGBT_history, a meaningful campaign element because of their power as a platform to reach so many people and make them feel heard and understood.
All of the comments were exactly what we hoped for too—to get people talking and having conversations, building awareness. With enough usage of these words in mainstream publications, the hope is to one day get these definitions added to the dictionary.
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