Variety

Advertising peeks out of the closet

Harish Bhat | Updated on May 09, 2013 Published on May 09, 2013

Scenes from the Fastrack ad that has generated a heated debate

Scenes from the Fastrack ad that has generated a heated debate

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Some perspectives on gay- and LGBT-inclusive advertising in India

Gay and lesbian themes have been taboo in Indian advertising. I think this is because marketers run scared of even approaching this sensitive area. Some of them recall the violent protests that met the release in 1998 of the movie Fire, Deepa Mehta’s moving treatise on lesbian love. Other marketers are convinced that Indian society remains largely homophobic, hence they fear a backlash should they even speak about a subject which is rarely discussed openly in India. And most others are just not bold enough to take their advertising into a new age.

But last month, the youth brand Fastrack broke new ground once again when it launched a lesbian-themed advertisement campaign. In this commercial, the doors of a pink cupboard spill open, and two hot young women walk out, still fumbling with their dresses and hair. Viewers are left free to infer what the ladies were up to behind closed doors. “Come out of the closet”, urges the advertisement. And it ends with Fastrack’s now famous byline, “Move On”.

This advertisement is one of a three-part Fastrack campaign aimed at telling young consumers to challenge taboos, let go of outmoded societal norms and move on. It has caught the public eye and stoked a debate. Fastrack’s Facebook page, which has a massive 6.8 million fans, as well as YouTube, where the advertisement has been viewed over 100,000 times, are buzzing with strong views supporting and condemning the advertisement. “Finally a queer advertisement in India. Am so happy I could cry,” says one happy fan. Another viewer responds angrily: “Am against promoting this on television. Do you want to the next generation to be all lesbian?”

Whether you agree or disagree with the Fastrack TV commercial, it is clear that Indian advertising is finally beginning to peek out of the closet, though it is yet to boldly step out. In America and Europe, consumers have seen quite a few LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) advertisements for several years now. For instance, just a few weeks before Fastrack launched its campaign in India, Amazon launched a fresh advertisement for its new Kindle, where the gay theme is used very naturally to create a twist in an interesting tale. It shows a bikini-clad woman on a beach reading her Kindle. A man next to her says he has also just ordered one of these new Kindles, so isn’t it time to celebrate together. The woman, assuming this to be a pick-up line, says: “Well, my husband is bringing me a drink right now.” The man responds, “So is mine.”

Such advertisements are perhaps well accepted in the US where surveys have shown that attitudes towards the LGBT community have, over the years, become increasingly positive and liberal. But is this true of India, where several prejudiced views of the community continue to thrive? There are hardly any examples of advertising around gay themes in India, the only one which I readily recall apart from the Fastrack campaign is an entertaining Pepsi advertisement from a few years ago.

Yet, the LGBT lifestyle is a subject which marketers should consider, given that it is a perfectly natural space that exists in our world. And when they do that, here are some “out of the closet” perspectives which they will need to bear in mind, particularly when creating mainstream advertising.

Always a bold move

Making a gay-themed advertisement in India is always a bold decision. Brands are likely to face both bouquets and brickbats, so marketers should venture into this territory only if they can stay the course, and, of course, if there is a strong link between the story and their brand proposition. But a well made and sensitive advertisement, which displays same-sex affection or same-sex couples or transbeauty can be a winner, because viewers will be emotively compelled to recognise the truth that it narrates, whatever be their points of view on the matter; and this can, in turn, build significant respect for the brand.

Youth

Brands which wish to appeal to youth need to acknowledge that alternative lifestyles – LGBT, or living in with a partner – are today accepted as matter of fact on many college campuses and communities. There has certainly been a generational shift in opinion on this subject. On the other hand, it is quite likely that older men and women in India may find it difficult to reconcile with these changing norms, and may hold strong beliefs that these lifestyle choices are, in fact, immoral. Without entering into a debate on the value systems involved, suffice it to say that brands for whom youth is a primary target audience should consider experimenting with advertising around gay themes. They will generally find youth receptive, and indeed such communication is likely to strike a strong chord with the new generation.

Clutter-breaker

Since the subject of same-sex love has rarely been addressed in Indian advertising, marketers who use gay themes can be assured of immediate clutter cut-through. However, brands that tend to go overboard by stereotyping the LGBT community (examples here could range from showcasing butch lesbians or effeminate men) are unlikely to be perceived as dignified or inclusive. They may provoke a laugh or two, but are unlikely to do much sustained good for the brand. On the other hand, advertising has tremendous power to promote visibility of the LGBT community in a factual and natural manner, and yet deliver clutter breaking pieces of communication.

Gay is the new cool

In a certain demographic segment of the population – Socio Economic Class A, metro city residents, well educated, liberal and affluent – LGBT-themed advertising can actually be perceived as new age and cool. This consumer segment is well acquainted with the reported fact that many highly creative and cool people in glamorous professions such as fashion design and art are openly gay or lesbian. Hence, there is a halo effect that comes into play, which advertising can smartly leverage.

An urban myth?

Most of us are likely to conclude that gay themes are likely to be accepted more easily in cities, whereas smaller Indian towns may actually revolt against such advertising. I am not sure that this is quite correct. I spoke to the Head of the Fastrack business, and asked him this question. Did he think the Fastrack closet advertisement would work as well in semi-urban India as in Mumbai or Bangalore? While he did not have any research to offer a firm conclusion, he pointed out that change in these smaller towns, on many dimensions, was actually happening at a faster pace than in metropolitan India. So who knows?

This discussion has only considered perspectives on “gay-inclusive” mainstream advertising. There is, of course, also the opportunity of viewing the LGBT community in India as a key consumer segment, and developing marketing that is aimed specifically at this segment. That requires a different approach altogether, but the opportunity is perceived as being niche, and serious thinking on this subject is still a few years away. In the meanwhile, Fastrack (author’s acknowledgement – I was directly associated with this brand until a year ago) has gently pried open the doors of the advertising closet.

(Harish Bhat is Managing Director and CEO of Tata Global Beverages Ltd, and author of the book “Tata Log: Eight Modern Stories from a Timeless Institution”. These are his personal views).

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Published on May 09, 2013
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