Shreyas Kulkarni

Brands, the missing Pride, and the fear of retribution

As the SC hears the same-sex marriage plea, brands, jubilant during Pride Month, are quiet while Starbucks is being trolled for its queer-friendly ad.

That the Supreme Court of India is hearing arguments on whether same-sex marriage be legalised is not breaking news.

What should be news is the eerie silence from brands on their support to the queer community, tacit or not, right now. This is when come June, the Pride Month, every second brand changes its face to the colours of the Pride Flag, and announces its love for the LGBTIQA+ community.

Disney Star, Dunzo, Fastrack, Titan, Tinder India, Amul, Brooke Bond Red Label, Vicks, and Myntra, are some of the brands which have created work during Pride Month.

However, in marketing speak, there is no better moment marketing opportunity than now; the lack of brand noise reeks of hypocrisy.

“Hypocrisy is a harsh word to use against brands because they, before anything else, are answerable to their stakeholders,” says Sai Ganesh, an independent marketing consultant and Dunzo’s former brand head.

Starbucks India, the coffee maker and seller, was trolled and boycott calls were made against it because its new ad showed a father accepting his son’s gender change.

The father had the Starbucks staff write her name on the coffee cup and seeing it called out loud, a classic Starbucks moment, was his expression of acceptance.  

Bud Light, a beer brand from Anheuser-Busch, faced boycott calls last month after Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, promoted it on social media.

The New York Post reported on 9 May 2023 that “nationwide (U.S.) retail sales of Bud Light were down 23.4% versus a year ago in the week of April 29” and that the company’s flagship Budweiser brand took 11.4% sales hit for the week ended April 29.

Prathap Suthan says “It is not hypocrisy; it is being wise” in response to the brands’ silence on queer issues while the case is being heard in the Supreme Court. He is the co-founder and chief creative officer, Bang in the Middle.

He cites the examples of Tanishq, Fab India, and Dabur Fem; brands whose ads faced severe backlash and trolling (not all were queer-related).

“A lot of these brands got unnecessary attention not from their buying audience but from people who do not have much to do and they pick these up because they thrive in these kinds of situations,” he states.

In recent years, reactions to brand advertising in India have taken shape of trolling, calls for boycott, and in some cases, threats of physical violence.

The case in the Supreme Court has already divided the country online while the real-world conversations range from fruitful ones to being banished from family WhatsApp groups to people being unaware to the existence of queer identity in India.

Sai Ganesh feels the case is a sensitive subject and brands cannot be expected to take the lead in building the narrative. “Most brands will take a wait-and-watch approach, and they won’t take a point of view when the case is sub judice, the same goes for many celebrities too. Especially now in the context of what has transpired with Bud Light in the USA.”

It is interesting to note him talking about building the narrative because Suthan too mentions how regardless of “whether it’s India or any other country, brands and advertising are the first to spot trends and ride them.”

He says brands with enough data coming their way now can see a lot of changes happening in not only Tier I but Tier II and III cities, “they're well aware which way the thing is swinging."

“Advertisers and marketers know if you're not following the general, larger, or louder point of view whether it's right or wrong, you could end up on the wrong side of it,” says Suthan and adds that in extreme scenarios MNCs could be asked to leave the country.

“A very wise move from brands to stay away from divisive thoughts and controversial subjects,” he states.

It’s a gutting feeling when the idols, living or not, you look up to do not stand up for what you think is right. Bring the change yourself, readers. There is a reason why love is blind.

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