Creative Channel 4 Starbucks

'Progressive & empowering’ – Starbucks' portrayal of trans man draws praise


By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

February 4, 2020 | 5 min read

Starbucks winning campaign for Channel 4’s Diversity Fund has been praised by the LGBT+ community for its gender-expansive storyline that works to combat the dearth of advertising that features transgender people.

‘Progressive and empowering’: why Starbucks' ad featuring a trans man marks a big shift in representation

‘Progressive and empowering’: why Starbucks' ad featuring a trans man marks a big shift in representation

Now into its fourth year, Channel 4’s Diversity Fund aims to improve the ads on screens by offering up £1m free ad space to campaigns that focus on specific issues. In the past, this has seen it tackle disability, misconceptions of non-visible disabilities and female empowerment.

This year, the theme challenged the lack of representation and stereotyping of the LGBT+ community in advertising. Judged by leading figures from the advertising industry and LGBT+ community, from the IPA, Marketing Society, Stonewall, the LGBT+ Awards, in September it was announced that Starbucks and its ad agency Iris had been crowned the winner of the coveted prize.

The winning idea was inspired by real-life experiences of trans people, that worked to educate people on the everyday challenges transgender people face because they don’t identify with their birth name.

It stars James, a young trans person making his way through the distressing process of transition, as he works to detach himself from 'Jemma.' While he is introduced as Jemma by his father, receives packages addressed to Jemma, James is desperate to be called by his true name.

The spot culminates with the life-changing moment facing some transgender and gender diverse people as they use their new name in public. As he orders a coffee in Starbucks, he asks to have the name James written on a Starbucks cup, which is called out by a barista.

Since Starbucks was named the winner back in September, the ad has been greatly anticipated by those in the LGBT+ community as well as the ad industry.

A major reason for this has been the LGBT+ representation in advertising, though on the rise, still has a long way to go. Despite the fact that brands have put the LGBT+ community higher up in its agenda, only 0.3% of adverts feature transgender people, despite the community making up at least an estimated 1% of the population.

Stonewall’s executive director Sanjay Sood-Smith, said it was “ incredibly powerful to see Starbucks coming out for trans equality. Trans people continue to be either seriously underrepresented or misrepresented in the mainstream.”

He called for greater and fairer representation of trans people in the media, just like Starbucks, to “ensure trans people see themselves reflected in what they watch and help increase understanding and acceptance of the trans community.”

British LGBT Awards founder, Sarah Garrett MBE, who was part of Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising judging panel, said the advert stood out above the others because of "the progressive and empowering approach to a gender-expansive storyline at a time when the media is rife with anti-trans rhetoric.”

Beyond placing a trans person at the heart of the campaign, Asaad Dhunna, founder of The Unmistakable praised the spot for "cracking the code of taking cultural insight and applying it to a heartwarming video."

Meanwhile, Chris Kenna, chief executive of the diversity-driven agency Brand Advance added that the “negative elements of the transition story were used to both great storytelling effect, while helping to highlight miss-naming, and therefore miss-gendering, which is a problem that young transgender people face in the UK.”

Over recent years, an increasing number of brands have ventured into the LGBT+ space without a genuine intention, making them accountable for 'pinkwashing' claims.

"Lots of brands try to engage with the LGBT+ community, but you can't just take stories for creative gain without giving anything back," said Dhunna.

However, Starbucks has a partnership with Mermaid - a UK charity that supports gender-diverse children, young people and their families - with the advert aiming to raise £100K for the charity by selling a rainbow cookie in-stores. .

"The donation shows that they aren't out to profiteer from the trans experience, but instead want to give back to a community that still faces high levels of unacceptance and hate in society," continues Dhunna.

While the spot has received resounding praise, Dhunna reckons the real test will be what they do beyond this piece of content. "Will they now set out codes of conduct for how trans people are treated in-store to demonstrate that this isn't just a one-off," he asked.

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