Dylan Mulvaney is the transgender influencer who found herself at the centre of a vicious backlash against “woke advertising” when Bud Light gifted her a can with her face on it. In the weeks leading up to Pride month, a false and damaging narrative developed that booking trans+ talent in ads would lead to reputational and financial ruin – or “go woke, go broke”.
Admittedly, Bud Light did suffer a sales drop in the US after collaborating with Mulvaney, but the reality is more complex. Two weeks after Mulvaney posted, Bud Light owner Anheuser-Busch InBev’s chief executive Brendan Whitworth released a statement that did little to appease the bigots or support trans+ people. Instead, the company sat on the fence. And we learned from Mulvaney herself that Bud Light abandoned her in the face of death threats and abuse. Its attempt to placate only alienated everyone. Their sales are still falling.
Outvertising’s other CEO Lucy McKillop was recently invited on to BBC Radio 4 to discuss “‘Woke’ Capitalism”. In the episode, the associate professor and department head of marketing at Drexel University in Philadelphia remarked that as Americans in particular become more polarised, the middle-ground strategy for brands is no longer effective.
Likewise, our advertising community needs to learn the right lessons from this when advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community. The narrative that this inclusion is bad for business is just not true. There’s a strong and long-established business case for it that Outvertising laid out this past Pride month.
Nike and the transgender influencer
There’s another story I’d like to share. Four days after Mulvaney’s Bud Light post, there was another partnership. This time with Nike. Initially wrapped into the story of a backlash against “woke advertising”, it was eclipsed by the interest around the double boycott Bud Light faced and it was quickly forgotten.
With more than one in 10 (13%) of the Fifa Women’s World Cup players openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans+ and queer – and with the number of questionable bans on intersex and trans+ athletes competing in elite sport continuing to tick upward – Dylan’s partnership with Nike is an example of how to deal with a backlash.
Mulvaney’s Instagram post was a simple carousel of photos wearing workout gear from the Nike Women range. The four images show Mulvaney in yoga poses and relaxing on the deck in her yard. The caption reads: “Home for a moment and leaning into cozy workout wear life with @nikewomen’s newest Zenvy leggings and Alate bra! They’re so comfortable and buttery soft, perfect for workouts and everyday wear! #feelyourall #teamnike #nikepartner.”
It was a perfectly benign post – a trans woman wearing women’s clothing – but Mulvaney’s heightened public profile meant that it became a stick with which to beat both trans+ people and Nike.
The burning of bras
Some people claimed the post as a threat and insult to women – that Mulvaney was somehow taking up space meant for “real women”, or mocking women. This is what transphobia looks like. The term “real women” is a transphobic slur.
For Mulvaney, this came with a side of body-shaming, too. One user was reported to encourage people to burn their Nike bras in protest during a TikTok post where she misgendered Mulvaney, calling her juvenile insults, commented on the size of her breasts and accused Nike of favouring someone “with junk in [her] pants to represent real women”.
But here’s the thing. Nike is just living its brand values. The brand is reflecting its diverse consumer base and appealing to the 1.8 million predominantly young people following Mulvaney on Instagram.
In response, Nike reaffirmed its values: “We welcome comments that contribute to a positive and constructive discussion. Be kind. Be inclusive. Encourage each other. Hate speech, bullying, or other behaviours that are not in the spirit of a diverse and inclusive community will be deleted.”
Soon after, Nike released its “Be True” Pride collection with a strong statement: “No pride, no sport. Sports without the LGBTQIA+ community is incomplete… Nike is on a mission to make sport available to everyone, everywhere.”
Some athletes are trans+. Some wear sports bras because they’re prescribed hormones to feel more aligned with their body. When testosterone is suppressed and oestrogen and progesterone are introduced, a body with a previously male hormone profile will experience elements of a female puberty, including breast growth. So yes, some trans+ people need bras. They buy and wear Nike bras.
The burning of sneakers
Nike experienced similar with Colin Kaepernick in 2018. Kaepernick divided fans when he protested the police killings of unarmed Black men by sitting and later kneeling prior to NFL games during the national anthem.
When Nike featured Kaepernick in a campaign with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”, some people burned their Nike sneakers with the hashtag #JustBurnit. And Nike stood by the campaign.
Nike’s founder Phil Knight later said about the campaign: “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand, as long as enough people love it. And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something.”
Standing by its values hasn’t damaged Nike. The brand is number 21 on Kantar’s Most Valuable Global Brand 2023 list and the only sportswear brand in the top 100.
Bud Light, meanwhile, is confused and isolated. The parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev donated $200,000 to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce after failing to speak up for Mulvaney and trans+ rights. The brand did this while failing to reach out to Mulvaney at any point – even after relentless abuse and death threats.
AB InBev maintained a quiet presence at some Pride events, but didn’t say anything about it on its social channels. The company’s US revenue between April and June dropped 10.5% compared with the year before, attributing the decline “primarily due to the volume decline of Bud Light”.
So what does all this mean for brands and trans+ visibility?
It’s likely that nervousness will mean less trans+ representation in advertising.
I also worry that some in my own community are growing weary of brands including them in advertising. Finn, a 21-year-old model and chef, commented in the Evening Standard that the visibility is “hurting us.”
He said: “I would like trans people to be uplifted by having equal employment, housing, and healthcare opportunities rather than being made more noticeable on the street.”
I understand this, but I believe we need both visibility and meaningful support. Invisibility in media cannot be the solution.
Brands need to recognise that inclusion isn’t surface-level, it has to go deeper. Visibility alone is not enough. Visibility alone is detrimental. Investment in inclusion must run through your organisation and its people.
Nike appears to list plenty that it is are doing here, stating that they’re “building the structures, hiring practices, and culture to empower representation and opportunity at all levels”. It has also invested in community initiatives including the Gender Cool Project, Not A Phase and The Out Foundation.
But no brand has a clean sheet. I’ve experienced exclusion from changing rooms in the NikeTown store in London. The Super 5 League, sponsored by Nike – which promoted itself as a league for women and non-binary people – found itself boycotted by clubs for its transphobic treatment of a player on the Camden Bells team. And Nike has supplied kit for countries with a reputation of terrible human rights records – such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
So let’s learn from Nike’s example on how to stand firmly behind its values. Standing firm against any backlash coordinated by far-right talking heads. And let’s applaud the progress being made below the surface while pointing out the areas that need more work. Let’s look at the brand we are custodians of and have influence over. And let’s ask ourselves, our trans+ employees and consultants what we can do better. And let’s be open to hearing good-hearted critiques.
From January to the end of July this year, there have been 3,951 articles about trans+ people in the UK news media (excluding Pink News) – the majority with negative framing. All with advertising around them. Source: Community database Dysphorum
Marty Davies (they/them) is joint chief executive of Outvertising, the marketing and advertising industry’s LGBTQIA+ advocacy group; and co-founder of Trans+ Adland, a grassroots community group of trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and intersex people across the world of marketing and advertising. They are also the founder of creative strategy consultancy Smarty Pants.