Throughout 2016 and 2017, we have seen a significant increase across the globe — if not a formal debut — of transgender themes in advertising campaigns. Not all ads have been well-received, and the three examples summarised below can be used as case studies for brands considering transgender inclusion in their marketing efforts.

Heineken, UK

In Heineken's 2017 digital film entitled 'Worlds Apart', six strangers are paired with their polar opposites to debate hot topics. We see one transgender woman paired with a man who believes that transpeople are "odd" and that "if you are a man you are a man and if you are a woman you are a woman". The pair discuss their views over a beer, and the ad concludes with the man accepting that gender is not always "black and white" and recognising the transgender woman as "a girl".

On the one hand, the ad has been praised for raising social awareness about transgender rights and provoking an important conversation (whilst importantly refraining from mentioning the brand name Heineken throughout the film or featuring the beer until over half-way through). The ad has been described by some of the online community as "non-judgmental" and "full of meaning and context". On the other hand, it has received backlash for allowing the free and uncensored expression of transphobia (from the man) which could suggest that it is 'ok' to be transphobic and that transphobia deserves equal consideration.

Vicks, India

Vicks' 2017 digital film entitled 'Touch of Care' features a transgender mother-daughter relationship, and a statement that the brand "want[s] consumers to recognise that everyone has a right to a family and that wherever there is care, there is a family". The film was produced by Publicis Communications, whose Chief Strategy Officer has since been quoted saying "great brands don't just reflect safe and accepted norms, instead they dare to set agendas in culture at large".

The ad has been championed by some of the online community for boldly tackling the topic of transgender rights in India, and has been described as "powerful and touching" and "absolutely beautiful". At the same time, the brand as a whole has been criticized for attempting to insert itself into intensely sensitive political issues which are beyond its expertise and influence.

Dove, U.S.

Dove's 2017 ad entitled 'RealMoms' attempts to redefine motherhood and what it means to be a 'good' mother. It introduces six families raising children, one of which features a transgender mother who confidently states that "there's no one right way to do it all".

Much of the online community has expressed admiration for Dove refusing to draw out the transgender mother as any different from the other mothers included in the ad, and appreciation for its theme that "there are so many ways to be a mom" and that you should "do what fits your family". However, the YouTube video has received far more 'dislikes' than 'likes' - having received only 790 'likes' as compared with 5,456 'dislikes' as at 6 June 2017.

Should you promote your brand's political and cultural agendas in your ads or should you play it safe?

None of the ads discussed above have been without public critique, and a brand choosing to broadcast its political and/or cultural views through its ads should be aware that it will inevitably provoke criticism along the way. In particular, a brand may find itself irreversibly 'picking a side' in a societal debate, and should carefully consider any effect that such affiliation may have on the success and future of the brand.

Tips for UK brands choosing to promote political and/or cultural opinions through ads

  1. Avoid feeding stereotypes and/or causing offence. The UK's Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA") and Committee of Advertising Practice ("CAP") have created guidance for brands dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity in non-broadcast media. In particular, ads must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence (especially offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age). Ads which ridicule characters based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, or which use stereotypes in a way which may demean groups or individuals or place them in a negative light, are likely to be considered offensive or harmful. With that in mind, brands should be conscious of the content, tone and execution of an ad and its potential to reinforce negative stereotypes.
  2. Do not misrepresent the group you purportedly support. It is not advisable to guess how a particular demographic or community feels or how they wish to be understood. Brands should take care to ensure that they accurately and truly represent the group which they endeavour to support (which can often be assisted with the input and feedback of representative focus groups). Failing to do so may alienate not only that particular group, but the public generally.
  3. Only support causes that your brand genuinely cares about. Brands are commonly called out for chasing provocative or controversial causes which create a widespread stir or have the greatest potential to increase sales. To prevent a campaign from being labelled 'attention seeking', brands need to show the public that they are not using progressivism for profits or purely commercial reasons, and that their intentions are honest.