Consumers almost always know when a brand is resorting to rainbow-washing and when they actually want to and are bringing about a change: Mansi Shanbag, WATConsult
Mansi Shanbag of WATConsult on building inclusive workplaces and avoiding rainbow washing
I have a love-hate relationship with pride-themed merchandise: Mansi Shanbag, WATConsult
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Consumers almost always know when a brand is resorting to rainbow-washing and when they actually want to and are bringing about a change: Mansi Shanbag, WATConsult

I have a love-hate relationship with pride-themed merchandise: Mansi Shanbag, WATConsult
  • This Pride, we want advertising and media industry’s queer folks to take up space.
  • With our individual interviews, we will be focusing on harnessing the full power of our platform to highlight emerging queer leaders of the advertising industry.
  • Today, we speak to Mansi Shanbag, Lead Copywriter, WATConsult about changing representation in ads, moving beyond tokenism in India, choosing the right approach while working on diverse campaigns, how can organisation build an inclusive culture on the inside and much more.
Pride month is coming to an end and brands this year have been rather quiet. The conversation was limited to social media, we are yet to talk about equal LGBTQIA+ rights on traditional platforms such as television or out-of-home. Even on social media, it is more about jumping on a trend, changing logos or the most ‘woke’ act you can expect from a brand today is to launch a limited edition merchandise for queer folks. Only a few brands try to move beyond this tokenism.

For an industry that is obsessed with breaking the clutter, Mansi Shanbag, Lead Copywriter, WATConsult pointed out how brands love spamming when it comes to pride month and queer rights. She said that brands add to the clutter by simply rainbow-washing and not actually contributing to change. She had a simple advice to offer to those brands who rainbow wash, talk to queer folks around you and rework on your campaign if it doesn’t bring about change.

We caught up with Shanbag to further discuss changing representation in ads, moving beyond tokenism in India, choosing the right approach while working on diverse campaigns, how can organisations build an inclusive culture on the inside and much more.

Q. How would you say the Pride movement has evolved in India in recent years? (from a marketing and a macro perspective)

What do we want to read here? That the situation is better, and people are more accepting towards different identities and existences. Well, that may be true for some. But ‘some’ is not encouraging enough. The movement in itself has picked up a huge following as more and more queer individuals are finding the strength and comfort to stand up and stand out. More allies are presenting themselves on the daily. The movement is growing, sure. But, for every two positive, affirmative experiences I’ve had as a queer person in the industry personally, I’ve had one ‘arey ye sab bakwaas mujhe mat dikhaao.’ Always two steps forward, one step back. But I guess that is still one step forward, right?

Q. How do you feel about pride-themed merchandise?

I have a love-hate relationship with pride-themed merchandise. While I am a sucker for all things pride, every time I am offered an opportunity to purchase pride themed merchandise, in good conscience, I am unable to add to cart until I have had the chance to research what that brand has actually done for the community. It is so very easy to stick a rainbow on your product, your logo, your name for a month and do absolutely nothing to actually contribute to the movement. I mean, more than anything, it's important for brands to fix the way they look at Pride month. In that way, I don’t have to do 30-minutes' worth of research for a simple purchase!

By tagging a rainbow across your page and no actual actions to follow that up with, simply proves that the brand is publicly admitting that they don’t mean the support they claim to extend at all!

Q. One Indian ad that you really liked because it ticked all the right boxes for you? One ad that got it wrong or made you cringe?

I don’t know about ticking all the boxes, but Vicks’ Touch of Care had me bawling at my work desk. I’m not a person in touch with my emotions, but the delicate treatment of it touched my heart. Netflix’s Valentine’s Day short film was also on top of my ‘so adorable, let me watch it again’ list for so long. I don’t know how to answer this question without offending many people, but I have not come across many ads or campaigns that check all the boxes, that are wonderful in their portrayal of the community, and that have a positive impact or bring about a tangible change all at the same time.

Of course, I have a lot more to say about ads that got it wrong or made me cringe! If you make a queer ad and you start it with sexy, seductive music, I am already mad at you. The reduction of the community’s description to ‘sex-crazed’ is rampant in most representations of the queer community. I genuinely don’t know where that stems from. I have friends, both queer and otherwise, and believe me, eroticism is the last possible differentiating factor!

There’s so much that can go right and so much that can go wrong, it’s just good sense to look at any pride campaign idea with a fine-toothed comb, weed out the problem areas, and focus on positive consequences. And if by chance, you see it not doing any good, let’s bench it, work on it further.

Q. How can brands avoid falling into the rainbow-washing trap? What brands and advertising agencies should and shouldn't do this pride?

Rainbow-washing!! This word sits at the very top of my tongue like sand every year for a whole month. See, you know that line? A person is smart, but people are foolish? That doesn’t work at all in this context. Consumers are smart these days. They almost ALWAYS know when a brand is resorting to rainbow-washing and when they actually want to and are bringing about a change. So, ONLY indulge in mere rainbow-washing as a brand if you are willing to put a target over your head, because we almost always know. Might sound menacing, but truly, I mean it!

To avoid getting caught in this trap, the first thing you can do as a brand is reach out to the queer population within your own company or otherwise. Talk to them, ask for their opinions, their insights will bring you so much insight and so much soul to your campaign. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a member of the LGBT+ community that wasn’t willing to take the time out to educate people about the movement or give them two cents.

Right now, we are all caught in the vortex that is ‘breaking the online clutter.’ But I don’t think we realize how much we add to the clutter by simply rainbow-washing and not actually contributing to change.

BRANDS ALWAYS WANT TO BREAK CLUTTER. BUT WHEN IT COMES TO PRIDE MONTH, THEY ARE ALL ABOUT SPAMMING.

Q. Which has more merit: a campaign targeting discrimination and stigmas, or a campaign celebrating the community or a campaign that includes couples of all kinds?

For a second, I was actually thinking about what I would pick. To begin with, why should I have to choose between tackling stigmas and discrimination, celebration of the community or visibility of couples of all kinds? It’s not like the issues that members of the community face are bifurcated as such. Sabh ek saath hi aata hai sir pe baithne! Of course, it’s not like we’re spoilt for choice with healthy representation, toh filhaal kuch bhi chalega! But, if a person is expected to deal with all these issues and more at the same time, we should be able to do a campaign that covers all bases too!

Q. Many organizations' hire one queer person and make them the face of 'inclusivity at their organization.' If you were a Chief Equity Officer, how would you go about it? How would you help your organization move away from tokenism and bring real change?

In all seriousness, while most offices have an open culture, there isn’t a lot actively done to make sure members of the queer community feel safe enough to open up and be themselves. It’s a give-and-take business, right? We will give you safety, so you give us your trust. If there’s no safety, there’s no trust.

Very recently, our Group Head – HR reached out to me while formulating some online forms to understand what options she should include in the gender/pronouns bit. I was so very touched by this! Change is slow, but change is here.

Apart from these options, there also needs to be a community of sorts within the office. I have made life-long friends working alongside queer individuals, people I have befriended because they would understand me better. A support system like that goes a long way. Support that is moral, actual, mental, financial, that is the kind of change I am hoping to see and bring about myself in the industry. Ummeed pe duniya kaayam hai!