How Advertisers Are Targeting The Trans Community

Screenshot from Absolut ad “Darla”
It’s nice to be recognized as a demographic, but is this the kind of visibility we need?

With campaigns from major companies like Bud Light, Absolut vodka, Secret deodorant, Tinder, and more, it’s safe to say 2016 was the year of the transgender advertisement.

On the one hand, there is something really beautiful about this trend. Having trans people represented in a positive light can change people’s minds about us, especially (for better or worse) when that message is coming from a trusted brand name. In a political climate that will certainly become increasingly hostile for transgender people, having the support of companies with an expansive national reach could prove crucial.

But representation of trans people is so often misrepresentation, and visibility shades so quickly into hypervisibility. The increasing visibility and borderline acceptance of our community has been met with social and legislative backlash, most recently in the form of threats by the new administration to roll back the Obama administration’s LGBTQ protections and directives that simplified gender marker changes on passports and ensured trans students’ rights to use the correct bathroom safely.

When it comes to advertisers, it can be hard to tell the difference between a true investment in justice for the transgender community and an interest in the profit that can be generated from our inspiring narratives.

When it comes to advertisers, it can be hard to tell the difference between an investment in justice and an interest in profit.

No surprise, then, that I’ve approached this trend with a healthy dose of skepticism. I want to take a moment here to investigate some of these campaigns, in an attempt to clarify what it would look like for a corporate advertising campaign to invest in us and not simply profit from us.

Several campaigns really missed the mark. Take, for instance, Bud Light and Absolut Vodka’s attempts to get in on the trans trend. Both companies ran ads featuring cisgender people discussing trans issues. The Absolut spot featured a cisgender protagonist who, through the magic of vodka and an all-night EDM party, goes from misgendering and trying to escape conversation with his old friend Darla to “accepting” her. Darla, played by trans actress Carol Marra, does not speak.

Likewise, Bud Light’s spot features cisgender actors Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen, neither of whom have particularly good reputations among the trans community. Transgender actor Ian Harvie appears in the ad for a split second, but the majority of the ad is a satirical political dialogue between Schumer and Rogen.

The final lines of Bud Light’s spot more or less lay the multi-billion dollar corporation’s intentions bare. Rogan rallies the crowd shouting, “Beer should have labels, not people. We don’t care, we’ll sell you beer!” Expectedly, Bud’s “political” motive behind supporting trans people is really just the capitalist motive: to sell more beer.

There were also pleasant surprises. For instance, Target, a company that in 2010 faced a boycott from the LGBTQ community for then-CEO Gregg Steinhafel’s controversial anti-LGBT political donations, came out in support of its transgender customers’ and employees’ right to safely use the bathroom and changing rooms. Not only did Target pledge $20 million to install gender-neutral restrooms in stores across the country, but it did so despite facing a major boycott pledge from the American Family Association signed by over 1.4 million consumers.

What feels especially powerful is that there isn’t any immediately apparent profit motivation behind the move. In fact, Target stands to potentially lose revenue, particularly at its many locations in right-wing, Christian America. Target gets it right by not only coming out in vocal support of the trans community, but by matching that support with investing actual capital and resources into ensuring the safety and well-being of its trans and gender non-conforming customers and employees.

But there’s a third category of advertisements that I find to be much more complicated to assess. While the ads that missed the mark were more or less par for the course and the good campaigns were a pleasant surprise, there were several other campaigns that engaged in what we call “performative allyship,” the outward support of the trans community for points (or profit) coupled with a failure to truly support trans justice.

When these companies get the big picture right, but fail to invest in our well-being in and outside of their companies, we have to wonder: Is their goal actually to support the trans community? Or is it to bring in cis customers who want to feel good about their allyship (and their purchase)?

Take, for example, Secret deodorant’s recent ad campaign, which tells the story of a transgender woman named Dana, played by androgynous queer model Karis Wilde. In the ad, Dana waits anxiously in a bathroom stall gathering the courage to face the other women. The idea behind the commercial is that Secret deodorant withstands the stress that trans people face in bathrooms, where we are often subject to surveillance and policing of our bodies. But when Dana exits she is greeted warmly by the other women, who compliment her outfit.

The ad handles Dana’s story with sensitivity, and sets a good example for cis people. But, it seems suspect that this spot, which plays off of the recent debate around transgender people’s ability to access our correct bathrooms, would appear a mere month after Proctor and Gamble (P&G) refused to step up on behalf of transgender people on this issue.

In mid-October, P&G rejected a proposition made by NorthStar Asset Management during a shareholder meeting to join in the corporate pushback against anti-LGBT laws, including anti-transgender bathroom bills such as North Carolina’s HB2. This decision was celebrated by the religious right, including the Family Resource Council, as an important step for “religious liberty.” The proposition, which can be found here, also called on P&G to enumerate how it would protect its transgender and LGBQ employees in those states where such laws existed. P&G currently maintains three facilities in North Carolina.

