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Marty Davies and Stephanie Matthews share how the advertising industry can stand its ground to better support trans+ people and talent
The UK was once ranked one of the most LGBTQ-friendly nations in Europe but an increase in hate crime and anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment has seen it fall down the list to 17th place. Trans+ people in particular are facing an increased climate of hostility with negative media coverage fueling record-breaking levels of hate crime. YouGov data finds that one in four people have a negative perception of trans+ people, a statistic which is up from 2021. In a year when the UK Prime Minister closed the Conservative party conference with anti-trans rhetoric, more than ever trans+ people need support and representation.
“Things are being leaked to the media to create conversations that distract really from the issues that we all care about like schooling and health. It feels like trans+ people are being used as a distraction,” says Marty Davies (she/they), Joint CEO of Outvertising and Founder at Smarty Pants Consultancy.
According to the community database Dysphorum, from January to the end of September this year, there have been 4,629 articles about trans+ people in the UK news media. A vast majority of these articles have included negative framing. Nearly all of these articles have advertising sitting beside them. The uncomfortable truth is that advertising is inadvertently funding hate.
Outvertising believes that the advertising industry has an opportunity to dismantle this system of hate both through monitoring media buying and through creative campaigns that strive to more accurately represent trans+ people.
Yet the truth is that concerns over cancel culture and a fear of backlash can hold back brands from doing what is right and what is progressive. To encourage brands to tackle this important issue Marty Davies (she/they), Joint CEO of Outvertising and Founder at Smarty Pants Consultancy and Stephanie Matthews (she/her), Inclusion Partner at Creative Equals are set to speak at the Conscious Advertising Network’s Conscious Thinking event. The duo will share how the advertising industry can stand its ground to better support trans+ people and talent.
Earlier this year within their role at Outvertising, Davies helped to gather together 120+ organisations during Pride week. The groups came together from across the industry to sign a pledge to ‘stand their ground in the face of anti-trans backlash against campaigns’.
“Within that as well we managed to get the top 10 media agencies which represent £6.9BN in ad spend to commit to divesting ad spend from disinformation in the media about our community. That's an amazing commitment to have gotten, what we now need to see is follow through,” says Davies.
Ads are helping to fund media that are demonising trans+ people with sensationalised disinformation in exchange for clicks.Marty Davies (she/they), Joint CEO of Outvertising and Founder at Smarty Pants Consultancy
Advertisers have the power to create campaigns and to pick and choose where those campaigns are placed. The correlation between the vast number of anti-trans+ articles in the media and an increase in hate crimes in the UK is no coincidence.
“Advertisers have the power to choose where their ads are placed based on their values and their commercial objectives. We see that as a fundamental exercise of commercial freedom and it's demonstrably true that ads are helping to fund media that are demonising trans+ people with sensationalised disinformation in exchange for clicks,” says Davies. “We need agencies to start to redirect that money and advocate for their advertisers to redirect that money away from those media titles and places that are profiting from sensationalising disinformation,” they add.
Funding hate fuels it further as editors continue to align sensationalist and misinformative content with clicks. The advertising industry has the power to remove that spend and help break the cycle.
Beyond media creatively advertisers can also have a huge impact in representing and reflecting the lives of consumers. Unidays research shows that 61% (6 in 10) of Gen Zs believe brands are better positioned than governments to solve social problems and so advertisers have the opportunity to help shape a better future. “There’s an opportunity here for brands that if it's done authentically… there’s a huge scope for really changing perceptions in the way people perceive marginalised communities,” adds Matthews.
Brands have the power to help change the narrative but in entering into the diversity, equity and inclusion space, authenticity is key. Creative Equals has created a five-point framework to help brands who wish to play in this space or partner with marginalised communities without that effort becoming tokenistic.
There’s an opportunity here for brands that if it's done authentically… there’s a huge scope for really changing perceptions in the way people perceive marginalised communities.Stephanie Matthews (she/her), Inclusion Partner at Creative Equals
The framework's five steps are brand permission, material impact, follow-through, authentic inclusion and leadership alignment. As Matthews explains, the framework encourages brands to ask better questions and be better prepared when launching an inclusive campaign. She explains: “Does your brand have permission to play in this space? Do you have the right values? Do you have material action? Do we support the employees?” Matthews urges brands to consider these issues in the long-term. “It’s a holistic framework rather than one campaign,” she adds.
“If you do it for headlines it is exploiting our community. It’s utilising the attention we are gaining in media and piggybacking off it for brand benefit without supporting our community,” adds Davies.
Earlier this year Bud Light gifted transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney a custom can which she subsequently posted on her social media channels. When the campaign received negative attention Mulvaney was bombarded with anti-trans+ hate and abuse yet in response the brand distanced itself from Mulvaney. The executives involved took a leave of absence.
Through the lens of the Creative Equals framework, one of the many flaws in the campaign is likely a lack of senior buy-in. “We can’t know all the things [in the Creative Equals framework] 100%, a lot of them only know if you are in the business,” says Davies. They continue: “But because of the way it was handled, it seems there wasn’t the right senior buy-in. But the biggest takeaway for me is about the protection of talent.”
Davies continues: “Dylan did talk about the fact that at no point did anybody from that brand contact her to support her when she was experiencing trolling, hate and death threats. There isn't the wellbeing support baked in.”
