/ 17 November 2017

Transgender ad breaks through

Appreciation: The success of this image is that its inclusive representation goes against standard underwear advertising.
Appreciation: The success of this image is that its inclusive representation goes against standard underwear advertising.

‘This is not an ad; this is appreciation,” says Stefanie Jason, editor-in-chief of the website Between 10 and 5.

She was editorialising about a groundbreaking photographic spread that recently appeared on the website to “celebrate pro-brown underwear for women and challenge the lack of colour-inclusive underwear”, shortly after the launch of Gugu Intimates, the “first African premium skin-coloured underwear band for brown skin tones”.

The women models were of various shapes and sizes and the inclusion of a trans woman was, for Jason and her team, a no-brainer. “We really wanted to reach out to various people, diverse people, across genders and skin tones, and included in that but not exclusively was people who identify as women,” she says.

“Normalising diverse bodies is important. We need to go against what the mainstream gives us —which is not us. When you look at mainstream underwear, a lot of women are left out of the conversation,” says Jason.

Luke van der Burg, a model and trans rights activist, is one of the models featured in the spread. She is “excited about including the trans body into a narrative about body inclusivity”.

“I think when we speak about confidence and sexiness, there tends to be an emphasis on ideals, standards and binaries. I was just excited to show that the trans body isn’t as foreign or abstract as people imagine it to be,” she says.

For Van der Burg, what was important in the spread was not being re-
presented in a way that set her apart from other women.

“I like how my body is showcased next to other bodies. A lot of people think it beneficial to singularly highlight experiences outside of the so-called ‘norm’. I actually think it’s quite damaging to distance experiences. When trans people are highlighted next to cis-gendered people, it speaks louder for the conversation of inclusion. I don’t think advertising media does enough for inclusion across the board.”

In April this year, as part of a video clip celebrating Freedom Day, Standard Bank featured a gay couple. Although there was general support for the inclusion, some homophobic comments were made.

Speaking to the queer website Mamba Online, one of the men featured in the clip, Sean Pettit, said: “There were a lot of homophobes that came out of the woodwork. They likened us to dogs, satanists, and some people actually said ‘fuck Standard Bank for supporting the fags’.”

According to the website, Pettit commended Standard Bank for refusing to withdraw the campaign.

Launched this month, Nedbank’s I Don’t Live for Money ad is also being hailed as “groundbreaking” for its inclusion of a range of people in non-stereotypical ways.

The ad has had more than 50 000 views online and was rated number two on Ad Forum France’s global top five ads.

Xolisa Dyeshana is the chief creative officer of Joe Public United, the agency that produced the ad.

“The ad is definitely not typical of bank advertising. The idea was to tell a story in a way that is inclusive and can resonate with everybody, including the people we don’t ordinarily see,” Dyeshana says.

Commenting on the inclusion of a transgender woman in the clip, Nedbank marketing executive Vanessa Singh says it was important to “give a voice to the voiceless. “They don’t have a big voice in this country.”

Although Dyeshana maintains the bank “was very embracing of the idea” of including a transgender character, Singh pauses slightly before answering.

“When you start to feel uncomfortable, you know it’s the right thing to do,” she says.

Dyeshana concedes, however: “There are certain clients that are still cautious of stepping into any space that’s new. We’ve still got a way to go.”

Through its Destabilising Heteronormativity Project and Advertisers Activists Collective (AAC), funded by the Ford Foundation, the organisation AIDS Accountability International (AAI) has been working with advertisers to promote the positive visibility of LGBT people in advertising.

According to the organisation’s Czerina Patel, this means ending stereotyping in advertising and depicting LGBTI people positively “so that ads are more representative of society, and less heteronormative and cis-normative”.

“When advertisers take risks to be bold and challenge the conservatism of many in society, they often fear backlash. We want them to see that equality activists and equality-loving people are loud too, and that diversity-positive advertising is not only necessary but also adds to their brand power,” says Patel.

As part of its work, the organisation is completing its #Equality-Challenge guidelines for the advertising industry.

“Stigma is so central to violence the LGBTI community faces in Africa. We are trying to engage with advertisers, as definers of public perception, to help them put out depictions that are both honest and inclusive and not using LGBTI people as punchlines,” says Patel.

Patel says the Nedbank ad is “a great first step”.

“As far as we know, this is the first major ad to [include a transgender person in it]. For a bank to do this is groundbreaking and very positive.”

From January 2018, the AAC aims to conduct training sessions with advertisers on its guidelines.

Patel acknowledges, however, that advertisers are “somewhat limited” in what they can do as they work on briefs from clients.

“So we are hoping to get buy-in from brands to get them to see that it can be positive for their brands to be inclusive.”

Alistair King, of the ad agency King James, says stepping into unfamiliar territory when marketing their brands “can be nerve-wracking for marketers. You actually need a lot of marketers taking it up at the same time in a kind of collective effort. As long as we can get marketers embracing the idea, we’ll find change happening quickly. So it does require big brands to say ‘I’ll do my part’.”

Van Der Burg says “this is more than a trans issue; it’s a human issue”.

“The more we talk, explore and understand something, the less dangerous or scary it seems to people, the more visibility there is for
my community, the safer we’ll ultimately be.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G

The Other Foundation