In a bold new move, one of the country’s leading news publications, Times of India (TOI), has come out with a colourful classifieds section, which is part of its latest ad campaign Out&Proud. Using this platform, the country’s LGBTQ+ community can now come out on TOI’s yellow pages. One hopes that initiatives such as these, combined with social influencers and celebrities coming out in support of the community, will help India embrace its queer people socially.
Through the ‘TIMES Out & Proud Classifieds’, TOI dedicates a portion of the newspaper’s classifieds page to the LGBTQ+ community. Ads can be placed for free for the first three months of the campaign which launched on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.
What it means for the future of advertising
This move is coming just days after Indian sprinter Dutee Chand came out as bisexual and announced her same-sex relationship to threats of expulsion from her family. It not only suggests a tectonic shift from legal to social acceptance of queer narratives in a conservative society like ours, but also shows how brands are taking the lead in giving more visibility to LGBT stories.
Moreover, when the message comes from a traditional print media giant, it decisively rings in an era of progressive messaging through ads, where the LGBT community is woefully underrepresented even today.
What the campaign is about
The Times of India also released a video explaining the initiative. Conceptualised by ad agency FCB Ulka, the film portrays four different scenarios—a gay man looking for a house, a lesbian opening up to her father, a gay couple announcing an anniversary, and a gay man looking for a partner. All the actors purportedly play themselves, making it a more authentic campaign that resonates more deeply than most.
There are separate campaigns for outdoor and print and possible radio slots in the near future.
Does this mean queer representation enters the mainstream?
Ikea was the first brand to release a TV ad featuring a gay couple in 1994. The backlash was swift and negative which deterred other brands from following in their footsteps outside of niche outlets.
But the recent shifts in public opinion and the legalisation of same-sex marriage have prompted more brands to feature LGBT relationships, families and individuals in their ads across all mediums.
“Whether the landscape is changing or not, the question is ‘does it need to change?’, says Sanjeev Bhargava, director of Brand TOI, in an interview with afaqs!, an advertisement journal based out of New Delhi.
“As a newspaper, it is imperative for us to understand the things society needs to change and we, as a newspaper, need to support a desirable change,” he says.
Acknowledging the risks that go into designing a campaign that goes against the populist grain, Bhargava adds, “The campaign is about acceptance and love and not provocation. We are talking about it in a non-confronting, emotional and engaging manner without asking people to take sides.”
Origins of Out and Proud
He then traces the origin of the campaign to another equally relevant initiative by the TOI. It was during his interactions with the transgender community whil filming for a campaign titled Sindoor Khela, that he realised the huge gap between the Supreme Court’s 2018 verdict repealing Section 377, and the hetero-normative mindset of the masses.
Then he came in correspondence with Swati Bhattacharya, CCO of FCB Ulka who built the campaign around classifieds ads from scratch. She revealed in an interview that one of the actors (in the film) had not come out to her father yet and the campaign served as a vehicle.
Responding to oft-criticised tokenism in advertising, she said, “We’re not using people as props, but getting to know them better. The stories are supposed to help us take a better look at the diversity.”
In terms of content and presentation, TOI’s campaign is reminiscent of alcohol brand Absolut’s ad, celebrating 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK with their Kiss with Pride.
Shot by photographer Sam Bradley, the billboard adverts featured 72 same-sex couples from the 72 countries yet to follow suit—encouraging audiences to engage in the debate of ending bans on homosexuality.
Why LGBT advertising is a match made in heaven
Recent research into the state of advertising reveals a daily exposure of up to 5,000 messages per individual—advertising, today more than ever, holds huge importance when reflecting and indeed progressing the world around us.
Over the last two years big brands like Target, Nike, Clairol, Tiffany, Campbell’s, Lexus, Macy’s, Dorito, Wells Fargo, Nordstrom, Apple, Honey Maid, Starbucks, Tylenol, Ikea, Kodak, Microsoft, DirecTV, Bud Light, Guinness…the list now goes on, have all released LGBT themed ads.
Even though queer representation has infiltrated Indian television and film industries, it has taken time for diversity to govern advertising ethos. But socially emancipated millennials and social media, are probably changing that.
It was 2013 (the brief period when gay sex had been deemed legal), that youth brand Fastrack broke new ground once again when it launched a lesbian-themed advertisement campaign titled “Come Out of the Closet”.
With millennials being the most diverse generation to date, they want to see diversity in the brands they support (which again is double-edged as most brands are guilty of tokenising these issues). Besides there is the increasing purchasing potential of LGBT consumers to be considered; studies show a queer person is more likely to pay for goods and services put out by a gay-friendly brand.
In Bhargava’s own words, “The idea [behind Out and Proud] is to renew our relationship with readers.”
More importantly, such campaigns—portraying LGBT community with a positive image in media—exemplify corporate social responsibility done right. That is chiefly because—despite the legalisation of homosexuality and Taiwan making history on that front – many LGBT individuals can still be fired from their jobs, discriminated against in housing, healthcare and education. LGBT youth still have a much higher rate of suicide than their heterosexual peers.
In India, gay marriages are still illegal, which makes that segment of TOI’s ad where a gay person seeks out a partner through ads, even more pertinent. Eschewing cynical and disingenuous attempts at gay-washing, inclusive ads like this do have the power to diversify the narrative and help brands rectify their image for a brave, new world.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.