Tugging at queer heartstrings: Does it really count as representation if you’re selling something?

The Happy Trail

By Natalie Scoggins

Touching advertisements put me in sort of a double bind. On one hand, I’m about as critical of capitalism and advertising as someone can get, but on the other hand, I’m a huge softy. I understand the tactics of emotional appeals and manipulation. I know that behind every tearjerking commercial is a team of marketers and PR consultants who are trying to find out the best way to sell things to their target audience. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to cry over them in the moment, but it does mean that afterwards I’m going to feel really uncomfortable.

On March 29, Vicks put out a three and a half minute ad featuring a young girl with a transgender mother in India. A few sources like DNA India have criticized it for exploiting trans people for profit (especially in a country where trans people are denied many rights), but most of the reactions have been positive, according to NPR. The “generations of care” slogan and the ad drive home the point that the mother is a mother despite being transgender, which is a true and nice message, but the bottom line is still “buy Vicks.”

The Vicks video reminded me of an older Wells-Fargo ad with a lesbian couple learning sign language to prepare to adopt a young deaf girl — I’m tearing up thinking about it now. To see such progressive representation warms my heart at first, and the ad did face a lot of backlash that Wells-Fargo refused to apologize for, but the bottom line is still “gay people should bank with us.” It’s not much different from the rainbow Oreo ads, or the Target ad with a gay wedding registry. Or from the countless booths and tables at Pride festivals filled with corporate representatives, giving out rainbow swag to advertise themselves.

Now, these ads themselves are pretty innocent. They’re not completely misguided like Kendall Jenner’s already-infamous Pepsi ad, and sometimes these corporations put their money where their mouths are, donating to causes or actively promoting pro-LGBT.

But is that enough? Is this an active attempt to actually represent people who have historically been marginalized and underrepresented or misrepresented? Or is this an attempt to reach into an “untapped” market? A pat on their own back for not being bigoted (in this regard, anyway)? In the case of Wells-Fargo, is it trying to get more gay married couples to bank with them for whatever benefits exist? In the case of Vicks, is the message that trans women can be mothers, or that good mothers should all use Vicks, or both?

In the end, I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ll withhold money from companies that are transparently homophobic or transphobic, but putting a gay or trans person in an ad isn’t going to make me go out and buy whatever they’re selling, at least not consciously. But that’s how advertising works anyway.

Personally, I don’t know whether to lean towards the companies that show people like my friends and myself because money-grabbing representation is better than nothing, or to lean away from them because of tokenization. It’s an impossible game to win as a consumer under capitalism.

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