Does your brand have permission to play in this space? Do you have the right values? Do you have material action? Do we support the employees?Stephanie Matthews (she/her), Inclusion Partner at Creative Equals
On the flip side, both Davies and Matthews praise Nike as a brand for its truly inclusive ethos demonstrated in ongoing work with Dylan Mulvaney. As well as their long-standing partnership with Colin Kaepernick who took the knee during the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite experiencing share price dips and people burning products in protest, the brand stood by its talent and continues to pursue progressive work.
Nike Founder, Phil Knight, has been quoted saying, “You can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something.” His brand is number 21 on Kantar's Most Valuable Global Brand 2023 list and the only sportswear brand in the top 100.
Brands like Nike that show bravery in the face of potential backlash are the ones that can truly advocate for diversity and inclusion. While it will not always result in praise, those brands that are consistent in standing by their values are the ones that can truly be allies to marginalised communities.
“For me, allyship and advocating for a community and working with them is about sitting in an element of that communities’ pain and not run away from that because you didn't want it to be this uncomfortable.” says Davies, “Trans+ people face bigotry and hostility so when you are advocating for us you are undoubtedly going to get some of that directed toward you. You are experiencing what trans+ people face every day.”
You can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something.Phil Knight, Founder, Nike
“The other thing is if you do a campaign, don't pull or avoid doing it to avoid backlash. That erases our community in the media, and we deserve to be seen in the media the same as anybody does,” says Davies.
When creating a campaign with purpose or progress at the heart, backlash in some form is inevitable as not all audiences are going to share in the passion for the message. Yet, rather than be silent for fear of getting things wrong, it's important that brands prepare for backlash.
Creative Equals offer a program called ‘risk and resilience’ where the team partners with marketing teams, brand teams, external PR teams and social teams to prepare them for any potential backlash. The program focuses on assessing risk factors and creating a resilience strategy. It helps brands to consider all the possible outcomes and scenarios and then ensure that all teams have an internal process to follow and teams are aligned on the brand tone and messaging, ensuring clarity between personal and brand belief.
“We find external relations teams do already have this but never really with a DE&I lens. This is all part of being prepared,” explains Matthews.
She points to the example of Sainsbury’s as a brand that braved backlash well when its 2020 Christmas ad received negative attention due to it being centred around a Black family. Rather than staying silent or pulling the ad, the supermarket took the opportunity to stand up against racist abuse and sought the help of the rest of the grocery industry to also take action. The retailer took a sponsored ad break out on channel 4 to reiterate the message that racism isn’t welcome in UK Supermarkets.
For me, allyship and advocating for a community and working with them is about sitting in an element of that communities’ pain and not run away from that because you didn't want it to be this uncomfortable.Marty Davies (she/they), Joint CEO of Outvertising and Founder at Smarty Pants Consultancy
Yet while this kind of response to backlash is important, Davies acknowledges that there is no one-size fits all solution. “Even amongst brands that weather backlash well, it has been an uncomfortable experience for them. There might be inbound calls to customer service teams raising safeguarding risks about women, it causes resources to be drained and the uncomfortable experience makes it difficult for that brand to then step into that again.”
They continue: “If you have a brand that has weathered backlash really well but then chooses not to include queer people, trans+ people within campaigns in the future all that is doing is erasing us from media that we deserve to be seen in.”
Representation matters because when people don’t see themselves in media or advertising the message is they don’t belong, they aren’t valued. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of lived experience on screen. As Davies explains: ”Seeing a part of myself in queer as folk in the 90s was part of me understanding my queer identity and that is what we want to be able to give to people.”
Preparing for backlash as a brand means preparing people internally and looking after talent. While backlash can place drain on resources, a truly inclusive business that operates with its brand values at the heart will ensure that employees are supported. This includes ensuring they have the training, resources and support to also live and breathe those values.
Practical moves that businesses can make to support talent within businesses include offering education, communicating well with employee resource groups throughout entire projects such as an LGBT network. As well as encouraging a culture of pronoun sharing beyond just in emails and investing in mental wellness, DE&I and healthcare for trans+ people who are let down by the NHS. NABS research points to a mental health crisis within the industry that is disproportionately affecting LGBTQIA+ people, now is the time for leaders to step up.
We call it protective hesitancy, where a lot of senior people won't say anything because they are scared they are going to say the wrong thing. That's worse, silence is violence.Stephanie Matthews (she/her), Inclusion Partner at Creative Equals
Davies also stresses the need for better talent protection for those on screen. Mulvaney’s Bud Light campaign saw her bare the brunt of the hate without any support or protection. Davies explains: “There is the opportunity here to strengthen regulation, not just for trans+ people, for any one that is working with a brand, where is that protection? In this environment where there can be a lot of piling on and hostility you can well imagine that could end very badly.” They point to the provisions on reality TV and the protection of Love Island stars as an example of how the advertising industry could keep up.
Difficult situations put leaders in uncomfortable positions but leaders must step up, sit in that discomfort and stand by their values. “We call it protective hesitancy, where a lot of senior people won't say anything because they are scared they are going to say the wrong thing. That's worse, silence is violence,” says Matthews.
People are at the heart of all DE&I campaigns. Campaigns cannot flourish without a focus on people. Only in an inclusive workplace can talent focus their full attention on the work and create the most impactful campaigns. Post execution without this genuine focus on people, a purposeful campaign becomes disingenuous. Putting people first and protecting diverse talent and communities should underpin all creative work, for without that focus on people there is no room for progress.
Hear more from Marty and Stephanie at The Conscious Thinking Live Event 2023 where a host of insightful speakers will take place in talks, panel discussions, workshops, and a live podcast recording. The Conscious Thinking Live Event takes place on Thursday 16 November. To buy tickets please click here.
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