Ad campaigns that need to die: transphobia edition

Advertising, as I have noted before, loves nothing more than to try to grab our attention by playing loudly and proudly to societal prejudices. It is hardly surprising, then, that transphobia features so prominently. Two campaigns have come to my attention in the last few days.

The first campaign provoked controversy when it first aired, and rightly so. In a short thirty-second advert for betting on a horse race, viewers are presented with images of women, some of whom are trans, and are invited to guess whether they are “stallions or mares”. A voice-over cheerily narrates “that one’s a man” “ooh, that’s a woman”, finally concluding with “dog… er, I mean man”, adding a charming little soupçon of misogyny to the mix. Every second of the advert seethes with transphobia, bristling with the form of everyday oppression faced by the very people who are the butt of this supposed joke. As one commentator puts it:

The problem with “spot the trans lady” though is that, for one person in the game, it’s really not that fun. Ask any trans woman. Most of us, at some stage, have faced the humiliation of strangers playing it on us, (I use “on” as it’s something that’s done to you, not with you, and rarely with permission). You know it’s coming, as you walk down the street, like any other member of the public, on your way to buy milk. You see the curious look in a stranger’s eye, the excitement as they wonder if it could truly be – if they could really have found someone as laughable and as exotic as you. You note their lack of subtlety as they nudge the person next to them. They walk by. Seconds pass. And, no matter how you try to prepare for the certainty of what comes next, the phrase “Is that a tranny?” stabs like a dagger every time.

I find it staggering that this advert is recent; it stings of something from a hackneyed seventies sitcom, tedious trope upon tedious trope. It is so overtly hateful, that it provoked a number of complaints. The people behind the ad responded with a fairly typical lack of grace.

“I’m really surprised that it has had some negative responses but overall it has had a mixed reaction. It won’t be pulled because we then run the risk of taking ourselves too seriously or pandering to political correctness.

To them, it is all a big joke. The issues mean nothing to the pack of cis men who make up the company’s executive board and marketing department, and anyone who kicks up a fuss must be some sort of hummus-munching killjoy, yet to blithely pursue such salient oppression in the name of a cheap laugh at a group of people who live under the threat of violence is sickening. Continuation of applied pressure in the form of complaints and boycotts may force a better apology, but if not, I’d give good odds for a well-deserved brick flying through their window.

The second ad campaign I spotted presents a less-immediately noticeable form of discrimination. It follows the latest fad for interactive billboards, using face recognition technology to identify the gender of the viewer, and only those it deems to be women get to see the ad. The stated aim of the campaign is to teach women about their sisters in developing countries and the oppression they face, while teaching men that gender discrimination exists by not letting them see the ad.

There are so many things wrong with this campaign that it is hard to know where to begin. First of all is the horrifying implications of the technology, allowing an era of ever-more-specific targeted advertising to take hold: think Google Ads with all of its data collection, but in the meatspace. Secondly, it seems misguided to believe that men do not know gender discrimination exists without letting them feel a little kick of oppression by denying them access to an advertisement. Likewise, women are unlikely to be the only ones who care about the plight of girls in poorer countries.

Perhaps most importantly, what of all the people who will be mis-gendered by this ad campaign? The publicity materials admit to a “90% success rate” in identifying the gender of the target, though it is unclear as to how this was piloted–on whom did they test the technology. I can see numerous instances wherein it would be difficult to determine someone’s gender based on facial features such as bone structure and jaw shape. Trans people are likely to be smacked with an ad targeted at their birth gender. Cis people who do not conform to the ideal standards of masculinity or femininity in the genes they are given are also likely to be mis-gendered, as will children: face shape changes during puberty.

New avenues for bullying and discrimination open up when in the middle of a public street, a billboard decides to label you. It seems as though this issue has not been given much thought.

One can argue that this campaign is for “a good cause” which will do good, and therefore should not be criticised too heavily.  This logic is faulty: any good it can do is at the expense of others, and transphobia has no place in feminism. The number of people helped by a billboard advertising a charity is likely to be smaller than those harmed by the existence of the billboard. We must be critical of this campaign in order to help effect change.

Ultimately, these ads buy into the myth of acceptable targets. Whether by malicious bullying or unthinking ignorance, advertising still buys into the myth that it’s all right to dehumanise trans people. It is an unflattering reflection of societal attitudes on the whole, and these attitudes must change. Taking out these adverts is a good place to start.


2 responses to “Ad campaigns that need to die: transphobia edition

  • narrativeeschatology

    Very good post. I also see the racing thing as a kind of kind of gender-policing: how dare trans women, or gender-nonconforming women, enjoy watching racing without fear of violence.

    The *last* thing feminist campaigns need to do is to limit information to one perceived gender: one reason most men are so unaware of rape culture is that women, with good reason, very rarely tell men they have been raped. the one time what happened to a woman I know did become widely known things ended up in gangs of macho first year student guys pursuing each other with weapons, which really didn’t seem to help anything for anyone – though in a viciously rape-denying society it might have been the only way to ensure she didn’t have to see the perpetrator every day.

    Grief, I’ll stop always coming back to that particular manifestation of societal misogyny now, but it’s telling how all these things are linked.

  • James Heaver

    The horse racing thing is atrocious and I’m sure they’re playing the controversy. They also stole the idea from the brilliantly purile site B3ta, who did something similar about 10 years ago.

    The billboard I think is misguided, although again they’re playing the controversy and free PR, but I really don’t see it as transphobic. Its a gimmick with a low success rate (getting it wrong 10% of the time isnt good and I doubt it is even that good). It is far more likely to misidentify someone who is cis-gendered rather than trans-gendered and as far as Im aware it is not making a great announcement of the person’s gender to the street.

    All of the above from a white cis-male

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