How can Agency and Advertising culture evolve to be more inclusive?

Aditi Gangrade, Co-Founder at Much Much Media discusses the need for authentic queer representation, moving beyond tokenism in LGBTQIA+ allyship, and the importance of inclusive marketing in the advertising industry.

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Growing up in a tier-2 city in India, I was acutely aware of the explicit and implicit homophobia and transphobia that permeated my surroundings. Queer characters in films and advertisements were often mocked for presenting differently, which built deep-seated stigma around queerness, sexuality, and diverse gender identities. This environment forced many LGBTQIA+ individuals, including myself, to keep our identities closeted for safety. The fear of discrimination was so deeply rooted that many of us lived without fully accepting ourselves. Being different was considered a crime.

I discovered my queer identity just last year, at the age of 25, while working on a campaign called ‘Me As Me.’ 

As a neurodivergent person, understanding and articulating my identity has always been a challenge. I often struggle to find the right words or ways to express how I feel and who I am. Despite being an active LGBTQIA+ ally for years, it took significant introspection and engagement with the community to fully realise and accept my identity. 

During the research phase of the campaign, we delved into the experiences of queer and trans individuals. It was through these conversations that I uncovered a significant overlap between neurodivergent and LGBTQIA+ identities.

One of the protagonists of the film shared, “I experienced major gender dysphoria as a teenager and only understood what it was much later. I embraced my nonbinary and trans identity in my 30s, when I was finally surrounded by a diverse group of people who unabashedly stood up for themselves and presented in ways that they found best.”

This is the film my company Much Much Spectrum made that helped me realise my queer identity:

People from all marginalised communities have felt unseen and unheard growing up. This is not just the case with queerness, but with every marginalised identity.

Authentic queer representation in advertising

Advertising needs to represent these communities, these consumers, in the most authentic way possible. 

Brands have long embraced the month of June to profess their support for the LGBTQIA+ community. But true solidarity requires so much more than rainbow-coloured logos and products. These gestures, without any real commitment or support needed to effect real change, often fall under the term “rainbow-washing.” Some may argue doing something is better than doing nothing at all. But inclusive marketing isn’t just low-hanging fruit to appeal to a ‘broader audience’. Brands in this day and age should not even be on the lookout for quick fixes and gains. They need to be in it for the bigger and longer game.

So many creatives quit agencies every year because the working style is not sustainable, the work culture is toxic, let alone inclusive, and there are no policies in place for employee well-being. I never saw something as basic as gender-neutral washrooms at the agencies I worked at before.

In one of my recent conversations with Merlee Jayme, Ex-CCO of Dentsu APAC, at #ChatterFest, she mentioned: “As Asian women, we really don’t have a big voice. When I say I worked in DEI, I enjoyed it. I did it for a purpose and it helped the network change.”

Queerphobia, ableism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination still need to be addressed in most agencies. We still don’t have LGBTQIA+ representation in the leadership at most Indian ad agencies.

Until we look inside and enable a genuine practice of DEI in agencies, whatever we do outside will be superficial.

Burnt out, unhappy creatives who don’t feel included at work can’t possibly create ads that represent the underrepresented communities.

Inauthentic campaigns do more harm than good. They tokenize the community, exploiting our identities for profit without making meaningful contributions to our wellbeing.

Moving beyond tokenism

Pride-for-profit is a phenomenon where marginalised communities are commodified for corporate gain, boosting brand perception at the expense of genuine advocacy. 

Growing up, I never saw a neurodivergent or queer protagonist in any ad. I never related to most narratives. Rather, I almost felt pressured to conform to beauty and gender norms propagated by ads. 

Indian advertising is already breaking gender norms; it’s time brands recognize the importance of talking about how cis-heteronormative and neuronormative norms harm children and adults who feel different, who are different.

LGBTQIA+ allyship is not just about launching a brand campaign during Pride month. 

The community and consumers expect real tangible support from brands that portray themselves as inclusive. Allyship means celebration of the good and solidarity during difficult times. Allyship means an ongoing, long-term commitment to the community.

As a Gen-Z neurodivergent queer creative and entrepreneur, I’ve witnessed the profound impact that thoughtful, inclusive, and futuristic campaigns have. 

Authentic representation starts with involving LGBTQIA+ voices from the outset. Campaigns that address marginalised communities need to be front and centre and be created by people who belong to those communities.

The future is inclusive marketing

India's journey in the LGBTQIA+ movement has been complex and multifaceted. 

From the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2018 to the ongoing fight for marriage equality and transgender rights, significant progress has been made. However, representation in media remains limited and often skewed. 

The portrayal of LGBTQIA+ characters needs to move beyond stereotypes and tokenism to reflect the diverse experiences within the community genuinely.

Some good examples are brands like:

  1. Kodak

Kodak’s ad film ‘Understanding’ by the Director Terry Rayment is about a father’s journey coming to terms with his son’s queer identity. This ad also has casual disability representation which goes to show how the story need not be about disability and still have disabled characters and actors in it.

Kodak is also known for LGBTQIA+ equality. They were named a Best Place to Work by Corporate Equality Index. 

  1. Future Generali India Insurance

FGII’s new campaign #WelcomeHome demonstrates their allyship with the LGBTQIA+ community in their struggle for equality and wellbeing. 

Future Generali is creating an inclusive environment by having inclusive workplace policies & infrastructure at work along with CSR initiatives for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

They’re walking the talk as they provide these to their customers:

  • Cover for live-in partners including the LGBT community

  • Cover for gender reassignment surgery 

In my journey, I’ve learned that authentic representation is not just about visibility but about creating spaces where everyone can see themselves reflected and respected. 

How many brands spoke up when the recent Supreme Court ruling didn’t come in favour of the LGBTQIA+ community? How many brands really care about LGBTQIA+ rights? Is it merely about changing logos to rainbow colours during Pride Month? Or about creating rainbow-colours products? Or transforming the entire brand page and marketing collateral into a spectrum of colours?

I urge brands and agencies to actively incorporate the inclusion principles they promote in their marketing and advertising campaigns.

The article is penned by Aditi Gangrade, Co-Founder, Much Much Media. 

Aditi Gangrade LGBTQIA allyship tokenism inclusive advertising authentic representation