What is truly stopping brands from representing the queer community?

This pride month saw only two major brands launching their campaigns representing the queer community. Rest reduced it to social media posts or logo changes. Sadly, the queer community is finding less and less representation in the advertising industry. What is stopping brands? We find out.

Sneha Medda
New Update
representing the queer community

As the colourful festival of inclusivity, Pride Month, fades into the background; a sad reality comes to the surface — the diminishing representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in advertising. 

This year, only two major brands, Future Generali India Insurance (FGII) and IKEA, launched their pride campaigns. In contrast to past years, where a slew of brands participated (albeit often superficially with mere logo changes or token social media posts), this decline is stark.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay, a Creative Director said, “In past years, some of the queer-themed advertising was labelled as tokenism but now even the tokenism appears to be absent.”

According to the government of India’s estimated figures, the LGBTQIA+ population was at least 2.5 million in 2012. This significant subsect of the population is seeing a decline in representation in ads. So, what is really stopping brands from representing the queer community? 

Fear of backlash

In 2021, Dabur’s Fem India launched a campaign that depicted a queer couple celebrating Karva Chauth. This bold move, however, was met with severe backlash from both the audience and politicians. A prominent state home minister made a controversial statement, saying, "Today, lesbians are observing Karva Chauth; tomorrow, two men will be taking ‘pheras’." He also reportedly ordered the police to demand Dabur withdraw the advertisement, threatening legal action if they did not comply.

Post this backlash, Dabur withdrew the campaign and issued a public apology. 

Experts believe that the fear of backlash from the country's conservative community is a significant concern for brands when it comes to representing the queer community in their ads. 

Roshan Abbas, Creative Entrepreneur & Founder - Kommune India said, “The primary reason is the growing backlash and the fear of alienating certain segments of the audience. Brands are becoming increasingly cautious in an era where public opinion can shift rapidly, and outrage can be amplified on social media.” 

Public outcry related to the queer community is an often occurrence in the country. Whether it be related to laws or in ads. Last year, Starbucks’s ad featuring a transwoman’s relationship with her father was labelled ‘too woke’ by many audience members. Despite the immense backlash, the brand did not back down and ran the ad. 

However, not every brand feels confident enough to go mainstream with a topic that remains hugely taboo in the country.

Chattopadhyay said, “Brand owners probably feel that, on balance, it’s better to stay away from themes that are still not mainstream in India and can end up courting controversy and denting their brand image.”

Anusmita, a Content Creator, also thinks a brand’s fear of its reputation stops it from authentic representation. She said, “I feel the main fear that brands have is the backlash from the conservative community, which can, in turn, lead to negative publicity or potential boycotts. This can cause damage to the brand’s reputation.”

Concerns of rainbow-washing

Rainbow Washing is when companies signal support for the LGBTQ+ community, like adding rainbow colours to their marketing materials during Pride Month, without actually doing substantive work that helps members of the community.

In the past, many brands have been called out for this behaviour, where they reduced celebrating the queer community to June and the rest of the year, they cater to the heterosexual population. 

In their campaign 'Make Room for More Pride,' Dunzo directly tackled the issue of tokenism faced by the queer community in the advertising and media industry.

Experts think that this is another major concern brands feel will come in the way if they become inclusive. Abbas believes that the balance between supporting social causes and maintaining a broad customer base is delicate. He adds, “Brands are concerned about being accused of “rainbow-washing” – where their support is seen as superficial or opportunistic.”

Anusmita believes there is a fundamental issue in the system. She said, “There is the basic lack of awareness on the part of the advertisers, which results in subtle representation and fails to portray the diversity of the community. There can also be a lack of diversity within the advertising teams, which leads to minimalised representation.” 

Apart from these concerns, Patruni Chidananda (SAS) Sastry, Founder - DragVanti &  Public Speaker thinks that brands also fear losing existing consumers. They said, “A significant concern for brands supporting Pride is the fear of losing broader market appeal, especially among heterosexual consumers.”

Advice for brands

To nip these problems in the bud, the industry needs to work on its core fundamentals. Roshan Abbas emphasised that authentic representation begins with internal policies and culture within brands. 

He said, “Brands need to ensure they are genuinely inclusive, not just in their advertising but also in their workplace and practices. Transparency and consistency in their support for the queer community, beyond just Pride month, are crucial.”

Chattopadhyay said, “Representation, awareness and acceptance have to grow among the brand owners before one can see it reflected in the advertising.”

In addition to learning and educating themselves, experts advise brands to actively engage with the queer community to foster genuine understanding and authenticity.

Patruni Chidananda Sastry said, “One of the reasons why there is often misrepresentation of queer people in media is because many brands fail to genuinely understand inclusion. They often present a superficial idea of inclusivity without truly integrating diverse perspectives.”

They believe this can be avoided by simply having real and authentic individuals voicing their opinions. “Brands must feature real queer individuals and authentically tell their stories. This approach not only adds value but also fosters genuine connection and understanding across diverse audiences,” they added. 

Chattopadhyay had similar opinions. He said, “To create appropriate Pride-related advertising, brands need to engage with the queer community and include queer voices in the process of creating the communication.” 

Previously, a few brands like FGII's #WelcomeHome, Vick’s Touch of Care, Times out & proud, Disney and more have included the queer community in their campaigns. Disney Star’s ‘Words of Pride’ campaign highlighted the importance of choosing appropriate terminology when addressing the LGBTQIA+ community across multiple Indian languages. The campaign showcased queer individuals educating the hetero-world on the basics of ‘queer language’. 

Fear of losing out of customers or facing backlash from the audience can also directly impact creativity and innovation in advertising. 

Abbas said, “Fear stifles creativity.”

“When brands are overly cautious, their campaigns can become bland and inauthentic. True innovation comes from a place of genuine support and understanding. When brands take calculated risks and stand by their values, it often leads to more compelling and effective advertising,” Abbas added. 

Patruni Chidananda Sastry advises brands to give freedom to their creative teams. They said, “Fear often impacts the idea of creativity and innovation. Brands should empower their creative teams to explore new ideas without unnecessary restrictions or inhibitions. This openness can lead to more authentic and impactful campaigns.”

As the advertising industry evolves, the call for transparency, consistency, and genuine support for the queer community remains paramount. Only through genuine efforts and representation can brands hope to authentically reflect the diverse human experience in their campaigns.

Ultimately, by embracing authenticity and navigating societal complexities brands can not only create impactful advertising but also contribute to a more inclusive future for everyone.

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