How to move beyond tokenism in India
If you are putting that rainbow filter on your logo, make sure you extend your allyship all round the year: Abhishek Satam of Alchemist Marketing
How to move beyond tokenism in India
- 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 Abhishek Satam, Senior Consultant,
Alchemist Marketingabout 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.
While globally, the LGBTQIA+ representation-momentum is only growing, India’s marketing ecosystem is still way behind. It is only during the pride month that there is a sudden bombardment of rainbows and brands remember that LGBTQIA+ are also their consumers with purchasing power. The silence this month is speaking a thousand words, indicating that traditional Indian brands are still closeted. At the same time, the momentum is growing and more brands are making a conscious effort to build an inclusive environment inside their organisations by hiring Diversity, Inclusivity and Equity officers.
As an industry, advertising is known to drive to change. It can use its influential power in mending belief systems and uprooting regressive thoughts. It can bring about normalisation and make people embrace the entire spectrum.
We reached out to Abhishek Satam, Senior Consultant, Alchemist Marketing to understand how brands can be true allies this pride and throughout 2021, a few things that they need to pay close attention to inside their organisations, talk about campaigns that worked and one that made him cringe and finding the right approach in ads.
Q. How would you say the Pride movement has evolved in India in recent years?
I think the pride movement and the community started getting more visibility around a decade ago. There are three major landmarks in this period. The 2009 Delhi high court verdict opened up the conversations about lgbtq+ community. It showed us it’s possible to ask for gay rights in India, encouraged individuals to come out of closet but the corporate world hadn’t much warmed up to be a part of Pride scene yet. Also, social media was relatively new here. It was that regressive shock verdict of 2013 when the organisations were actually challenged to show where they stand. Thankfully, some of the major brands voiced their support for the community. It was much needed. This is where the Pride movement took real momentum. People were furious and questioning. The following year saw highest number of Pride walk attendees everywhere. It wasn’t just the community but the allies who walked with us in solidarity, you could see a couple of corporate groups walking the Pride as well. Every small support for the community mattered. People were united to fight section 377 and they were full of hope especially with the way things were going steadily positive before 2018 SC verdict. Considering how the brands supported the movement before, it was only obvious that more of them will follow the suit and jump on the Pride bandwagon post the verdict. Of course, you can’t tell how many of them are genuine allies but since this is just the beginning in the fight for many more rights for lgbtq+ community, more the merrier.
Q. How do you feel about pride-themed merchandise?
I feel absolutely okay with pride merchandise. I see it as a demand and supply equation. If businesses see potential takers in something, it's only natural that they would want to grab the opportunity, to have their share of it. How can Pride celebrations be an exception! Few of my friends like to have such a collection. I personally don’t buy it but that’s because I don’t see much variety in it. It’s all pretty basic and same. If you're doing it, you might as well dig deeper into queer culture and come up with something new, something different. Also, I find the pricing very unreasonable most times. If you are marketing a product that's about Pride and Equality, why price it so high that only the rich can afford?
Q. One Indian ad that you really liked because it ticked all the right boxes for you?
I liked Fastrack’s Come Out Of The Closet ad especially because it came out at a very important time in 2013 when homosexuality was re-criminalised. It was edgy, bold and most importantly conveyed the message that no more hiding in the closet no matter what. That message meant everything at that moment because the recent verdict had a lot of people confused. I think it’s really important for the brands to know which chord they should strike at a particular time.
From the recent lot, I loved the Bhima jewellery ad, it’s one of the most beautifully narrated journey of a trans person’s life in a path-breakingly positive light. It might not be something a lot of trans people can relate entirely to but it shows the world that we aspire to live in.
Q. One ad that got it wrong or made you cringe?
How can one forget Youngistan Ka Wow ad from Pepsi! It was literally how Bollywood had used gay humour for cheap laughs since 90’s and apart from being cringy, it literally encouraged the homophobia already prevalent among most of Indian parents. That was unforgivable.
Q. How can brands avoid falling into the rainbow-washing trap? What brands and advertising agencies should and shouldn't do this pride?
I honestly feel rainbow-washing is something we cannot really control at this point in India, whether it’s the brands that truly stand for the cause or the ones using it just as a marketing trend. We have a long way to go in queer rights movement. Yes, we can call out the brands that have done otherwise than what they have been doing during the Pride month but we cannot cancel them. We should rather make them accountable for walking the talk. I see there’s no harm for brands in realising and addressing their past mistakes and even apologising for it before claiming to be allies. Ad agencies should know where a particular brand comes from before working out pride month ideas for the brand. Not that a brand which once resorted to insensitive ad campaign or associated with homophobic entities/practices can never be an ally. If we make an effort to sensitise our homophobic families, we can surely let the brands that have been ignorant in the past have a fair chance to do good by you, once they own their deeds. If you are putting that rainbow filter on your logo, make sure you extend your allyship all round the year, educate yourselves on our issues, voice your support whenever the need arises and be truly inclusive as an organisation.
Q. Many organisations hire one queer person and make them the face of 'inclusivity at their organisation.' If you were a Chief Equity Officer, how would you go about it? How would you help your organisation move away from tokenism and bring real change?
I would love to play that role someday. It’s easier for brands to maintain an lgbtq+ friendly face for their customers through a couple of campaigns but you can’t be a true ally unless the work culture in your organisation reflects it. I would like to start with switching to paperwork that is inclusive of gender diversity. I believe making the communication inclusive goes long way in meeting diversity goals. Then make sure that the hiring process is inclusive, not limited to only cis folks. The employee handbook would ensure, one of the first things new employees would learn that this isn’t a place for any sort of homophobia/ transphobia. I would also like to recommend gender neutral restrooms, it’s high time we had them in India. There would of course be an lgbtq+ support group within the organisation that one can always approach, physically/distantly/anonymously, however one is comfortable. A lot of times such groups don’t get active response from discrete sexual minorities. So it’s crucial to create a platform where people can interact without fearing to be outed. You need to get them to trust you at first in order to help them further. I would want it to be accessible and approachable for everyone.
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?
Well, we need all kinds of campaigns, don’t we? They all have their own purpose to serve. Yes, the need of the hour is to educate people to eliminate discrimination, address the stigma around homosexuality now that we are past our first legal hurdle but we do need to normalise it on another side by showing couples of all kinds. That’s how we’ll be able to get sexual minorities into the mainstream.