Of late, corporate India has been making efforts to accommodate the needs of LGBTQ consumers. While some say the gestures seem inclusive and politically correct, critics of Pink Capitalism term the moves pretentious and tokenistic.
Just a few weeks ago, Bhima, a popular jewellery brand from Kerala, brought out a commercial that got people talking. The nearly two-minute video, conceptualized by ad agency Animal became an overnight success on YouTube and social media. It has all the components of a typical Bhima ad: an attractive girl; scenic countryside as backdrop; intricate and rich gold jewellery; a cast of actors playing a supportive, loving family; a marriage scene; and a tuneful background score.
But what made this new commercial different from the rest was that the ‘girl’ playing the central character was a transgender person. For a traditional brand that touts the tagline ‘Pennayal ponnu venam’ (Girl must wear gold), this new ad signalled the brand’s ‘values’ have become more progressive and inclusive. The feel-good commercial portrays an idyllic life – a life, presumably, almost every transgender would wish for. It stresses the pressing need for acceptance and understanding in helping transgenders lead a normal life in society. The film garnered a sea of praise on social media and from critics. It was described beautiful, brilliant, and revolutionary – more so for having a real transgender – Delhi-based Meera Singhania – play the central role.
LGBTQ market and advertising
Though a first for a Kerala brand, this isn’t the first Indian commercial to focus on the LGBT community In 2013, Fastrack launched a campaign named ‘Come out of the closet’, a tongue-in-cheek reference to gays coming out in the open. The ad showed two young girls coming out of the closet and straightening out their clothes.
One of the most prominent advertisements that focused on the transgender community was released by Vicks in 2017. The commercial showed the true story of a real transgender woman, Gauri Sawant, caring for her adopted daughter Gayathri. During that time, in real life, Gauri was still fighting for the custody of the child as the government was yet to give child custody rights to members of the LGBT community. Today, adoption by single LGBT people is allowed, but not by same-sex couples. In the ad, Gayatri talks about her mother’s care and love and questions the unfair treatment of homosexuals. The video ends with her saying that she is going to be a lawyer to fight for the rights of people like her mother.
The ground-breaking video created waves. It garnered over 4.6 lakh views within the first four hours of its launch online. It currently has over 10 million views and has won numerous awards, including the UNFPA-Laadli Award 2017 for gender sensitivity and Brand of the Year at the India Business Leader Awards. Besides this, the advert also led to an increase in brand recall for Vicks by 8 per cent and an increase in sales by 23 per cent.
The focus on the LGBTQ community for marketing purposes is now widely known as ‘rainbow marketing’. The rainbow economy is a market segment that covers lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and the queer population. Many consumer brands are fairly eager to include the LGBTQ community on their company’s marketing agenda.
There are three main reasons for this. First, and foremost, is goodwill. To be thought about as progressive, sympathetic and supportive of a marginalised community greatly enhances the image of the brand and its favour among the masses. The second reason is monetary. There are no official figures on the number of people in the LGBT community in India. But figures submitted to the Supreme Court in 2012 suggest it was 25 lakh. However, the real numbers are expected to be way higher as the figure was based on the number of people who openly confessed to being gay. With the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2018, a lot more members of the community have come out of the closet. The LGBTQ community denotes a tappable section of the economy. Many heterosexuals constitute double-income families with no kids, meaning they have a larger amount of disposable income compared to conventional families.
The third reason is improved brand recall. Brands that stand out from the rest for their approach to branding usually become points of discussion among people and the media, resulting in improved brand positioning and recall. The decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Supreme Court in 2018 played a huge role in encouraging brands to involve the LGBTQ community in their marketing campaigns. And the campaigns have in turn helped increase acceptance of the community in the public.
A lucrative pie
Globally, it is estimated that (2019), LGBT consumers have a total buying power of nearly $3.7 trillion. That’s a big pie. Compared to the global scenario, India has been slow to take on rainbow marketing. However, the pace can be attributed due to the late changes in the law. Global campaigns have moved further to go beyond the LGBT community and have moved towards what is now called inclusive advertising.
Inclusive advertising includes marginalised communities such as the disabled or those with Down Syndrome or albinism. Recently, UK-born Elle Goldstein became the first Gucci model with Down Syndrome. In 2018, Winnie Harlow became the first model with the skin condition vitiligo to walk the ramp for Victoria Secret.
India is sure to follow suit. It has already begun breaking out of the mould. In October 2018, Vicks India launched a commercial for its Touch of Care campaign that featured the true story of a young girl named Nisha who has Ichthyosis, a genetic skin condition, and the love and care her adoptive parents shower upon her. The ad was conceptualized by Publicis Singapore and won Gold at the 2019 CLIO Awards.
Rainbow washing or pinkwashing
The effects of having an LGBTQ campaign has led to what is now called rainbow washing or pinkwashing. The term refers to brands’ use of LGBT issues to be viewed as progressive and tolerant. Companies that are accused of pinkwashing do not take any real steps to help the LGBT community such as the provision of employment opportunities or taking steps to curb workplace harassment and only support the movement for a positive brand image and the monetary benefit it brings.
There is a section of academics, economists and socialists who say that trends such as the inclusive ad from Bhima or Gucci picking Goldstein do not necessarily mean anything to the well being of the people the campaigns target. Critics of Pink Capitalism say that such gestures only reflect the inherent tendency in capitalism to commodify the interests and aspirations of the LGBTQ community and signal exploitative practices. The companies are accused of trying to win a new segment of consumers (the LGBTQ community) rather than siding with the causes of the people.