Editor's note: Minutes after publishing this opinion column, the SCMP reported that JCDecaux has in fact reversed course, and the ad in question will be displayed in the MTR system after all. Although this clearly changes the story, we believe the broader points made below still stand.
If your brand wants to get credit for being inclusive and progressive, it's not enough to simply say you're inclusive and progressive. It's certainly not enough to run ads insisting you're inclusive and progressive. And it's not even enough to have inclusive and progressive policies and practices.
You have to actually be an ally of groups that are still fighting—in many places and especially in this region—to be recognised as equal and deserving of respect. And to do that, you have to be ready to speak. To act when a situation calls for it, even if there will be consequences. To encourage or even push, using the power of your ad budget and your cultural influence. To show others how to be as inclusive and progressive as you are. To lead.
I'm talking about yesterday's news that a Cathay Pacific ad showing a same-sex couple was "banned" from appearing in Hong Kong's airport and transit system. Though not an earth-shattering issue by any means, the incident raises some good points.
The controversy appears to be a case of good intentions stymied by antiquated contract verbiage. The good intentions were Cathay Pacific's; the ad appears to be nothing but a sincere attempt to demonstrate an accepting attitude. As with Nike's famous Colin Kaepernick work, it's worth noting that inclusivity also makes good business sense, but that's OK. Cathay Pacific has some goodwill banked in this area, too, thanks to its support of Hong Kong's successful bid to host the Gay Games in 2022.
The antiquated verbiage was apparently in the contracts used by JCDecaux, which operates the ad concession for the MTR Corporation and the Airport Authority. According to a spokesperson, JCDecaux can't accept material that is “immoral" or would "offend the generally accepted standards of public decency or the social or cultural standards of the society”.
There's no point even dignifying that with a debate. If you're the type who thinks two dudes holding hands is "immoral" or violates "public decency", then you're part of a shrinking group of bigots. And if you want to argue that showing innocuous, same-sex affection violates "social or cultural standards" in Hong Kong, because homophobia is strong here, then you're just saying we have to accept things the way they are because that's the way they are. In most enlightened places around the world, the most controversial thing about the ad would be the decision to wear suits on a beach. So let's move on.
The more interesting question, industry-wise, is how Cathay Pacific reacted. In a statement to Campaign Asia-Pacific, the company asserted that diversity and inclusion are "fundamental" to its "core values". Yay. However, Cathay declined to give an opinion on the rejection of the ad or explain what went down between itself and JCDecaux. One hopes there was a knock-down, drag-out fight, but we'll never know. However, Cathay Pacific didn't show the ad in question at its campaign-launch event or share it with the media afterwards, which suggests the brand might have been hesitant about that particular piece of creative from the outset. In any case, it's disappointing that Cathay Pacific hasn't been willing to even express displeasure at how this played out.
The airline could, for example:
- Respectfully criticise JCDecaux (and by extension the MTR and the Airport Authority) for interpreting and enforcing contract language in a way that makes Hong Kong look seriously behind the times.
- Point out that the MTR system is riddled with ads that are far more questionable—such as those that objectify, body-shame and render women in subservient roles.
- Make the argument that it's simply wrong to deny human beings the dignity of openly loving the people they love.
- Invite JCDecaux and the MTR to help Cathay Pacific encourage the people of Hong Kong to accept people who happen to have a different orientation, even if those people engage in practices some people find distasteful (such as walking on beaches in suits).
Even now, Cathay Pacific could issue an ultimatum: accept the ad or we pull the rest of the campaign from all the high-profile, expensive places it's currently running. Of course that would be messy. It might even spawn lawsuits. And it's easy to find reasons to decide that this particular situation doesn't warrant such an action. To acquiesce.
But... Are you all in, or aren't you? Are you a genuine ally with diversity as a core value, or are you a fair-weather pretender?
Looking ahead, it seems advisable for brands that really want to be inclusive and progressive to inspect contractual terms for clauses that might interfere with their efforts. Those same brands also need to talk to potential partners to try to uncover potential issues like this before they get played out in headlines.
But most importantly, brands have to realise going in that supporting inclusion and equality might mean actually standing up for inclusion and equality, even when—scratch that, especially when—it's controversial.
As we've seen with the battle over digital transparency, brands hold all the power in this industry. They can and should wield it to impel change.
Matthew Miller is Campaign Asia-Pacific's managing editor.
Campaign's Women Leading Change
We'll be discussing gender equality and attitudes towards women in media and marketing at our annual Women Leading Change conference in Singapore on 4 June 2019. Register your interest and find out more at www.womenleadingchange.asia.