OPINION: The same-sex kiss provoked controversy, but should the Cadbury ad have been more diverse?

by Sarah Shilling | UNLIMITED
Thursday, 4 March 2021 15:45 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A gay couple hold hands during the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade in Tokyo April 26, 2015. Thousands of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders (LGBT) and their supporters participated in the parade on Sunday to celebrate LGBT lifestyle and denounce prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The controversial advert showing two gay men kissing has got people talking - but was it tokenistic?

Sarah Shilling is the chief marketing officer of UNLIMITED, a full-service marketing and communications agency

Anyone remember the first lesbian kiss to be aired before 9 pm on British TV in a soap called Brookside? No? Not surprised, as it was in 1994, a whopping 27 years ago. And if we go even further back, the first gay kiss on the British soap, EastEnders was aired back in 1989. 

At the time they caused nothing but a torrent of complaints and a sea of frowning faces up and down the country because how could you show such “despicable behaviour” and insert it into popular culture. The media ridiculed both attempts at pushing the dial.

But there’s an argument to be made that in producing something that for many will be seen as progressive, it may provide a source of discomfort for others. Soaps have been prolific in telling the stories of marginalised communities in a way that many other areas of the media world are unable to penetrate with the same success.

The long road to redemption 

While both are milestones for the LGBT+ community, it also serves as a humble reminder as to just how far we’ve come. Or does it? The recent success of the Channel 4 drama, 'It’s a Sin' has been praised for its accurate and realistic depiction of a group of friends affected by the AIDS pandemic in the UK during the 1980s and ‘90s. We’re seeing more and more brands celebrate Pride month loudly and proudly as each year goes by. But, if we fast forward 32 years, a picture of two people of the same sex sharing a piece of chocolate has caused yet again more controversy. 

And so, we face the paradox of whether we’ve really created the inclusive society we’re all led to believe? Or is it fair to ask if this pushback is more about society retaliating at brands using tokenistic visuals that they know will provoke contention, that’s really getting people’s backs up?

Ticking boxes

When brands get involved like this, even if the intention is well-meaning the execution can be poorly judged. Have Cadbury actually shot themselves in the foot here by choosing to create something that will clearly stir up controversy? The petition to remove the advert criticises the company for exactly that, adding that “if the couple in question were heterosexual, the advertisement would likely be prohibited, given the sexually explicit and graphic nature of the kiss”.

So, is it fair to ask that, by not representing a more diverse audience in the ad, is it a case of them only signposting to one intersection in society? 

Who wins?

While the pushback is engrained in homophobic undertones, it’s worth thinking about the brand gain overriding the credibility of the action. At the end of the day, this was about Cadbury wanting to get attention as it’s their 50th birthday and they felt the best way to do this is to refer to something topical and therefore relevant. But is it relevant? 

Only truly authentic ads and storytelling will stand the test of time. Performance-driven options that overtly self-serve a brand’s ego and revenue drive, will be called out as they no longer hit the mark. 

If they were being genuinely inclusive, why didn’t they include 50 visuals or “sharing moments” (it’s their 50th birthday, after all) that better represent a truly diverse audience?

Better still, why not pop a nod to age diversity and have a 60-year-old man sharing a kiss with a man in his 20s? Or have I now pushed this too far? The very fact I am writing out these scenarios means Cadbury have done the job in creating talkability about their brand and their “Golden Goobilee”.

Would I buy one because of this? Probably not. But that’s more because, despite them being on every shelf in the run up to Easter, I’m more a Lindt person myself. Happy Birthday Crème Egg.

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