Earlier this month, the representation of transgenders in mass media became a topic of discussion after Starbucks India posted an ad featuring a transwoman.
The Starbucks ad shows a transwoman meeting her parents at the coffeehouse where her father accepts her transition. While the progressives praise such ads for the message of acceptance and inclusivity in representation, the conservatives began a boycott campaign on social media against Starbucks and accused it of spreading "wokeness" in India and hurting social and religious sentiments.
Regardless of such conservative backlash, brands have continued to make ads over the years that have featured trans persons. Starbucks is just the latest in line of such ads.
Here we explain why representation matters and list other ads over the years featuring trans persons.
Why does trans representation matter?
Lack of representation in policies, popular culture, and mass media leads to a feeling of being invisible among people.
Such a feeling is bound to be more profound for socially marginalised groups like transgenders, particularly amid prevalent transphobia.
A study from the William Institute at UCLA noted that hearing about and seeing images of trans persons reduced transphobia, leading to increased support for trans rights, according to Psychological Today.
Advertisements can lead to social and market changes, according to a study by two University of Portsmouth researchers.
The study found that "advertising has a distinct capacity to influence institutional and market transformation on social equality issues".
"Our theorising reveals the recursive nature of advertising, as we uncover dynamic influences on advertising creative decision-making in a market system...As such, our research identifies that the cultural visibility of advertising has served to magnify trailblazing advertising campaigns that have promoted gender justice ideals, to the extent that this has expedited the rate of change in the market system, and therefore, society," says the study by researchers Karen Middleton and Sarah Turnbull.
The Starbucks ad that triggered conservative outrage
The latest in line of ads to spark the conservative outrage was the Starbucks ad that featured a transwoman.
In the ad, a transwoman named Arpita meets her parents at a Starbucks coffeehouse. The father, who appears to initially have issues in accepting her, goes to the counter to place the order for the three of them. Later, the Starbucks staffer announces "three cold coffees for Arpita" and this brings tears to Arpita's eyes as she realises that her father has finally accepted her.
The message of acceptance of a trans child by her father has been taken by some as against Hindu values.
Your name defines who you are - whether it's Arpit or Arpita. At Starbucks, we love and accept you for who you are. Because being yourself means everything to us. #ItStartsWithYourName. 💚 pic.twitter.com/DKNGhKZ1Hg— Starbucks India (@StarbucksIndia) May 10, 2023
A user with the name STAR Boy, with a blue tick that's up for sale on Twitter, called the ad "pathetic".
"Now they [have] started their woke agenda in India...Pathetic Starbucks ad where they are promoting sex-change surgery. Arpit becomes Arpita by sex-change surgery and Hindu family celebrates it," said this anonymous user in a series of tweets.
Radharamn Das of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) called Starbucks "proponents of demoniac civilization" in a tweet.
"Proponents of demoniac civilization. #BoycottStarbucks otherwise they will destroy your family and Bharat," tweeted Das, a verified user identifying as Vice President and Spokesperson of ISKCON, a Hindu Vaishnavite movement.
Another user called Starbucks "groomers". Users also pointed that it was a Hindu family in the ad, suggesting the ad intentionally harmed Hindu sentiments. Several tweets were outright abusive.
Other ads on trans persons
1. Bhima Jewellery ad
A 2021 ad by Bhima Jewellery featured the transition of a transwoman.
The ad, titled Pure As Love, starts with a bearded person who looks fondly at a piece of jewellery. Seeing their child, the father walks over and holds his child's hand.
The ad then goes on to show the journey, from walking at the sea with anklets, applying lipstick, and wearing earrings to dining with parents after transitioning and getting a head massage from her mother. Towards the end, the parents are seen walking by their trans daughter at her wedding.
"Why aren't people talking about this more? It's a watershed moment in the history of jewellery ads. A brave move. Will it help sell the product, I don't know. But it has dared to go where no one has before," said Dr Anujj Elviis in a comment on YouTube.
2. Ariel India
An Ariel India ad showed the real-life story of Dr VS Priya, Kerala’s first transgender doctor.
Priya lived as a man for 30 years before transitioning and becoming the first trans doctor in Kerala.
"Now, as Kerala’s first transgender doctor, she's a beacon of hope not only for all transgender persons who want to be known for what they do but for everyone who continues to battle the odds and face impossible challenges," says Ariel in a Facebook post of the ad in 2021.
"When we think about a transgender, we feel like think they are cross-dressers or just dancing or more into attention-seeking. We can hardly picture them as a pilot or a doctor. I wanted to change this and live my life on my terms," says Priya in the ad.
The ad shows her journey of transition. She highlights that even family assigns roles as per genders where position of males is better, so changes should start from there.
3. Urban company ad on Woman's Day
Among the earliest ads on transgenders in India, Urban Company in 2017 marked the International Women's Day with an ad on a transwoman's homecoming.
In the beginning of the ad, invitations are being sent to neighbours that mention that they are celebrating their daughter's visit to their home that leaves neighbours confused. The house was decorated and a cake was also put on the table with one-year-candle. Lights were switched off as the daughter came.
Towards the end, it's learnt that their trans daughter has come home after her transition for the first time.
When Vishali enters home, her mother introduces her to everyone gathered. When she bows to touch the feet of her aunt, she takes a step back.
"Daughters don't touch feet. They hug," says the aunt and embraces her niece.
"Wow! It wonderfully blends the Spirit of Women's Day with an apt message - begins at Home. Begins with me," said a person in a comment on YouTube.
4. Ralco ad on transgenders
An ad by tyre company Ralco on Independence Day in 2019 explored the stigma and discrimination transgenders face.
The ad shows a transwoman not allowed to sit at a bus stop and then not allowed to board the bus.
Taxis and auto rickshaws also don't accept her as a passenger.
Towards the end, a bike rider stops and offers her a ride.
"The wheels of change should not just remain on paper. They should ride the streets too," says a voiceover with the hashtag Free The Roads.
5. The Brooke Bond ad
In 2020, the tea brand Brooke Bond Red Label came out with an ad on transgenders. The ad was part of the long-running Swad Apnepan Ka campaign.
In the ad, an elderly woman and a child are in a taxi stuck in traffic in rain when a transwoman knocks on the window.
Annoyed thinking that she would be a begger, the woman rolls down the windowpanes with visible annoyance, but the response moves her.
"No, no, Maa ji. I am not here to ask for anything. I am here to give. I have a tea shop nearby. Since it's raining and everyone is stuck, I thought I would offer tea," says the transwomen and hands glasses of tea to the woman and the taxi driver.
The woman calls over the tea shop-owner and, when she says she would not take the money today, the woman says she is not giving her money.
"Stay happy, always," says the woman in a blessing as the ad concludes.
"Hats off Red Label India. Don't know how many times I've watched this ad. Very beautiful. Has my heart," says a user in a comment on YouTube.