Opinion: Marketing needs to confront Hong Kong’s homophobia issue

As an editor at this magazine, I have as of yet felt no urge to make a soapbox out of my position. I have made clear my desire to further discussion of the issues affecting Hong Kong’s marketing community but have solely relied on the learned opinions of others rather than broadcasting my own take. But following recent events, I feel I have a responsibility in my privilege and a voice that will be heard so cannot in good conscience – as the guiding hand behind an industry publication devoted to marketing – stay silent. So though the following is nothing more than my personal opinion, I hope you will indulge me.

This week two essential elements of Hong Kong’s transport system, the MTR Corporation and the Airport Authority chose to ban an advert for Cathay Pacific from public display, due to a specific visual

The salacious content in question? Two adult men walking hand in hand on a beach.

Out of a medley of globetrotting images from the campaign, this single sweet moment was deemed so abhorrent or unsuitable for consumption that people with the power to do so, removed it.

A public outcry followed and the parties involved floundered. The Airport Authority spouted excuses. The MTR blamed its OOH agency. And that agency, JCDecaux cited nebulous “procedures” as the cause. But bombarded by calls for decency the parties eventually caved and the advert was restored.

Now, these organisations would in all likeliness hope to have this incident wiped from our collective memory so we can all move on. But we must, unfortunately, hold up this incident as symbolic and symptomatic of a larger problem of accepted homophobia within Hong Kong’s media environment. The choices made by the entities – to remove the ad or to not speak out about its removal – reveal a degree of complicity with that system. Though blame or lack thereof can likely be shared in varying degrees, a final result stemmed from a seed of fear that the merest depiction of a human’s right to love is somehow distasteful.

The Airport Authority’s argument was particularly telling. In a statement, it said its intention was to protect travellers hailing from a wide range of cultures or any children who could be disturbed by the ad. But this is a familiar kind of twisted coding. One that attempts to absolve companies of prejudice by blaming outsiders and the innocent while simultaneously signalling that it’s a perfectly acceptable 21st-century stance to find the sight of a same-sex embrace indecent for a child to witness. A message I’m sure the millions of children raised by caring LGBT parents worldwide must appreciate.

Indeed, companies often cite worries that consumers could be angered by ads like Cathay’s that normalise homosexuality, willfully ignoring that – despite millennia of prejudice – being gay is and has in fact always been normal. Vocal outliers who still think otherwise are entitled to their beliefs but we cannot accept these fringe views as justification for censoring our culture. At any point we accept the block of an ad like this without argument, we are collaborating with bigotry. And this city’s marketing community deserves better representative behaviour than this.

Asia as a whole has not had the best history of dealing with LGBT issues but there have been massive leaps forward in most regions. One agency founder told me that ads prominently featuring gay relationships had become so popular in the Philippines so as to become beyond beloved and actually a little cliche. But in Hong Kong there is a haze of denial, with gay relationships rarely if ever given a focus by media and certainly not by major ad campaigns.

And to be perfectly clear, though I am happy to see Cathay have greater representation let’s not go overboard patting backs and handing out medals. It was a ridiculously tame handhold photo as one part of a giant campaign, It wasn’t earthshattering in defiance. But it doesn’t need to be. I’m rather cynical by nature about brands jumping onto causes and frankly, brands like Cathay are only realising something pretty obvious; gay people also like to buy things. In strictly mercenary terms, LGBT people are consumers and they should be represented not just because its the right thing to do ethically but because its the smart thing to do fiscally. If one brand doesn’t, then why follow suit when you can reap the benefits?

I mean, that’s why Hong Kong fought to win the bid for the 2022 Gay Games, isn’t it? Because it will be a boost for the economy and help retain some of the city’s shine as a modern, global city? Well, it becomes exceedingly difficult to argue that we as a city deserve to hold it when even the airport that will welcome the athletes and the metro system that will shepherd them around, can’t make sure that ads representing their identity aren’t wiped for making a tiny subsection of people uncomfortable.

There are hardworking gay, bi, and trans people at every level of this industry, who were forced to be reminded on Monday that there is a portion of the wider community that would rather they were not shown to exist. That simply will not do. That does not reflect the city I was born in and love and it is up to every single one of us to do better. We should be incorporating diversity in our ads not to score points and win awards, nor should we feel like it has to be forced into every single frame, but we must acknowledge these people do exist and deserve to have their faces shown. We have the power to make that happen.

I can’t tell you what to do. Maybe when preparing your next pitch, ask if that character necessarily needs to be a boy or girl. Maybe when you hold your next event, reserve a part of the conversation at it for these issues. It’s up to you. I’m just a mag running muppet, you’re the experts. But whatever happens, I petition you to be vigilant, because if we are not and allow one of these slipups to happen, we are providing an excusable precedent for the next campaign and all others that follow.

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