Flora margarine ad accused of being homophobicOne of Flora’s South African-produced ads have gotten the local and international gay community riled up – and with good reason; but looking beyond knee-jerk reactions and shouts of “homophobia!” what’s the real issue? asks Quinton Bronkhorst.

The ad in question depicts a porcelain heart on a soft-pink background, with a “word bullet” heading towards it saying “uuh dad, I’m gay”.

A lot of commentators on the net have already outlined the obvious points of contention: namely somehow pushing the idea that hearing your child tell you that he or she is gay is heart-shattering.

The concept itself isn’t hateful – in fact the over-reaching concept is actually very clever – but this ad, in particular, does come from point of misunderstanding and insensitivity and, dare I say, ignorance.

The ad perpetuates a stigma attached to being gay – an idea that coming out is a source of pain and hurt.

Imagine being a gay child, slammed with a societal perception that, by being yourself, you are causing pain to others.

Many arguments I’ve read that counter the outcry say, “but this is reality. This is how parents react”.

It’s true. This is the reality for many parents who face their child’s admission for the first time.

But you know, reality extends far beyond heteronormative perceptions – in fact, some parents may not react in this way at all – and this is where the ad’s cleverness moves to darker territory.

Who is hurting who?

The advert’s story is entirely being told from a heterosexual person’s perspective, playing off of a stereotype that being gay is shocking, or “heart breaking”.

It’s a gay child causing harm to the parent’s heart – and not the parent’s subsequent sadness, potential rejection or hateful words aiming at the gay child’s heart.

It focuses entirely on the “reality” of a parent whose world is about to be changed by their child’s words – and completely ignores the multitude of realities far more dramatic, painful and heart-wrenching experienced by the child, and indeed a multitude of other gay children.

Other realities we face deal with issues of race. If the imagery had depicted a white heart with a black “word bullet” saying – “Dad, meet my boyfriend Thabo”, would the ad have been any less controversial?

Definitely not. In fact, it would have been even more so.

The fact that the “reality” of a white parent being shocked/distraught by their daughter bringing home a black boyfriend is what we have to deal with in South Africa, doesn’t make it a good idea to play off of in advertising.

If the word bullet had read “Sir, you have HIV” – again, another “reality”, but also one that, in the context of the ad concept, would push and perpetuate the stigma.

Surely there are far better ways of directing this message, without having to tread on the land of stereotypes, stigmas and tropes?

Looking forward

Lowe and Partners are not a stupid agency. But they have been careless – and in my opinion, in this specific case, lazy.

But the gay community’s reaction has also been far from level-headed; and so there’s no surprise that Unilever and Lowe and Partners have gone to ground on the issue after a rushed apology.

The ad was clumsy and ignorant, but not directly homophobic.

We should be cautious not to be too quick to jump on the “homophobic” bandwagon, lest we diminish the meaning of the word where it is truly applicable.

MD of Lowe and Partners in Cape Town – the agency behind the controversial “black face” Cape Town Fish Market ads – Aiden Connolly has defended the ad agency’s approach to marketing, saying “We will never operate out of fear and will always push the boundaries to make great work”.

“Thought provoking, uncomfortable, challenging, funny and beautiful,” he said on Twitter. “Are we still happy as an industry to make work that delivers these?”

In many ways, what Connolly says is true. I would rather see companies try new things than always play it safe. And let’s be honest – we’re all talking now. It’s provided an opportunity to talk about the issue.

But is this ad pushing boundaries and feeding discourse – or was it simply falling back on entrenched hetero-centric perceptions? The respective companies’ reaction to the backlash speaks more to this.

To Lowe and Unilever: coming from a place of sincerity, pulling the ad and saying sorry is enough for me.

But a hollow “we’re sorry you got offended” doesn’t quite cut it. It shows that you don’t understand the issue, and are rather just trying to dodge the hate.

Flip your view. Stand in our shoes, and try to see the bigger picture.

In a world where we’re trying to break down stigmas and stereotypes and entrenched perceptions, a simple change of heart when approaching ads – a consideration, a view – will not only serve a greater good, but will also force you try and be more creative.

To the gay community: keep being vocal. As much as society will hate us, and say we’re “overreacting” and “need to take a joke” – the only way we will change the world is to keep raising the roof.

But let’s not burn the house down in the process.

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