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This Week in Hastags: Starbucks advert supporting trans charity wins over audiences

ByAron Rosenthal

Feb 16, 2020

Starbucks have recently released their #WhatsYourName advert, recipient of the Channel 4 Diversity in Advertising Award.

The advert depicts a transgender boy, who appears to be uncomfortable, as he’s repeatedly referred to as Jemma; his deadname. This ordeal continues until a Starbucks employee asks, for his name, prompting the tentative response: “it’s James”. We momentarily suspend our disbelief as the Barista spells the name correctly and calls out for James to collect his drink.

For those wondering if Starbucks might be overplaying their role with this small gesture of common decency, many took to social media to relate their own shared experience of introducing their chosen name at the coffee chain; and feeling the simple, liberating pleasure of hearing it said aloud.

The Award comes as part of a Channel 4 scheme to improve diversity in advertising, with the incentive of a £1 million airtime prize. Starbucks teamed up for the feature with Mermaids charity, to whom they have pledged £100,000, for funding an expansion of the charities’ helpline. The Mermaids website, which has supported trans and gender-diverse children since 1995, also makes it their mission to “educate and inform wider society on gender identity”.

Starbucks’ focus on misgendering is curious, particularly in light of allegations by former barista, Maddie Wade. Wade claimed that her manager, Dustin Guthrie, would call her “bro” and “dude” around customers, with the knowledge that she was transitioning. When challenged by Wade on this, he allegedly suggested that she “step down”. At trial, the case was dismissed, and Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges explained that “Our request for summary judgement had nothing to do with intentional misgendering but is more about the bar not being met in this case for harassment”.

Nevertheless, the chain makes its position clear on the company website with the caption, “Starbucks welcomes you, whoever you are and whomever you want to be”. With the recent politicisation of transgender rights issues, by  commentators such as Piers Morgan and J.K. Rowling, the advert steers clear of controversy, sending a tolerant message that is hard to criticise.

The advert, which runs alongside a twitter campaign using the hashtag #WhatsYourName, feeds into the wider conversation on transgender depictions in television. One study by GLAAD (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) found that since 2002, 102 television episodes contained transgender characters, of which 54% featured negative representations. Moreover, 61% of dialogue was deemed to contain anti-transgender slurs.

The Starbucks advert not only gives a realistic account of the daily struggles faced by transgender people, but also recognises the tendency to unintentionally cause upset. It succeeds in highlighting the benefits of raising awareness without portraying others as perpetrators.

Image: 4028mdk09 via commons.wikimedia.org