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Starbucks India ad about transgender acceptance draws backlash

A Starbucks India ad hopes to turn one of the brand’s most recognizable gestures – writing a customer’s name on a mug – into a powerful message about inclusivity.

The two-minute ad, which went viral this week, shows a transgender woman meeting her estranged family over coffee. The meeting is tense at first – the mother has already begged the father, “don’t get angry this time, please.” As the girl tries to reconcile with her father, he solemnly rises – as if to walk away. But it turns out he’s just ordering coffees for everyone – and as the barista calls out the girl’s new name, Arpita, she realizes it’s his way of showing he’s got it. accepted his identity.

The ad, featuring prominent transgender model Siya Malasi and featuring the hashtag #ItStartsWithYourName, has been viewed more than 12 million times on Twitter and Facebook. She divided public opinion and highlighted the complexity of gender equality and social acceptance in the world’s largest democracy.

Several Indians demanded a boycott of Starbucks, with one accusing Starbucks of “imposing Western culture on India” and another saying he would “never” use the company again. However, the announcement also drew a strong reaction from supporters, with some thanks Starbucks for their “good work”. One wrote“This is amazing publicity so let’s hope the LGBTQ+ community finds more allies like this.”

Bill to protect India’s transgender community leaves them rather angry and aggrieved

While the backlash mirrors similar controversies in other countries – including the United States, where beer brand Bud Light faced a boycott over a can of beer featuring a transgender actress – India has a long history with transgender rights. Even though some Indians have mocked the Starbucks India ad as “woke” or preachingof a Western society, others argued that the outrage was actually a sign that the culture wars commonly seen in Western societies were being “imported” into India.

“The very idea of ​​trans inclusion is not something radical in the cultural context” of India, said Anish Gawande, founder of advocacy group Pink List India. Instead, the issue appears to be “entangled in a sort of culture war that has seeped from the US and UK transphobic rhetoric to India”.

In much of South Asia and Southeast Asia, gender language is more fluid than it is in the West, and hijras, as the Indian transgender community is sometimes called, have been part of the country’s society and culture since ancient times. They are highly visible in certain aspects of Indian life – often seen at weddings where some consider it auspicious to give them money even though activists say the community faces discrimination, limited employment opportunities and inadequate protection of their rights.

The country has taken steps to recognize and protect transgender people – creating a “third sex” status for transgender people in 2014, passing a law prohibiting discrimination and criminalizing physical abuse against the transgender community in 2019 – although many Many transgender activists have criticized the law as insufficient and regressive.

Historically, “India is a county where people have coexisted” reasonably well with the transgender community, Gawande said, though he added that increased polarization – which he attributed in part to Western culture wars – had made life more difficult for transgender people in recent years. “The warning bells have begun to ring.”

Of course, advertising choices are also informed by financial decisions, as companies weigh the costs and benefits of engaging with social issues.

In recent years, some brands in India have sought to position themselves as more inclusive – but have faced the wrath of right-wing conservative neighborhoods, where there is a movement to boycott companies with adverts they are not with. ‘OK.

Ads on interfaith issues have become particularly risky as relations between India’s Hindu majority and minority Muslims have become increasingly strained since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government took power in 2014.

In 2020, Indian jewelry brand Tanishq produced an ad about interfaith marriage – but pulled it days later after a flood of angry calls from Hindu nationalists demanding people boycott the company. A year earlier, another SurfExcel detergent ad aimed at showcasing religious unity also sparked a boycott.

In contrast, a 2021 ad from jewelry brand Bhima featuring a transgender model got mostly positive responses at the time.

India’s Supreme Court is hearing a highly controversial same-sex marriage case, which appears to have sparked wider discussion on LGBT issues.

Indian government opposes same-sex marriage, warns of nationwide ‘chaos’

Starbucks has had a presence in India for over a decade since opening its first store in Mumbai in 2012. It operates a joint venture partnership with Indian conglomerate Tata and has over 300 stores across 36 cities.

“Our campaign in India, #ItStartsWithYourName, shows how Tata Starbucks is committed to making people of all backgrounds and identities feel welcome” and “presenting themselves as themselves every day,” the company said in a statement. a statement to the Washington Post in response to the backlash.

“We will continue to use our voice to advocate for a better understanding of the importance of inclusion and diversity in the communities we serve around the world.”

An Indian jewelry brand has made a touching commercial about an interfaith marriage. Outrage ensued.

Karthik Srinivasan, a Bangalore-based communications strategy consultant, said in an interview that brands don’t need to have social messaging to be successful, but added that Starbucks has been “consistent” with its messaging on LGBT rights, leading similar campaigns in the UK and Brazil.

Starbucks India probably didn’t intend for the ad to cause so much controversy, he said, adding: “The backlash is really unfortunate given that it just shows that people are inclusive, considerate and accepting people. differences.”

For Zayan, a Delhi-based transgender man, the ad has ‘some merit’ but was ‘a bit symbolic’, targeting ‘people with a lot of privilege’ when many Indians would be unlikely to afford Starbucks.

The announcement could help encourage people in India to become better allies to trans communities, he said, but also noted that many “businesses become hyperactive around June” – when India marks Pride month – while neglecting LGBT issues “the other 11 months. of the year.”

Karishma Mehrotra and Niha Masih contributed to this report.


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