To be clear, I have no misconceptions about corporate motivation: Ads are meant to sell product. But when a company like P&G runs an ad affirming transgender people’s right to use the bathroom, and yet simultaneously refuses to stand up for its own employees’ and customers’ right to do so in real life, we have to be critical. Was the ad an attempt to cover up P&G’s political failure? Was it simply meant to generate profit off of a current, hot-button issue?

Was this ad simply meant to generate profit off of a current, hot-button issue?

Or how about Tinder’s recent move to allow users to select from 37 different gender options? Tinder made the switch after many trans people reported being flagged by transphobic users and eventually banned from the app. With the newly available options, trans and gender non-conforming users can choose to self-identify outside the restrictive man-woman binary. The shift was coupled with a promise from Tinder CEO Sean Rad that the moderating team would operate under new rules to ensure that trans people would no longer be unjustly kicked off of the app. These changes, though long overdue, are certain to make using the app a better experience for trans people and may even help to introduce cisgender people to concepts about gender they might otherwise not have been exposed to.

Still, the app itself remains challenging to navigate for queer and non-binary people like myself. Tinder still requires users to select whether they wish to appear in searches for men or women. Those of us who experience our gender and sexuality in a way that is complex and fluid can’t easily function within the rigid algorithm available. Though Tinder included trans people in the development of the new gender options, one has to wonder whether all of their suggestions were truly taken into consideration, or whether anyone like me was at the table.

What I found most frustrating about the campaign was that Tinder’s announcement strategically aligned with Trans Week of Awareness, an event that expanded out from the nearly two decades old annual Trans Day of Remembrance, a day when we mourn the loss of transgender people who have been killed during the year. Often this violence against transgender people comes as a result of hypervisibility, of the backlash that results from being read, seen, or outed as transgender. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, bear the brunt of this hypervisibility, which often occurs in the context of flirtation and intimate or sexual situations; take, for example, the 2013 murder of Islan Nettles, a black trans woman, in New York City. Nettles was beaten to death by a man who flirted with her when he saw her walk by, but became enraged when he realized she was not cisgender. Attendees of 2013’s Trans Day of Remembrance events worldwide read Islan Nettles’ name.

Trans Week of Remembrance was a strange time for Tinder to roll out a feature that may put trans people at risk.

This makes Trans Week of Remembrance a strange time to roll out a feature that makes trans people more visible. Tinder doesn’t seem to understand the dark side of this visibility, which has frequently made trans people vulnerable to violence, especially in the context of flirtation, sex, and dating.

Tinder’s timing seems like a gross oversight at best. At worst it seems, again, that the app stood to benefit off of our narratives without deeply investing in either a truly trans-friendly app or the livelihood and well-being of our community.

I don’t mean to say that these companies should not have run these campaigns. Nor am I suggesting that these companies are wrong for doing so; they are certainly taking steps in the right direction. But I am wary of the way these campaigns seem to be playing to the market — not to the transgender market, but rather to a larger and more lucrative population: cisgender people who want to feel good about the purchases they make and how those purchases reflect on their supposed allyship.

With that in mind, I want to call on these corporations to take their allyship one step further, to make a real investment in our community and not merely to use us for feel-good profit generation.

I am wary of the way these campaigns seem to be playing to the cisgender people who want to feel good about the purchases they make.

This could be achieved by, for starters, working to ensure jobs for transgender people. The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found that 15% of transgender people are unemployed (compared to 5% of the total population), and that 30% of transgender people who were employed had experience workplace discrimination. Corporations that profit from advertisements featuring transgender people should not only be supporting their existing transgender employees, but should be actively recruiting transgender people at all levels.

Second, those companies that wish to use our stories in their advertising should be channeling funds back into projects within their companies, like Target’s bathroom project, or organizations outside their companies that work to ensure the safety and survival of trans people. Trans Week of Awareness would have been a great time for Tinder to make a donation to groups like the Trans Women of Color Collective, TGI Justice, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Southerners on New Ground, Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement, or any number of other organizations working for the survival of the most marginalized trans and gender non-conforming people.

Lastly, these companies have incredible reach through their advertising and through the social capital that comes with being a recognizable brand. While advertisements are a good start, those same resources could also be used to provide education to cisgender people about the transgender community and to provide resources and information to the trans community itself.

What I and other trans folks have repeated over these last few years of increased visibility and acceptance holds true: Representation is only a small piece of the puzzle. True trans justice will only come from a deep, sustained investment in the livelihood, well-being, and indeed, sheer survival of our community.