LGBT-Inclusive Messages Are Making Their Way Into Indian Ads

A Few Brands Are Trying to Spark Conversation, Acceptance

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A Hindustan Unilever tea brand helped launch a musical act featuring transgender singers.
A Hindustan Unilever tea brand helped launch a musical act featuring transgender singers. Credit: Hum Hain Happy - 6 Pack Band

An Indian startup just released an online ad featuring a lesbian woman hoping to win her father's approval. Clothing brand Red Lotus cast transgender models in a fashion shoot to showcase a sari collection, and a Hindustan Unilever tea brand helped launch a transgender musical act.

A few Indian advertisers have started putting out online ads and content with LGBT themes, hoping to inspire discussion and build acceptance in a country where talking about the issues can still be taboo.

Koninika Roy, advocacy manager of Mumbai-based LGBT rights group Humsafar Trust, said the organization was pleased. "Before now, LGBT inclusion was never at the forefront of ad-makers, and representation of the community was mainly comical," Ms. Roy said. She added that the "recent turn towards showcasing LGBT characters and persons in the ads and talking about their everyday struggles is a very important step towards acceptance. "

India reinstated a ban on gay sex in 2013; the Supreme Court said this year that it would review that law. While Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have raised awareness of trans issues globally, India and other south Asian countries have had a transgender community since antiquity; they're often referred to locally as hijra. India's Supreme Court recognized a third gender in 2014, but the community remains marginalized and discriminated against.


Clothing brand Red Lotus last month dedicated a collection of saris to the transgender community and named it the Mazhavil (Rainbow) Collection. Several transgender models posed for a photo shoot and a video. The brand's founder, Sharmila Nair, was inspired by a policy that went into effect last year in Kerala, the southern state where she is based, to try to protect the community from discrimination. She's planning another similar campaign in the coming weeks.

"We want to know what our audiences feel about the initiative and the brand," Ms. Nair said. "Whether they liked it or not? Whether it was impactful or not?"

A scene from Indian startup UrbanClap's new online video
A scene from Indian startup UrbanClap's new online video Credit: UrbanClap

Asked about challenges so far, Ms. Nair said that "working on the idea in Kerala was a challenge. The mentality of people there is not very broad, so finding a place for the outdoor shoot was a task."

India has had a few ads with LGBT characters or themes in the past. Hijras starred in a popular 2014 online public service campaign by Ogilvy & Mather Mumbai to convince Indians to wear seat belts.

Ogilvy, among the most prominent agencies in India, started another conversation last year when its Bangalore office did an online video for clothing brand Anouk that showed a lesbian couple getting ready for an important moment -- meeting the parents.

Another online ad featuring a lesbian couple was released last week. Mobile services startup UrbanClap, working with local startup agency Ufaan, told the story of a young woman posing for an album of photos with her girlfriend to mark their relationship, despite her father's disapproval. The brand is also offering free photo shoots with LGBT couples for the campaign. Photography is one of the services UrbanClap offers; it also connects users to plumbers, beauticians and other professionals.

Brooke Bond Red Label, a leading tea brand from Hindustan Unilever, worked with Y-Films and GroupM's Mindshare Fulcrum to launch what it calls the country's first transgender musical act. The Brooke Bond Red Label 6 Pack Band, as it's called, did a viral cover of Pharrell Williams' hit "Happy." (In the intro to the video, the stars walk past murals advertising the tea.) At the January launch, Brooke Bond Red Label spokesperson Shiva Krishnamurthy said the brand "believes in making the world a more welcoming place by diffusing socially awkward situations. We encourage people to live those little moments that bring us all closer by breaking barriers over a cup of tea."

Ashish Patil, head of Y-Films, said that "we are lot more open and receptive as a society now than we were earlier to this community."

In the advertising community, there's discussion about what the trend means. Chraneeta Mann, co-founder of mobile agency The Mob, says she's "not so sure about whether we should view this spate of online videos as representative of the fact that the Indian society is now 'opening up.'

"I would probably think that these initiatives are more about catching the pulse of the country and a conversation that is currently prevalent and smartly weaving your brand as part of the threadwork somewhere," she said. "One can't deny the fact that the disruptive element of using transgenders in your communication contributes hugely to the virality, but frankly as more and more brands, especially those that do not have a history of being non-conformist, resort to this you run the risk of it becoming a gimmick rather than a statement of belief."

Roohi Gupta is a reporter for Ad Age India. Angela Doland also contributed to this report.

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