Transphobia is personified in a recent fear-mongering PSA by the Campaign for Houston (CFH). CFH is a conservative organization in Texas that is opposed to the passing of an ordinance that would protect citizens from discrimination. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) protects a broad range of characteristics including sexuality, race, pregnancy, and gender identity. Naturally, successfully passing HERO is a challenge in Texas, the same ultra-conservative state that is currently trying to destroy women's liberty by eliminating access to reproductive healthcare.
HERO is on the ballot as Proposition 1. Despite its vast protections, public perception is centered on one anxiety-inducing aspect of the law. It has been dubbed the Bathroom Ordinance, because HERO would allow transgender men and women to use public restrooms without being criminalized or harassed by bigots. The CFH ad suggests that allowing transgender women to use the bathroom will encourage child molesters and rapists to enter women's restrooms under the guise of drag.
"The immediate thing that pops out at me is what an objectively terrible ad it is." Robert Davis is a Communications Specialist at a leading New York City ad agency. "Cheesy graphics, logically inconsistent visual storytelling--why is this trans-impersonating child predator wearing men's clothes?!" But, Davis says, none of this is surprising.
"There's this fascinating, long running dichotomy between liberal and conservative politics where, because younger and/or more creative people tend to be liberal, the liberals tend to produce higher quality media," Davis explains. "Drake and Lena Dunham will stump for a Democrat, but Republicans are lucky to get a Ted Nugent." Liberal advertising agencies are more likely to contribute their well developed, cutting edge skillset to Democratic campaigns. But Davis says that Republicans, on the other hand, "get stuck making crudely obvious ads like this one, which by virtue of their crudeness (and their vile political policies) make them even more offensive than they could be if handled by a more sophisticated ad agency."
The history of advertising is deeply, deeply intertwined with the history of political propaganda.
Whether political or commercial by nature, all ads are designed to alter public opinion. "The history of advertising is deeply, deeply intertwined with the history of political propaganda," Davis adds. Edward Bernays, the godfather of American advertising, is perhaps the greatest champion of politicizing a commercial product. Bernays famously sold the idea of cigarette smoking to women in the early 20th century by marketing the product as "torches of freedom" to suffragettes.
Davis affirms that the CFH ad is designed to motivate the public with fear. But most advertisments aim to win their audience with positivity. He says that "positivity is key" in the popular logic of advertising professionals. Typically, an organization attempts to win your heart by convincing you that you'll miss out on something great if you don't buy in. "[Companies] have a vested interest in eliciting positive feelings surrounding their brand," Davis says. "Which means functioning on a logic of 'You/your life will be so much better with our product' as opposed to 'Your life will be so much worse without our product.' [The CFH] ad uses the latter—which is the sort of logic you'll only really find in terrible infomercials and low budget political advertising."
The Campaign for Houston is selling an idea that appeals to archaic, prejudiced beliefs about gender identity. In their ad, an aggressive disgust toward gender variance relates trans people to sexual predators. By couching archaic prejudice in a bid to protect kids, CFH distributes misinformation and promotes ignorance for the American public. Slate highlighted the fact that their campaign's selling point has already been disproved. "This myth, we should repeat ad nauseum, has been proved false—there are no known cases of a man going through the elaborate process of pretending to be trans in order to assault women in the restroom."
Ads have absolutely been used as a weapon against other minority/oppressed populations.
It isn't surprising to see the media execute bigotry. Davis explains that, "Ads have absolutely been used as a weapon against other minority/oppressed populations. The D.A.R.E. anti-drug campaign of the late 80s/early 90s was the smiling public face of a vicious drug war waged primarily against black, urban, poor populations. There's a whole body of literature on how advertising has been used, since its inception, to reinforce rigid gender roles and unrealistic body standards for women."
On the other hand, Davis says, advertising can be used to "champion legitimately noble aims. Everything from the Ice Bucket Challenge to the Civil Rights Movement has leveraged the techniques of advertising to bring national or global attention to a worthy cause."
As the Transgender Civil Rights Movement advances, blatant bigotry against gender variance becomes increasingly absurd. It isn't surprising to see conservatives kickback against the legal progress being made for minority demographics. As Robert Davis says, their message is decreasingly relevant, the stale remnant of an older time and place. For Davis, it all comes back to an industry's leaders, those cultural hotspots where politics and practice advance.
"I think you'd be hard pressed to find a New York City advertising agency that would put together a shitty commercial like this one."