Noel D'souza
Sep 08, 2023

Unmasking the silence of LGBTQ+ advocacy: Have brands gone back into the closet?

SOUNDING BOARD: Experts decode why brands stand at crossroads – shying away from supporting the community on the fifth anniversary of striking down 377 or fearing backlash

Unmasking the silence of LGBTQ+ advocacy: Have brands gone back into the closet?

In a world where brands are often swift to jump on the bandwagon of moment marketing and rainbow-washing during Pride Month, it is striking that we have witnessed a conspicuous absence of LGBTQ+ advocacy from Indian brands in the month of September, particularly in commemoration of the anniversary of the historic Section 377 verdict. 


Apart from Disney Star's recent film 'words of pride', no other prominent Indian brand has echoed this sentiment during this month to show support to the queer community. 


In a country as diverse and culturally rich as India, embracing and promoting inclusivity should be a shared responsibility, transcending beyond Pride Month. We believe that brands should be more socially responsible and serve as a powerful catalyst for change.


To drive awareness and inspire change, Campaign India, raised the question: Why do you think Indian brands seem to limit their LGBTQ+ advocacy to Pride Month, with a noticeable absence of campaigns commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Section 377 verdict? 


Sumanto Chattopadhyay, former chairman and chief creative officer, 82.5 Communications, Ogilvy Group



Have brands gone back into the closet? This is surprising to me as we have had several LGBTQ+-themed ads in recent years—from big brands like Myntra, Ariel, Brooke Bond, Vicks, Closeup and Bhima Jewellery. Why would brands shy away from celebrating the 377 verdict this year? Especially as shows and movies have made LGBTQ+ portrayals par for the course—consider Sushmita Sen’s Taali, Made in Heaven with its strong LGBTQ slant, Geeli Pucchi and Badhaai Do with their gay protagonists.


Perhaps brands fear a backlash? After all, they are soft targets. A couple of years ago a fem ad featuring a lesbian couple had to be withdrawn when political leaders threatened legal action. The brand owners had to issue an unconditional apology as well. There are other progressive ads, not necessarily LGBTQ-themed, that have been attacked by politicians and trolls. And corporate India has backed off rather than take a stand and suffer financial and other losses.



Mithun Mukherjee, executive creative director, FCB Kinnect



The problem of pride-washing or tokenism regarding the LGBTQIA+ is an old one. Brands have been embracing the month of June to profess their love for the community for a while now, but very few brands have been courageous enough to stand by the community and showcase their solidarity in the truest sense of the word. That said, brands that do seem to have shown the most amount of ‘true’ support have been from a category that the community itself forms a good part of - fashion and lifestyle. Gagged, a gender-free fashion label is one such example.


Queer-owned businesses like 'The Nature Masons' have been creating gender-neutral personal care products to cater to the community and beyond. Urnav Vishwas, a queerfluencer gives some very relevant tips to brands that are willing to make more inclusive campaigns. Some measures include diversifying their campaign’s target audience, targeting tier 2/3 cities where the problem is bigger and amplifying diverse voices which make for sharing LGBTQIA+ stories of individuals from different backgrounds and regions. 


Brands like Bausch n Lomb have done noteworthy campaigns that catered to the community through a concerted effort. Its #LookOfLove campaign was consciously executed outside of Pride month to ensure that it does not fall into the trap of pride-washing. The campaign also conducted extensive AMAs with people from the community to help create new allies and foster existing ones. The brand also went ahead and ensured that topical content from the brand’s handle reflected support for the community for an extended period. 


Brands will have to put in a lot of effort in bypassing tokenism and showcasing solidarity towards the community. Engaging with queer creators, ensuring gender-neutral product lines and creating brand-out content that features members of the community alongside cisgender individuals can be a few steps in the right direction.


Meet Jatakia, director, branding and marketing, Cossouq





It is not uncommon to see brands eagerly participate in moment marketing and engage in rainbow washing during Pride Month, for the last five years. This is why it is striking that there has been a conspicuous absence of LGBTQIA+ advocacy from brands this year, especially in commemoration of the historic Section 377 verdict. This issue points towards the need for brands to be more socially responsible and serves as a reminder of how powerful a change their actions can bring about. The absence of LGBTQIA+ advocacy from brands this time of the year highlights a far more broader issue- the need for authentic and sustained support for the community. Achieving equality for the queer community is an ongoing journey and brands have much to do to step out of the shadow of tokenism, moreover during Pride Month.


