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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietyJuly 11, 2023

Sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Last week, New Zealand’s three largest telcos boldly expressed support for the trans community. Yesterday, two of them walked the statements back after threats of boycott – achieving nothing other than angering both sides.

When Bud Light featured a trans woman, Dylan Mulvaney, in one of its April marketing campaigns, a lot of conservative Americans got mad. They got so mad they threatened to (and ultimately did) boycott the beer company, and bombarded Mulvaney with abusive and threatening messages. There were also millions who applauded the company for being inclusive in its advertising and embracing the reality that trans people also drink beer sometimes. 

Sales dropped dramatically in the aftermath of the campaign, but often when a corporation makes a stand (whether progressive or conservative), any consumer boycott will be countered somewhat by a buycott; those in support of their stance supporting the company even more than usual.

But what Bud Light (or rather, the parent company Anheuser-Busch) failed to do was just stand still. Responding to the complaints about Mulvaney’s partnership with the brand, Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth released a decidedly lukewarm statement that supported neither Mulvaney nor the campaign – which included pride cans with pronouns on them. Instead, he said virtually nothing, and offered a text-based shrug of “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” Anyone who was set to buy a pack of Bud Light to support a company under fire swiftly sat back down.

What began as a literal marketing ploy involving support for the rainbow community resulted instead in the trans subject – and the trans community as a whole – being the target of intense abuse with no support from the company, and a sustained boycott of a huge corporation from conservatives. As bleak as it may sound, it would have been better for everyone involved if Bud Light had simply done nothing.

Here in New Zealand, corporations seem to have learned nothing from the Bud Light debacle.

Last week, filled with a sort of terrifying enthusiasm, corporations around the world flooded to Threads, the new social media platform launched by one billionaire’s company (Mark Zuckerberg and Meta) to contest another billionaire’s platform (Elon Musk and Twitter). The posting in those first days was reminiscent of the first days of Twitter – in other words, back before companies realised tweets last forever. Company accounts posted as if they were individual people with personalities, saying hello to each other and generally being cringe.

At the same time, Shaneel Lal joined. Lal is the current Kiwibank Young New Zealander of the Year and was a driving force in the 2022 ban on conversion therapy. Lal is also incredibly outspoken, often brash, and has been subjected to a staggering amount of vitriol and abuse regarding non-binary and trans issues. On Thursday, Lal posted to Threads:

“Dear Threaders, can we agree that we won’t tolerate TERFs on Threads. They’ve made the lives of trans people living hell on almost all platforms. Let’s not allow their hatred to poison this app too. Requested with love.”

This is not an unusual thing for Lal to post, as they’ve had plenty of bad encounters with trans-exclusionary radical feminists (often called terfs) on Twitter and Facebook. 

What was unusual was who responded. It was Spark.

“Yes PLEASE, wholeheartedly co-signed,” said the largest NZ telco. The post ended with the prayer hands emoji and the trans flag.

Very quickly, the interaction was screenshotted and (ironically) shared on Twitter. Bob McCoskrie, founder of Family First and a man who gave up his marriage celebrant licence after gay marriage was legalised, shared Spark’s response and asked the telco for confirmation of its stance, on behalf of “many families who are currently your customers”. Spark responded:

“Mōrena koutou katoa!  We stand by our response to @shaneellal on Threads. We will continue to support the rights of trans and non-binary people and we’re not interested in discussing this further.“

Dozens of angry McCoskrie supporters responded that they would be taking their business elsewhere, likely to One NZ (formerly Vodafone).

So Lal started a separate thread and asked One NZ if it had any thoughts on the matter of those people joining One NZ out of protest.

One NZ responded.

“We don’t want them either. Not welcome here. We stand with you, @sparknz and anyone else brave enough to call them out.”

Again McCroskie posted the interaction and again people threatened to take their phone and internet bills elsewhere, now 2degrees. Lal started a new thread again, asking 2degrees the same thing.

