Marketing Agency Culture Candid in Cannes

‘You have to be prepared for a backlash’: marketers on response to anti-trans hate


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

June 21, 2023 | 9 min read

The Drum’s team in the south of France quiz top marketers and agency leaders on the week’s hot topics. Today, we gauge why brands are considering a retraction from LGBTQ+ advocacy.

Candid in Cannes 2

Some consumers hate trans people, brands can’t now please everyone

Besides AI, one of the big talking points on the Croisette has been brands’ wavering support for the LGBTQ+ community.

Since Bud Light recently disavowed its own marketing by distancing itself from a trans influencer with a sorry-not-sorry piece of comms, there’s been trepidation among marketers who support Pride.

Some commentators will point out that Bud Light’s response, not the initial ad, alienated a great many people across the political spectrum. Still, brands may have taken the wrong lessons from the debacle. While some agencies are doubling down on their promises to include LGBTQ+ people in their marketing, there is an undercurrent of fear that they may well invoke the ire of well-organized online groups keen to suppress the Pride movement. Other brands that have taken a hollow, performative stance are very quietly walking back their rainbow packaging now that the going has got tough.

In the past few weeks, The North Face, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Target, Woolworths and Glamour have faced criticism for marketing campaigns that show support for and include the trans community. The question is, does the perceived scale of the backlash match the reality, and is it ethical for brands to ditch trans people now a culture war has intensified around them?

We poll the world’s top marketers on the ground at Cannes Lions on and off the record for a definitive answer.

Marketers respond

A good number of CMOs actively dodged the question completely on the record. Because of the charged nature of the topic, some marketers elected to speak more frankly off the record. They'd been well briefed not to discuss it this year.

A leading social creative agency exec close to the trends and online discourse reflected: ”It feels short-sighted to step away from something you have already committed to. With these marketing initiatives, if you are truly consulting the group you are advocating this should be straightforward.

”You have to be prepared for a backlash, this is the nature of the social platforms now. The Bud Light backlash was weaponized and is more a reflection of American politics than American society. It was co-opted by the people who can shout the loudest. And you should always realize there’s a silent majority out there who don’t hold these views. If you've been shaken, you’ve not been all in and won’t be missed.”

Meanwhile, representing a different perspective, a French agency boss told us: ”French brands are already reluctant to attach themselves to societal issues in the same way we see in the US or the UK. Brands don’t want to be the new NGOs here. They ask themselves, ‘why me? I just sell cars’. They have a role to play in culture but the cause has to be relevant and true to the brand. They won’t just put a sticker on something.”

As the drinks flowed, lips loosened and a handful of senior marketers saw Bud Light as weak for capitulating. One said: "Everyone should be allowed to enjoy a fucking beer."

Laura Jordan Bambach, President and Chief Creative Officer, Grey London: ”The situation in the US is very distinct to that in the UK but of course, there are concerns here too. What’s really happening is that a small minority of people are being incredibly abusive, but there is a big silent majority who are really appreciative of seeing diversity in advertising. In reality, the rhetoric that is being thrown around at the moment is a reflection of what is happening to the LGBTQ+ community, so it has never been more important to be a responsible advertiser and stand for making sure that a more representative voice is heard. So make sure you talk about these issues, but also make sure that the whole of the company has been involved in the conversations so everyone is aligned.”

Dan Saxby, managing director, The Elephant Room: ”Stand Your Ground Brands play a crucial role in championing diversity and fostering social progress, and their support for the LGBTQ+ community should be unwavering.

”Consider the perspective of the LGBTQ+ community: how would they perceive an employer that caves to the pressure of a few trolls? Would they see it as a company that truly values its employees and embraces their differences? They’d been seen as timid. Supporting Pride might not be the sole determinant for their purchasing decisions however, a brand that retreats after taking a stand will be remembered, and not in a favorable way by anyone.”

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Wybe Magermans, growth and development director, WMH&I: ”I believe it was ad executive Bill Bernbach who said ’It's not a principle until it costs you money.’ The outrage may not reflect the general population’s views. Research indicates that half of non-LGBTQ+ people believe brands should do more to support the community beyond Pride.

”Marketers should keep moving forward and have a long-term view. Extremists’ attempts to divert attention from real societal issues are temporary. Once the focus on this particular topic diminishes, they will move on to another marginalized group. Brands succumbing to anti-LGBTQ+ pressure may face difficulties regaining trust.

”Pride marketing is often seen as a money-making ploy, detached from brand principles. So, if a brand truly champions the LGBTQ+ community and wants to avoid the backlash, they can simply donate money and shut up about it. Just a small press release; no huge marketing campaigns, no ’Yaaaaas’ sandwiches, no rainbows. Otherwise, they can suck it up and deal with the ’backlash’ the LGBTQ+ community has been dealing with for centuries.”

James Kirkham, founder of Iconic: “I hope savvy marketers double down and don’t pull back. I think it is something of an open secret that the one alternative course of action around the Bud Light debacle would be to reinforce the use of the supposedly controversial influencer, stand by them, support the content and their role and move on.

“As such I am thrilled the brand is still being awarded so heavily at Cannes and hope this is a signal to other clients and brands not to back away. We cannot be cowered into thinking that retreating from the bigots is the correct way to do things. Instead now is the time more than ever to double down, push more and push back against the negativity. The furor around such work is plain weird, from people looking to hate and splurge negativity at every turn. It is the role and responsibility of the most creative minds on earth to ensure that there’s no room for such narrow-minded nonsense.“

And check out Monday’s voxpop asking the big question, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the role AI will play in their business?

Marketing Agency Culture Candid in Cannes

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