Brands can move beyond tokenism in moment marketing by supporting LGBTQIA+ causes year-round, telling authentic stories that foster genuine connections with the community, investing in diversity and inclusion training for employees, and listening to and seeking feedback from the community. For example, a brand could support by donating to LGBTQIA+ organisations, sponsoring LGBTQIA+ events, or creating products that benefit the LGBTQIA+ community. The journey towards achieving parity for the LGBTQIA+ community in advertising is ongoing, and it requires a sustained, genuine commitment to creating a more inclusive and accepting society.


Sumitro Sircar, associate business director - corporate communications and public relations, Chimp&z Inc



6 September 2018 will always be remembered as a momentous day for the LGTQIA+ community of India, allowing people to live more openly and freely without the fear of persecution. In the span of the last five years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of LGBTQIA+ support groups, NGOs, influencers, artists, and activists which is living proof of the resilience and strength of the community. 


As a queer marketing professional myself, I believe that rainbow washing during Pride month is simply not enough and should go beyond tokenism. This year, I noticed a significant decrease in the rate of ad campaigns being launched, even during Pride Month as compared to the last year. Brands like Starbucks, Infosys, Brooke Bond Red Label, and Livon have made significant strides in our hearts with their pride campaigns this year. However, when it came to the consensus, the majority did not advertise in support of the community this year. This could be because brands fear facing backlash from netizens. However, in the face of backlash, brands should keep in mind that their stance will be seen as courageous and progressive. When a brand shows authenticity, it has the chance to gain not only the trust of members of the community but also many others who are allies of the community and associate themselves with brands they see as woke. 


Talking about in movies and OTT shows and even advertisements we see the support for the queer community manifesting in numerous ways from different sectors of society. Movies and ads should prioritise casting people from the community, to promote a message of inclusivity and acceptance. Just take as examples the popular OTT series ‘Made In Heaven and Starbucks' #ItStartsWithYourName campaign where we see real-life LGBTQIA+ cast and even crew. 


I was hugely impressed by the recent campaign ‘pride of words’ launched by Disney Star marking 6 September as India’s momentous event for the LGBTQIA+ community. Not only is this campaign applaudable but also inspiring to other brands who are waiting to find the right opportunity to integrate moment marketing. The LGBTQIA+ community is not a festival or event that should be targeted to latch on to moment marketing. It is a spectrum of thoughts, beliefs, and identities which we should accept and normalise. If you ask me how to go beyond tokenism, it is by including LGBTQIA+ characters in every big campaign idea at any time of the year. Also, having people from the community in your brainstorming sessions promotes inclusivity and authenticity as values. It’s not always about raising awareness for the community but also about normalising advertising concepts and accepting that they are a part of our society. For example, a commercial for a new car could feature a same-sex couple driving together and talking about their plans for the weekend. The ad could show the features of the car. While enjoying each other's company, without making any obvious reference to their identity/orientation. This would help to normalise the idea of same-sex couples in everyday life and show that they are no different from any other couple. June is a pivotal month for raising awareness, while our commitment to normalising LGBTQIA+ representation in all our communications should continue throughout the remaining 11 months.


Mitesh Kothari, co-founder and chief creative officer, White Rivers Media



The LGBTQIA+ community merits a substantive recognition that goes beyond tokenistic gestures. The marketing landscape has seen a surge in rainbow-themed campaigns, but they often fall short of genuine support. It's crucial to acknowledge that LGBTQIA+ individuals are not just a checkbox but valuable customers who seek and in fact rightfully deserve, authentic representation. We need to challenge the status quo and move beyond mere symbolic gestures. This means addressing the diverse spectrum of sexual orientations in mainstream advertising. It's time for brands to commit to a consistent and meaningful approach throughout the year, aligning themselves with the evolving notions of gender fluidity and sexual choices. We should aim to tell human stories that resonate with all aspects of relationships, transcending tokenism and making a lasting impact within the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond. 


Vanaja Pillai, president, 22feet Tribal Worldwide and head - DEI, DDB Mudra Group



Brands are far more conscious today about not being ‘tokenistic’ around Pride. It isn’t about riding the wave, but about making a meaningful difference. And those who do not demonstrate that intent become susceptible to criticism. At the DDB Mudra Group, we have been on a journey to educate ourselves as a company through interactions and engagements with underrepresented communities, consistently. So our work on this front goes way beyond the Pride month, and we have created properties internally that recur on our calendars to ensure we stay committed to this goal. 


And this is what will earn us the right to partner with clients when they develop campaigns that tell new stories about the queer community or address real issues that plague them. One of our biggest client initiatives that launched recently was not timed to any calendar moment, but to when we were ready with deep and meaningful work that hopefully drives impact. We believe that’s the kind of work which will get recognition and scale today.

Campaign India

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