‘You can’t just capitalize on us’: why advertisers must work responsibly with trans talent
Starbucks and Gilette have been leading the way in depicting the trans community in ads, but brands need to prove this isn’t just for show. The Drum speaks to influencers and agencies to hear how advertisers can move beyond tokenism in favor of protecting and supporting the trans community they seek to represent.
The last decade has seen a significant increase in the representation of trans and gender non-conforming people across the media landscape – and advertising is no exception, with major brands from Starbucks to Gillette winning plaudits for their depictions of the trans community in their ads.
Despite a growing media profile, the trans community continues to face persistent challenges in improving policy through the Gender Recognition Act, while transphobic hate crime in the UK has quadrupled in the last five years.
Organizations that work with the trans community, including Stonewall, have long been concerned that increased visibility could coincide with an increase in violence and online abuse against trans people – such as in the case of influencer and campaigner Munroe Bergdorf, who was compelled to delete her Twitter account amid an onslaught of transphobic abuse on the platform.
Dani St James, a fellow influencer and chair of the trans support charity Not A Phase, tells The Drum that when it comes to trans representation in advertising, “there is a huge positive to be taken away from the increased visibility of a select few”.
“There are probably 10 to 15 of us who get asked to do a lot of the projects, and although we suffer greatly at the hands of the LBG Alliance and other trans-exclusionary radical feminist (Terf) groups, by being visible we give somebody out there the opportunity to see themselves reflected in us. That was something that was so lacking for my generation.”
Not just for June
St James says that when it comes to addressing why brands might choose to feature a trans model or influencer in their campaign, they should also be questioning when they are choosing to do so.
“While it’s interesting to ask the question as to why there is more visibility for people like us, the question we really need to be asking is when is it. More often than not the answer is during the month of June.
“We see a lot of performative marketing when it comes to trans inclusion, and it’s not necessarily done for the right reasons, but more as a box-ticking exercise.
“Though people are starting to wake up to the fact that it’s not enough that we are only included in the Pride campaigns that are rolled out once a year, companies need to be honest with themselves and continue that visibility throughout the whole year.”
Little Digital is a queer owned creative agency, and its co-founder Samatha Crossley agrees that only focusing on trans visibility during Pride month can be detrimental to the community.
“If you’re consistently including the queer community in your content and marketing, then you give some of your more conservative followers the opportunity to catch up. You are teaching them to be more open-minded and that is true representation.
“If you’re only featuring the community during times like Pride Month, however, then you’re not educating your audience, you’re confusing them. Supporting queer creators all year round is the best way to ensure that your platform is a safe space for them.”
When it comes to accurately representing the trans community in ads (as well as protecting the actors, models and influencers in front of the camera), all are in agreement that having involvement from the community at every possible stage offers the best chance of creating a safe and inclusive outcome.
Paul Greenwood is head of research and insights at We Are Social. He explains its diversity charter is set up so that when working on campaigns that center on underrepresented voices, those from the community are included from the earliest developmental phases.
“When it comes to the representation of any marginalized group, if you are making space for that conversation to be had, you have a responsibility to then protect that underrepresented voice,” he explains.
Crossley concurs, saying that advertisers should always bring on LGBT+ creatives and producers to work on LGBT+-centered projects.
“When there’s representation behind the scenes it reassures the talent that their story will be treated with respect. Take the time to learn someone’s pronouns and ensure every person on the project is informed – you’d be amazed how often this doesn’t happen.”
St James expresses that in her experience, she has always been encouraged by brands that, when featuring a trans influencer or model in its campaign, “seek out consultation from people who are actually active in the communities they are seeking to represent; who understand what issues might present themselves throughout the creation of a campaign.”
She says: “The dream is always to have someone from the community in the development stage, as well as on set, who will understand what’s going on.”
However, St James emphasizes that the most important thing brands can do to actually support the communities they seek to represent in their advertising is to “make sure they adequately pay the trans influencers, models and actors that they work with”.
She says: “Statistically, we are a much less affluent community than others, and I have had plenty of brands approach me and ask me if I’ll do work with them for the exposure – and these are big high street brands. All advertisers need to do is seek advice and consultation from actual members of the community – you can’t just capitalize on us.”
Inclusivity beyond visibility
When it comes to working with creatives from marginalized communities, Greenwood advises that the most responsible thing brands can do is build a relationship with them over a long period of time, and this should also extend to the wider company and its values.
“If you’re struggling to find people who are willing to work with you in front of, or behind, the camera, then you need to have policies in place to actively recruit people from these groups.
“Whether it’s including pronouns in bios, or having a policy around the support available if someone decides to transition, people need to know that their company supports them. And it might not affect a large percentage of people, but you have to create an inclusive environment internally. Then you’ll be able to create inclusive campaigns externally as well.”
According to a report by Stonewall, less than 3% of UK businesses have an HR policy that is inclusive of trans people – including anything from the availability of gender-neutral facilities like toilets and changing rooms in office spaces, to the option to tick a box other than male or female on work-related documents.
Meanwhile, half of the trans and non-binary people (51% and 50% respectively) surveyed by Stonewall have hidden or disguised the fact that they are LGBT+ at work because they were afraid of discrimination.
Given that trans voices are so underrepresented in the workplace, it is inconsistent that so many brands without adequate representation and awareness seek to feature the community in their advertising.
Brands looking to capitalize on the trans community through representation in their ads should ensure that the community is adequately consulted, represented and supported behind the scenes if they wish to do any more than tokenize trans talent.
As St James concludes: “Trans people are taking their seat at the table, and even though proportionally we only make up a very small percentage of the population, our impact is huge. We’re here, and we’re not going to stand aside anymore.”
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