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An advertisement by Starbucks India hopes to turn one of the brand’s most recognisable gestures – writing a customer’s name on a cup – into a powerful message about inclusivity.
The two-minute ad, which went viral this week, shows a transgender woman meeting with her estranged family over coffee. The meeting is tense at first – the mother has already pleaded to the father, “Don’t get angry this time, please.”
As the daughter tries to reconcile with her father, he solemnly stands up – as if to walk away. But it turns out he is just ordering coffees for everyone – and as the barista calls out the daughter’s new name, Arpita, she realises this is his way of showing he has accepted her identity.
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The ad, starring prominent transgender model Siya Malasi and featuring the hashtag #ItStartsWithYourName, was viewed more than 12 million times on Twitter and Facebook. It has divided public opinion and highlighted the complexity of gender and social acceptance in the world’s largest democracy.
Several Indians demanded a boycott of Starbucks, with one accusing Starbucks of “imposing western culture in India” and another saying he would “never again” use the company. However, the advertisement also sparked a strong response from supporters, with some thanking Starbucks for their “good work.” One wrote: “This is an incredible ad so let’s hope that the LGBTQ+ community finds more such allies”.
While the backlash mirrors similar controversies in other countries – including the United States, where beer brand Bud Light faced a boycott over a can of beer featuring a transgender actress – India has a long history with transgender rights. Even as some Indians derided the Starbucks India advertisement as “woke” or “preaching” from a Western corporation, others argued that the outrage was in fact a sign that the culture wars commonly seen in Western societies were being “imported” into India.
“The very idea of trans inclusion isn’t something radical within the cultural context” of India, said Anish Gawande, founder of advocacy group Pink List India. Instead, the issue seems to be “becoming embroiled in a sort of cultural war that has seeped in from the US and from the transphobic rhetoric from the UK into India”.
Across much of South Asia and Southeast Asia, the language of gender is more fluid than it is in the West, and hijras, as the transgender Indian community is sometimes known, have been a part of the country’s society and culture since ancient times.
They are highly visible in some aspects of Indian life – often seen at weddings where some consider it auspicious to give them money – even as activists say the community faces discrimination, limited job opportunities and inadequate protection of their rights.
The country has taken steps to recognise and protect transgender people – creating a “third gender” status for transgender individuals in 2014, passing a law prohibiting discrimination and criminalising physical abuse against the transgender community in 2019 – though many trans activists criticised the law as insufficient and regressive.
Historically, “India is a county where people have coexisted” reasonably well with the transgender community, Gawande said, though he added that increased polarisation – which he partly blamed on Western culture wars – had made life more difficult for transgender people in recent years. “The warning bells have started ringing.”
Of course, advertising choices are also informed by financial decisions, as companies weigh the costs and benefits of engaging in social issues.
In recent years, some brands in India have sought to position themselves as more inclusive – but faced anger from conservative quarters, where there is a movement to boycott companies with ads they disagree with.
Advertisements about interfaith issues have become particularly risky, as relations between India’s Hindu majority and minority Muslims have come increasingly under strain since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government assumed power in 2014.
In 2020, Indian jewellery brand Tanishq produced an advertisement about interfaith marriage – but pulled it just days later, after a flood of angry calls from Hindu nationalists demanding people boycott the firm. A year earlier, another ad for detergent from SurfExcel aiming to present religious unity also elicited a boycott.
By contrast, a 2021 advertisement by jewellery brand Bhima starring a transgender model gained mostly positive responses at the time.
India’s Supreme Court is hearing a hotly contested case about same-sex marriage, which appears to have brought about wider discussion of LGBT issues.
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Starbucks has been present in India for more than a decade since opening its first store in Mumbai in 2012. It operates a joint venture partnership with Indian conglomerate Tata and has more than 300 stores dotted across 36 cities.
“Our campaign in India, #ItStartsWithYourName, shows how Tata Starbucks is committed to making people of all backgrounds and identities feel welcome,” and “show up as their authentic selves every day,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post in response to the backlash.
“We will continue to use our voice to advocate for greater understanding on the importance of inclusion and diversity across the communities we serve around the world.”
Karthik Srinivasan, a communications strategy consultant based in Bangalore, said in an interview that it wasn’t necessary for brands to have social messages to be successful but added that Starbucks had been “consistent” with its messaging on LGBT rights, running similar campaigns in Britain and Brazil.
Starbucks India likely did not intend for the advertisement to cause so much controversy, he said, adding: “The backlash is really unfortunate considering it merely shows people being inclusive, considerate and accepting of differences”.
For Zayan, a transgender man based in Delhi, the ad has “some merit” but was “a little tokenistic,” targeting “people who have a lot of privilege” while many Indians would be unlikely to afford Starbucks.
The ad might help encourage people in India to become better allies to trans communities, he said, but also noted that many “corporates become hyperactive around the month of June” – when India marks Pride month – while overlooking LGBT issues “the other 11 months of the year”.
The Washington Post’s Karishma Mehrotra and Niha Masih contributed to this report.