“At 2degrees we’re all about fighting for fair and that includes supporting diversity in all its forms 🏳️‍🌈🏳️‍⚧️❤️ We are proud to carry the Rainbow Tick, and we strive to make our workplaces and stores safe and inclusive no matter who you are, how you identify or who you love.”

The three biggest telcos in the country, banding together to show support for the trans community and to condemn those who seek to exclude them and their humanity from society. 

Many who supported the telcos’ strong stance made jokes that those threatening to boycott trans allies would be reduced to snail mail by week’s end. It was a rare show of unity from longtime competitors and a strong message to send as a sector. And any threats of boycott were unlikely to be acted upon given those three telcos make up the lion’s share of internet and phone offerings. It was a Spartacus moment for the internet era. But like all viral things, it was short-lived.

After receiving the hundreds of angry responses (surely not unexpected), Spark was suddenly interested in “discussing it further”. Its official Twitter account released a statement on Monday to “provide more clarity on where we stand”. 

The statement began by stating Spark’s belief that the internet “should be an inclusive space for all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other factor”. 

“We recognise there are wide ranging views on how to create safe spaces in both the online and offline world and we will continue to live up to our own values, and our belief in diversity and inclusion, while respecting each person’s right to their own view. 

“We know our original posts did not reflect this well, and that’s something we will learn from.”

There was no specific mention of the trans community or terfs.

Over on their competitor One NZ’s page, a similar backtracking was happening. “We acknowledge there are a wide range of views on the comments we made online on Saturday and wanted to clarify our position,” began a tweet directed at a customer named Andrew. “One New Zealand believes in creating a more awesome Aotearoa. This means fostering a community that is inclusive for everyone and does not discriminate based on any factor. Our comments on social media were intended to support a safe space both on and offline for the LGBTQI+ community and to promote inclusivity for all.”

While One’s response received little attention, Spark’s statement, by Monday night, had received more than 900 responses. In a development that anyone familiar with the words “Bud Light boycott” will have seen coming, the majority of the responses were angry, and this time from both sides. Those offended by Spark’s perceived exclusion of terfs said it was too little, too late. Those who were originally pleased to see a company take a stand thought it was a spineless retraction.

Interestingly, 2degrees largely escaped the wrath of the terfs, though unsurprisingly so. The 2degrees post was late, yes, but it was also general and simply an expression of support for the rainbow community. While I am also of the view that trans-exclusionary radical feminists create unsafe spaces online for a lot of people, I’m surprised that a corporate account for a giant telco would choose to speak against a group of people rather than in support of another, without putting their whole back into it. 

Because Spark in particular is no stranger to those opposed to trans and non-binary developments. Last year, the telco launched Beyond Binary Code, a campaign and tool in partnership with rainbow mental health organisation OutLine that allowed for more gender-inclusive data collection. The campaign featured trans and genderqueer New Zealanders (including Lal) as talent, and received plenty of critical feedback from anti-trans campaigners.

Even viewed through the most cynical lens as a marketing tool, Beyond Binary Code was a stance of support, and one that Spark invested a lot of money and time into and therefore was willing to defend when attacked. It is no secret that Spark is supportive of Aotearoa’s rainbow communities. But in making a statement (unprompted), Spark began something that they weren’t prepared to see through. And One NZ found itself fumbling through the aftermath too. If both were prepared to sit through the yelling that inevitably accompanies any show of trans support, all three companies would have come out the other side largely unscathed. Instead, they panicked.

By essentially saying that it didn’t want terfs’ money, Spark (and One) took a stance. It was a stance that many, many New Zealanders supported but also one that would anger a small but vocal pocket of consumers. Both companies would have known this. But whoever runs their respective social media accounts chose to make that decision in a split second for an easy social media win. Evidently, neither company was willing to follow through on that stance, because taking a stand is the easy part, it’s the standing still that’s hard. 

After five days, we’re back where we were before. All they’ve achieved is stirring up a lot of anti-trans sentiment on New Zealand social media only then to back down on their statements in an attempt to keep the very customers they claimed to have no time for.

In the end, it would have been better if they’d said nothing at all.

Keep going!