Why brands need to speak up in countries averse to LGBTQ+ rights
As a bomb of rainbow confetti bursts across the UK in celebration of 50 years of Pride, it should not obscure the fact that in a lot of countries, the pro-queer rights parade is met with violence. Despite several countries taking progressive leaps, 70 UN member states still criminalise same-sex relations between two consenting adults. And in 26 countries, the penalty varies from 10 years to execution by stoning. What can brands do?
While governments across the world inflict strict laws that deny the rights of their queer citizens, how can brands support the LGBTQ+ community in a way that might lead to systemic change?
Although the world has come a long way, in many countries LGBTQ+individuals still face censorship, imprisonment and in the worst instances, the death penalty just for being themselves.
And increasingly, people see through half-baked Pride-themed campaigns that pinkwash the LGBTQ+ movement. Instead, growing numbers of consumers are calling on brands to put their money where their mouth is and speak up to change mindsets in countries where Pride simply can't take place.
“This Pride was peak pinkwashing levels,” contends Mel Arrow, the new head of strategy at BMB - Pride In London's first creative agency. "There is a growing backlash around that, which means brands should be braver and step up into slightly more difficult areas and contribute a bit more.”
While the rest of the world looks ahead, what can brands do to help the individual experiences of the LGBTQ+ community in countries more opposed to their rights?
While some countries move forwards, some take two steps back
The social and political rights of the LGBTQ+ community over the past 50 years has significantly progressed. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 28 countries, any couple in Scotland can now access free fertility treatment on the NHS and Prince William made history when he appeared on the front of the iconic gay magazine, Attitude.
Despite great strides forwards, some countries have taken steps back. Only this week, the Palestinian Authority banned all LGBTQ+ members from activities in the West Bank. The ban came after Al-Qaws - a group for sexual and gender diversity that supports LGBTQ+ Palestinians - planned to hold a meeting for members at the end of August.
Last month, Yelena Grigoryeva - a prominent LGBTQ+ rights campaigner - was found dead in the Russian city of St Petersburg, after she reportedly received multiple death threats. Since 2013, Russia has banned the spreading of what it describes as 'gay propaganda.'
And in April, Brunei shocked the world by introducing stricter new Islamic laws that make anal sex and adultery offences punishable by stoning to death.
Despite neighbouring Taiwan allowing same-sex marriage and pressure from activists, China's parliament ruled out any changes it current laws that limit marriage to a relationship between a man and a woman.
The fact that these individual events all occurred within the past four months shows that, now, more than ever, the LGBTQ+ community needs visibility to show the world that oppression isn’t the answer.
“In the current political climate, brands can be a tremendous force for good if they back decisions that support the community in non-LGBT friendly countries,” explains Asad Dhunna director of communications for Pride in London and founder of The Unmistakables.
Whether it is down to culture or religion, markets that are more opposed to gay rights need brands to be outspoken as the LGBTQ+ community is often silenced in the mass media.
For example, earlier this month, Coca-Cola hit the headlines in Hungary when it launched its ‘Love is Love’ ad series, that features same-sex couples kissing. The advert appeared in Hungary – a country more averse to gay rights
The multinational corporation is now facing backlash from Hungarian politicians and conservative activists, with MP's calling for a Coca-Cola boycott. Despite government opposition, a 2017 poll by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association found that more than 60% of the country’s residents believe equal rights should be afforded to everyone – regardless of sexual orientation. Coca-Cola has resisted calls to backtrack.
“It’s one of those places where you need to choose your battles,” argues Paul Greenwood, head of research and insight at We Are Social. “You wouldn’t necessarily go hardcore if the government and people in power are very much anti-LGBTQ+ rights.”
But for others, it's the fact that a brand might not be entwined with the politics of a country that means they can have a stronger voice.
Marion McDonald, a global client lead, Ogilvy Health & Wellness says: "As a foreigner often in those markets you get away with a lot more than locals."
McDonald - herself a lesbian, who spent 19 years working in APAC and "certainly saw some extremes" - says that to some extent foreigners can be the activists that initially pave the way for locals to be able to step out.
During her ten-year tenure at Ogilvy & Mather, Asia Pacific, McDonald set up Ogilvy Pride in Hong Kong and helped bring the Gay Games which is coming to the city in 2022.
“It was about getting the Hong Kong government involved which was very interesting,” McDonald recalls. “Once you get the right people in the Hong Kong government, and you sell it in terms of the diversity benefits for society and economic growth. Then they were like ‘okay, where do we sign up?’”
Pick your fight
But Pride in London’s Dhunna warns that “what seems like a good idea in one market can lead to a heavy backlash in another". While brands claim to be global externally, the way things are structured internally means it doesn't always work across borders.
Dhunna advises that "it's key to break down silos and foster understanding first so that a consistent view and message can carry to external audiences."
It's about evaluating risks to ensure the backlash doesn't black out the positive message the campaign intended to spread.
We Are Social has produced a guide called ‘Breaking the Backlash’ to help companies swerve an onslaught of negativity that may put them off creating braver, more confrontational, ad campaigns.
