Tham Khai Meng
Ogilvy Influencers, Cannes Lions
The Time Adland Smashed The Glass Ceiling

Today’s adults came of age when homophobia was tolerated – even encouraged – by playground peers. Today, we’re entering a new era of inclusion.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had a number-one hit with their gay-rights anthem Same Love.

Even the often-puritanical US is hurtling towards universal re­cognition of gay marriage.

Glittering (literally) gay-pride events take place in nearly every major world city, and I am proud to say that the ad­vertising industry has been a staunch partner in the move towards the mainstreaming of gay culture.

From the frankly homoerotic ads of the first half of the 20th century to the cross-cultural work of today, advertising has helped our society move its stance on homosexuality from oppression to appropriation and now to acceptance.

Work from Oreo, Coca-Cola, Gap, Absolut and now Tiffany & Co has nor­malised LGBT individuals and families as simply another demographic.

This is happening outside of the US too. To promote the ZenFone, Asus released a heartwarming film about a young gay couple learning how to love. PFLAG China used a hard-hitting video to urge families torn apart by homophobia to reunite for the Chinese New Year.

The ANZ bank in Australia took a lighter approach, sponsoring Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and marking the occasion by turning its ATMs into GAYTMs. Get a glitter-and-disco reward when you deposit your paycheck.

We’re moving towards a time when the fact of one’s sexual identity just doesn’t matter – even in the boardroom. It’s all part of the tapestry of difference that we now live.

A tapestry that has grown more intricate in recent years as society learns to embrace the trans-person community. Conchita Wurst shocked the world when she appeared on – and then won – the Eurovision Song Contest.

Bruce Jenner is transitioning on the world stage and so is episodic television. Orange Is The New Black and Transparent feature main trans-person characters.

We’re moving towards a cross-cultural world, one in which a new, polyglot majority holds sway. We are, at last, intermingled.

But our work is not done.

We in advertising have done a good job of late in crafting a vision of a gender-, colour-, and orientation-blind society.  But recall the words of David Ogilvy: “Advertising reflects the mores of society, but it does not change them.”

And what are we reflecting?

A society that is trying hard to eradicate the appearance of gender and sexual-identity prejudice but which still has a long way to go in rooting out the reality of it.  What about how we ourselves reflect it?  Well, one need only look at the levels of diversity in creative departments worldwide to find the answer to that.

A society that is striving to efface racism in every nation on earth. Tribalism and xenophobia rush in where political systems have failed – and even where they haven’t, as the epidemic of police shooting unarmed black men in the US makes clear.

A society that is striving to adjust to the peculiar tension between digital mass intimacy and the distancing effect of technology. Eighty-three per cent of girls and 79 per cent of boys are bullied, many of them via cyberbullying.

Is our increased tolerance, then, just on the surface?

I don’t think so, but neither do I think the work of inclusion is anywhere near over.

But something remarkable is happening now.

We’ve seen breathtaking work that has taken on gender prejudice, particularly from Pantene, Always and Dove.  We are past the point of patting ourselves on the back and are now facing our unspoken prejudices. Those who have been discriminated against in the past now have the power to force society to face its own ugliness.

Advertising can do more than just reflect the mores of society. With apologies to Mr Ogilvy, we can change them too.

And that’s why I’m so delighted by the debut of the Glass Lion at Cannes this year. The Glass Lion “recognises work that implicitly or ex­plicitly addresses issues of gender inequality or prejudice, through the conscious representation of gender in advertising”.


First Appeared on Campaign.

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