Not one to follow reality TV or tabloid gossip, I did happen upon the E! channel’s new series, “I Am Cait,” in which Caitlyn Jenner leads viewers through the early stages of her recent gender transition. I only watched the first 20 minutes of the show, but what I found most interesting was not in the show at all, but an ad for Airbnb, the community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book accommodations around the world, which aired twice while I watched.
The ad, which shows a small child tottering towards a glass door, is titled “Is Mankind,” and puts forward the idea that human kindness includes letting others into your home to share your experience. The ad features the voice of Angela Bassett, who asks whether humans are truly good and persuades us to share our dreams by allowing others to sleep in our beds. The ad, which first aired at the ESPY Awards, where Jenner received the ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Award, ends with the words “Mankind,” “Womankind,” “Transkind.”
I found the ad to be both spiritual and moving, yet I know the reality is it will undoubtedly suffer a backlash from people who have difficulty accepting transgenderism, or other forms of sexual identity. Which brings me to the question, should your brand strive to be inclusive of everyone in its content or is it best to steer clear of controversy?
This is both a personal and relative issue. While taking a stand on a divisive issue can be brave, sometimes it may seem irrelevant. Does the dry cleaner down the street really need to go out of its way to create inclusive content? Probably not. But when brands have an international presence, oftentimes how they are perceived matters.
In the case of Airbnb, in which people rent out their homes to strangers, tolerance may be a virtue and even a benefit. By celebrating diversity, the brand is making it known that among their listers, there are all kinds of people who offer all kinds of possibilities when it comes to providing accommodations to others.
With the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, many companies, such as Coca-Cola, Visa, Kellogg’s and Starbucks, among others, chose to celebrate the decision by featuring rainbow colored advertising or LGTB-supportive content. This can be viewed as a bold move or simply a sign of the times. For some brands, it’s not a risk at all. If you have been drinking Coke your whole life, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll suddenly boycott the brand because they support equal rights.
In the end, choosing to be inclusive or not comes down to knowing your audience, and whether or not you want to rock the boat. In the case of companies, like Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, which have decided to openly oppose certain issues like same-sex marriage and insurance coverage of contraception, the backlash may not have had long-lasting economic effects, but the negative press has left many with the perception these are not tolerant brands, a legacy that may be hard to shake.
Fundamentally, it’s a matter of projecting a positive image. As your mother told you, if you have nothing nice to say, it’s best to not say anything at all. For most multinational brands, it’s important that they be perceived as inclusive because as trendsetters, it pays to be ahead of the game in every sense, as well as to heed the words of John F. Kennedy, “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”
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Mark A. Lugris originally wanted to be a photographer and was even accepted into UConn’s Fine Arts program, but after realizing that writing was where his heart lay, he packed up his Pentax and opted to major in English and Creative Writing. A life-long pop culture junkie, Mark is quick to quote everything from “Seinfeld” to “The Sopranos.” He also has a fascination with mid-century design, which he explores in his blog. After newspaper stints in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Mark headed overseas, where he lived in Spain and Switzerland for 14 years. Honing his writing skills at PopGuide, a travel and lifestyle magazine in English and German he founded, and as a PR/Communications Manager at Swarovski, Mark returned stateside after realizing he could no longer live without New Haven-style pizza. Follow him @Mark_Lugris