"It can be linked to any progressive movements," Greenwood explains. "It tells brands how they should be prepared. You're going to have to be prepared for some kind of backlash if you're going to make a stand and put yourself out there."
BMB's Arrow is familiar with navigating this tricky space. Prior to joining BMB she led Absolut's 72 Kisses campaign as group strategy director at BBH London.
‘Kiss with Pride’ celebrated the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK 50 year prior and aimed to influence 72 other countries to follow suit. To underline the 72 countries where it is illegal to be gay, photographer Sam Bradley captured same-sex kisses from people of those countries, which were eventually given prominence at a Parliament exhibition.
"We had to obscure their identities in the portraits so that no one in their home countries could know who they were," Arrow explains. "And we had them defiantly kissing with Pride."
What isn't public knowledge is that BBH London originally intended to include flags of the countries where the kissers hailed from, but Absolut went against the idea.
"Originally the adverts were supposed to have the flags of the countries that the people represented," admits Arrow. "We actually decided to take that off. Our original intention was to call out the countries where it is illegal to be gay."
However, Absolut was worried about death threats to employees that work in those countries and held regional meetings in an attempt to understand the consequnces of a negative reaction.
Consult the community
Ogilvy's McDonald says that for brands to avoid missing the mark in their advertising, they must work with local activists before launching any communications that depict LGBT individuals. "Not a foreigner but a local national of that country who is an activist in that space," she stresses.
This is how HSBC approached its bold experiential campaign in 2016. The bank made history when it placed rainbow versions of its famous lions outside its Hong Kong headquarters to celebrate Pride.
But, as symbolic assets of the bank, it had to ensure that the act would not land it in hot water and that the colours aligned to Feng Shui principles. It opted to work closely with a Feng Shui master to ensure the colours and patterns were compliant to the pseudoscience principles that orient structures in an auspicious manner.
How to spread the message that being gay is okay in freshly decriminalised countries
On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality by declaring Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional. Although the move was a step in the right direction, India still has a long road to LGBTQ+ equality, as it doesn't reflect the attitude of a majority of Indians towards gays.
The LGBTQ+ community has since turned to brands to step in to inject their story in popular culture in a way that reflects an acceptance of alternate sexuality. Indian fashion e-commerce company, Mynta, paved the way with a piece of work that showed a lesbian couple preparing to meet the parents.
Intending to avoid stereotypes associated with gay people, the ad instead showed two women in a live-in relationship who candidly talk about their day ahead, while displaying their love for each other, without having to spell about that the two are in a relationship.
“We tried to give it a candid feel like it is any other couple being apprehensive about meeting the parents and asking for their approval,” Avishek Ghost, co-partner Hectic Content – the production house that made the film told The Times of India at the time.
Following its release, the campaign went viral – amassing over 3 million views across social media.
Another brand leading the way in India is Vicks. Its 'Generations of Care' campaign had a mission to tell evocative stories that inspire a change in people and recognise, applaud and support real people with extraordinary stories.
One film in the series - ‘Family is where Care is’ went viral. It portrayed the real-life story of an orphan and her newfound ’mother’ – a transgender woman. In 2014, India declared transgender to be a ‘third gender' and so the campaign saw the orphaned girl Gayatri tell her story of the challenges that her adoptive mother faces from the rest of society.
As the tide turns
"I'll keep trying until I die," asserts Pat Law, founder of Goodstuph agency, herself a lesbian who lives in Singapore, a country that still criminalises sex between men.
"I'm just waiting for the day that I can market to my own people, and it hasn't happened yet," she says matter-of-factly. But Law gets it. She knows things won't change overnight, and she doesn't condemn local companies who are apprehensive.
Although brands in Singapore are more hesitant to show the LGBTQ+ in their marketing campaigns, one-way brands are showing support is by sponsoring Pink Dot - an annual event that started in 2009 in support of queer people living in Singapore.
Alongside Goodstuph, this year's event brought in support from the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook. This wasn't without its struggle. In 2017, Google was part of a collective 10 international brands who were barred from supporting the festival.
"The brands that are embracing it are international," Law explains. "I think we are improving in that we have more brands taking on diversity but it would be great for local companies to get involved."
Despite the great work Pink Dot has done, it is still under pressure from authorities who try to censor its message. Back in 2017, The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) tried to remove a tagline from an ad that read 'supporting the freedom to love.'
While it is undoubtedly tricky to put one's head above the parapet in countries more opposed to LGBTQ+ rights, this shouldn't deter brands from trying, as long as they evaluate the potential pitfalls that lead to backlash.
"Walk before you can run," advises McDonald. "I hope that advertisers don't rush to jump on what's cool to be the vanguard of the LGBTQ+ community without thinking it out first."
Keep it simple she implores - get it right with the basics to genuinely build something of value to the community.
For more coverage of how brands can better work with the LGBTQ+ community, check out The Drum's series - 'The three pitfalls of LGBTQ+ marketing.'