Section 377 decriminalised: Do brands stand to gain from activism for Likes and Shares?

Brands that had not historically supported the LGTBQ cause came out in support of the Supreme Court ruling decriminalising gay sex

e4m by Venkata Susmita Biswas
Updated: Sep 12, 2018 8:56 AM

At 11am on September 6 when a five-judge Supreme Court Bench unanimously struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, social media and digital teams of nearly every brand went into overdrive. By early afternoon, Twitter was flooded with posts from brands supporting the judgment and flaunting all the colours of the rainbow. Some brands simply changed their logo to show support, others cracked a witty line or posted a meme, while some others even promoted their GIFs on platforms such as Instagram.

In a span of 24 hours, every brand that took its digital presence seriously welcomed the judgment. Brands that had until September 6 steered clear of LGBTQ topics or even avoided challenging status quo caught on to the trending hashtag for the day, just like they do for Mother’s Day, Earth Day or Independence Day.

Brands have largely avoided associating with the LGBTQ cause, because it is a challenging topic and has to be executed with sensitivity. Some brands such as, Vicks and Brooke Bond Red Label Tea have addressed the discrimination against the transgender community in India. A few brands such as eBay, Anouk, Urban Clap, and Vodafone have portrayed gay and lesbian relationships in their ads.

Burzin Mehta, Group Creative Director and Digital Creative Lead, Ogilvy, Mumbai, who recently created a campaign for the NGO Love Matters, tackling homophobia, said “Working on the LforLove campaign made me realise how challenging it is to portray the LGBTQ community in marketing communication.” He further added, “While it is wonderful for brands to stand behind a landmark verdict, in this case brands have used it as a way to ride a popular wave.”

Most brands that showed their support for the cause created witty one-liners. Very few chose to truly embrace the LGBTQ community and assure equal opportunities at the workplace or even protect the rights of the community. Parmesh Shahani, Head - Godrej IndiaCultureLab, and an LGBTQ activist tweeted: And for all the brands coming up with cool rainbow Instagram campaigns, please look and see if your HR policies are inclusive at first. Do you have non discrimination, partnership benefits and are you creating an internal culture?

One of India’s most respected companies, Tata Group was one of the few companies that did more than adopt the rainbow colours. The company tweeted: We have always provided equal opportunities for employment at Tata, irrespective of race, caste, gender, religion or sexual orientation. The tweet might not have gone viral, but it indicated that the company wasn’t simply being opportunistic and leveraging a trending topic.

The reason brands had never taken up the LGBTQ cause is because brands in India tend to play it safe, or impose self-censorship, say brand experts. “Legalising gay sex finally gave brands the freedom to talk about the issue without worrying about consequences. Brands may have wanted to talk about it earlier, but couldn’t because it was a controversial topic. Don’t look at brands as hypocrites because they are taking a stand only now,” said Rohit Raj, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, The Glitch.

Brands that have merely been associated with a celebrity who had an unpopular point of view have been forced to cut ties in the celebrity in the past. In April 2018, consumers threatened to boycott Amazon for associating with actor Swara Bhaskar who was protesting against alleged obstruction of justice in the Kathua and Unnao rape cases. Amazon India distanced itself from the celebrity endorser by deleting a tweet that featured her. In 2015, facing rising app uninstalls, Snapdeal did not renew its contract with brand ambassador Aamir Khan who spoke about ‘rising intolerance in India.’

This is in contrast to what iconic brand Nike did for its 30-year anniversary. The brand took a stand on the Black Lives Matter movement by featuring American footballer Colin Kaepernick in its ads. The ad has divided the nation but has strongly resonated with the black community in the US. Nike’s politically charged stand as much an endorsement of the movement as it is a smart marketing campaign.

The brand has historically challenged the status quo. In 1995, Nike asked consumers to let girls play, and in 2017, the brand designed a hijab for fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and Muslim sportswomen everywhere. The brand has taken largely unpopular stands, and with every such campaign, expanded its market and affinity among consumers.

Rohit said that Nike’s ad is a genius move but a super-calculated one at that. “They have got the attention of the entire Black community in the US by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Very few brands are bold enough to go ahead and take a stand of that kind,” he added.

Another brand, Dove, has been empowering women through its ads and digital content for many years now. Dove’s social experiment campaign - Real Beauty - defines the brand and what it stands for in earnest. With campaigns like these Dove and Nike have earned more than just a few likes and shares through their commodity-activism. The Tata Group on the other hand solidified its image as a brand that stands for diversity.

That is because each of these brands appear to be more credible than a brand that simply creates a topical post. “If it is a few retweets, likes or the such is what you are after, it is okay to have a quick witty take on what's trending. But if it is affinity or preference that you are after, then you need to be credible, not just current. Speaking up for an issue is different from talking about it. And in an environment where causes are the clutter, one sure way to break it is to do something that makes a difference,” cautions Arvind Krishnan, MD, BBH India.

It does not suffice to celebrate a landmark judgment like the decriminalisation of gay sex with a meme and forget the cause until the next it trends again. “I sincerely hope that the brands that celebrated the verdict by putting out a topical Facebook post, go beyond doing just that. If you'd like to take a stand, then it helps to do it like you mean it,” said Mehta.

Navin Talreja, Founder, The Womb, identifies the root of the meme-led support of brands to a cluttered media environment. “With increased noise, fragmentation and clutter, brands need to borrow and ride on what is happening in popular culture and society to become a part of conversations. Burger King and Nike are examples of brands that do this very well.”

He too felt that credibility and authenticity are at the core of getting it right. “I think that's the new model of communication, and if done well, can add immense value to brands. Even if brands have never attached themselves to certain aspects of society (eg: LGBT), it is absolutely okay for them to choose to do so now. The only word of caution would be that somewhere the latching on or riding on such things need to be credible as far as the core of the brand is concerned and not do so just for the sake of it. Done without leveraging the core may not backfire but will also add no value and will seem superficial and fake to modern consumers,” Talreja said.

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