Influencer or Comedian in Drag?

This is about media advertising; it’s not a salvo in the culture wars.

There’s been an uproar online about a trans influencer being a spokesperson for Bud Light beer and a Nike sports bra. People are calling for boycotts and calling out the trans-woman influencer as a man mocking women. The apparent intent of the ads is to increase acceptance of trans people and draw younger people to the products, but that seems to have backfired and sparked lots of harsh talk.

After seeing the ads, female athletes have said that the influencer is mocking women in sports. Other people have said that the ads are engaging in ‘womanface’ (akin to ‘blackface’), while Nike has defended their ad and started deleting comments that are critical of it. It’s considered anti-trans to question why a trans non-athlete is promoting a sports bra instead of having a female athlete in the ad. The celebrity influencer has said that “it’s hard to see the light now … after the week I’ve been having.”

The Bud Light ad plays on the idea of female naiveté as the influencer questions what “March Madness” means but knows that it ‘has something to do with sports.’ This is obviously intended as a comedic line because almost everyone knows that March Madness refers to the NCAA Basketball Tournament — both men and women athletes participate and Bud Light is a sponsor. At the very least, many people ask, shouldn’t that endorsement money go to a female athlete?

Only a year ago in 2022, Nike announced a partnership with women athletes to bring equality to sports media. Studies have shown that females make up 40% of all athletes but get less than 10% of media coverage and lag far behind men in endorsement deals. So it seems odd that Nike creates a think tank to promote women athletes then goes and hires a non-athlete trans influencer to sell a sports bra in one of their ad campaigns. Again women wonder, shouldn’t that endorsement money go to a female athlete?

In times past there were comedians who dressed in drag and played with stereotypes of men and women — from Jim Carrey as VERA DE MILO on In Living Color to Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies, as well as Robin Williams and even Bob Hope performing in drag. This allowed the audience to step back from their own expression of gender to look at and laugh at idiosyncrasies and learn to be kinder to all people. Now the laugh must be suppressed for fear that someone making endorsement money might have a bad day or a bad week because they weren’t aware of how their expression of gender would be received.

Of course, this has brought out the haters and agenda creators making baseless claims that the trans influencer and all trans people are mentally ill. Really, it’s about is a lack of self awareness and a failing of media arts education. Everyone is expected to be sensitive to an internet celebrity who appears to be mocking women athletes and crassly stereotyping trans people or they will be labeled a ‘bad’ person with anti-trans views.

What this amounts to might be called ‘advertising malpractice’. There are ad creators who seem to have little sense of media history, and they seem detached from the intended audience. (Ironically, before this happened the Marketing Director for Bud Light said the brand was out of touch.) These advertising execs sit in a room creating campaigns that promote new ideas and internet celebrities without understanding how they might go viral and be received by a wider audience. When there’s a misfire, the response is to lecture people on acceptance of the influencer. Is this a good way to sell a product?

The whole purpose of a media arts and communications education is to become aware of how portrayals of characters or ad spokespersons (or ‘influencers’) will be received. A performer or spokesperson takes steps from smaller stages to larger stages testing and refining their presentation; they also spend hours practicing portrayals in workshops and other learning situations. Internet celebrities typically do little to achieve a wider understanding of media arts; their focus is on building a ‘bubble’ audience that ‘gets’ what they are doing.

Now the more educated people are being replaced by internet celebrities. It’s not only unfair to the person who did the work, but it’s unfair to put an influencer into a position where the backlash can become toxic. The wider audience is expected to play along with the ‘influencer’ who didn’t understand what they were getting themselves into — if they react negatively, they face scolding and shame that they aren’t enlightened and inclusive.

To quiet such uproars, it might be a good for advertisers to use spokespersons who have put in the work and are more self-aware of how they will be received.

Categories: Media-Arts-CultureTags: , , , , , , ,

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