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India Decriminalised Homosexuality; What Does it Mean for the Advertising Industry?

London, UK
Section 377 was revoked in September, to much celebration within agencies, but in a large, divided country challenges remain, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
This September, the Indian government ruled to decriminalise homosexual sex, revoking Section 377 of the country’s constitution. It’s a ruling that has largely been embraced by the advertising industry, says Bobby Pawar, CCO and managing director at Publicis India.

“You will find with more liberal people, it’s not only accepted it’s welcome. The idea that everybody has the right to love and feel loved is embraced by everyone in the industry,” he says.

The impact of the ruling will be slow to emerge. It’s a law that is vague and archaic in language, criminalising so-called sex acts that are ‘against the order of nature’. Fewer than 200 people have been prosecuted under the law in 150 years - but thousands have been arrested. And, of course, a change in law doesn’t mean an automatic change in culture – but from an advertising and marketing perspective, it brings the topic out into the open.

Russell Barrett, CCO and managing partner at BBH India, says the advertising industry has a big role to play in shaping culture and attitudes around sexual orientation. “The 377 verdict is a win for the idea of inclusion. It's now the job of the world of content and entertainment (in which the best advertising and marketing also exists) to embrace that idea of inclusion and promote it in the most authentic way possible. The aim should be to connect a brand this idea of inclusion and to tell compelling stories that demonstrate just how alike we all are.”

In 2012, the Ministry of Health reported that there were 2.5 million gay people in the country, although the number only represents those who have disclosed the fact to the government and, in a country where there are still strong social taboos against homosexuality, the number is likely much higher.  So, there’s a sizeable untapped and, as yet, unaddressed market out there for brands to engage with.

But in a country of 1.3 billion people there are always going to be complications. Although the sentiment from agencies seems to be largely positive and supportive, those with an eye on the wider market are mindful of the fact that the progressive ideas in metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai are not universal. 

“There is an emerging India, that has more liberal and modern points of view and there is a nostalgic India that, in a sense, holds on to its traditional roots. And in a sense those traditions also hold prejudice,” says Bobby Pawar. “These points of view become hardened in the face of exposure to new ideas and different cultures. While there is let’s say in social media and the newspapers and all of that there is a celebration of the fact, there is also some opposition to it in the more hardened factions in society.”

According to one producer who works in content and with experience of the film and TV industry, who wished to remain anonymous, the fear of alienating large rural audiences means that there are many high profile Bollywood stars who are gay but neither out nor supporting LGBT issues publicly. He also revealed the challenges of being an openly gay man with family outside of the media bubble. However, with less of a public ‘face’ he suspects 

The need to keep identity secret, particularly in smaller cities and villages, has led communities online and onto social media platforms where they can connect. And perhaps digital media holds the key for brands and creators looking to engage with LGBTQ+ consumers, and also to enter into a dialogue with more entrenched viewpoints.

“Technology has, through the ages, always been transformative in our development and never more so than today,” says Russell Barrett, “Rural audiences are consuming varied content at a breakneck pace. Sure, there's a huge distance to cover still, but putting it out there is surely the first step.” 

But while the debate is framed as one between ‘modern’ India and ‘traditional’ India, the truth is somewhat less straightforward. Section 377 is a vestige of British colonial rule, introduced in 1864. Same sex relationships and sexual practices have been depicted in ancient religious texts and on the walls of temples, like Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh. What’s more, while gender identity and sexuality should not be conflated, India has long identified a third gender, the Hirja. 

“I think it’s the Brits who made it [homosexuality] illegal. As long as it was ambiguous it was ok,” reflects Bobby Pawar. “If you see the Kama Sutra, the temple of Kolar, it’s not like India used to be a prudish culture. It was imposed on us over a period of time.” 

Indeed, the international advertising industry will be familiar with marketing content addressing including trans people. 6 Pack Band for Brooke Bond Red Label took a Cannes Glass Grand Prix in 2016 for its project with India’s first transgender pop band. And in 2017 FCB collaborated with The Times of India for the #NoConditionsApply campaign, which sought to include trans women along with single, divorced and widowed women in the Shindoor Khela celebration of married women. But homosexuality has not been quite so embraced in creative output.
When it comes to the advertising industry, the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India of course has an impact on strategy and content being put out by brands – but it also highlights internal culture at agencies. 

Ameya Bahulekar works at digital agency Indigo and took the 377 verdict as an opportunity to come out at work. He came to work the day of the verdict dressed in heels and a glam outfit – to a welcome of pink cupcakes – with colleagues smiling and Singing ‘Happy Pride Day to You’.

Ameya had always felt like the ad industry was an accepting place, though he notes who ad that the industry still needs to get behind pro-LGBTQ HR policies, such as medical coverage for partners, anti-discrimination rules and sensitisation workshops. However the affirmation and support of his colleagues has had a profound impact. 

“I feel my tuning with the world has changed - it's way more authentic now,” says Ameya. “And that means everything. I should have done this sooner. Had I known I'd get such a response, I'd have popped out of the womb with ostrich feathers and high heels decades ago. But I have absolutely no regrets having to wait 27 years to have my first birthday.”
And from Ameya’s point of view, brands very much have role to play in changing more mainstream attitudes – and they’ve been noticeably absent before the Supreme Court Ruling.

“Brands need to lead by example. But first, they need to reflect and figure out how they would like to support the community in a meaningful way (and not just cash in on a trending hashtag). This will only come by listening, and understanding the community. We're not kicked about buying the next pair of rainbow print sneakers, we're kicked about brands that take a stand,” says Ameya.

One brand that has come out in support is BookMyShow, an Indian event-booking site, which used its Children’s Day campaign as an opportunity to talk about intra-familial acceptance. 

“This was a proactive idea that we took to the client. Children's Day was approaching and since we have always tapped into culture when creating work for BookMyShow, the writer Siddharth Shah came up with this idea; of a children's day message aimed at parents. We didn't have to pitch or "sell" this idea at all,” says Russell Barrett at BBH India, which devised the campaign. 

Russell praises director Misha Ghose for the sensitive and authentic approach – and having a genuine connection with the topic is crucial for any brand wanting to enter into the topic.

"I think the most important consideration with brands entering culture is authenticity,” he says. “A brand becomes more vivid, more alive when it has a point of view. Having the confidence to have a point of view and the foresight to accept that not everyone will agree with it can help brands evolve into a real partner for their audience.”  

Ultimately, though India’s Supreme Court has decriminalised homosexuality, there is still a long, slow journey ahead. Brands need to figure out how to embrace the LGBTQ+ audience while bringing less progressive parts of society into the discussion. But brands like BookMyShow are getting involved already – conversations are happening between agencies and their client and perhaps we’ll see more work emerge. It’s still early days, but the industry is optimistic. 

“The bottom line is this: it may take some time but love is going to conquer prejudice,” says Bobby. “That is a given.” 

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