I will explain in just a bit why the ad is such a big deal, but first, I want to provide a little background information.
Unlike in the United States, Avon has found considerable success in the Brazilian market for a variety of reasons. A major one is that Avon makes purchasing easy in multiple ways. The brand offers sales through its representatives, a system that provides jobs for women looking to make supplemental income, and its website, making their products more universally accessible. After all, for some women, visiting places like Sephora or upscale malls can be an anxiety-inducing experience. Sephora branches and malls that sell high end makeup brands are situated in the wealthiest neighborhoods of major Brazilian cities and cater, accordingly, to a wealthy and predominately white clientele, factors that can ultimately alienate consumers who are of color and/or of a middle- or lower- income status. Mall security guards and store staff have a well-documented history of racially profiling people of color in such spaces [note: *each* word in blue is a link to an article about mall-related incidents from recent years]. Avon also occupies a comfortable space as a makeup line that is both high quality and fairly priced. U.S. drugstore brands like Maybelline and Cover Girl, while widely available in Brazil, remain expensive thanks to import taxes. Meanwhile, high end brands like Clinique, Lancome, and MAC prove entirely inaccessible to the grand majority of Brazil’s population. For example, one tube of basic, matte MAC lipstick that costs $17 in the U.S. runs for upwards of R$69.99 in Brazil. Avon, by contrast, sells a similar line of lipsticks for R$21.99.
For people from the United States, this might not seem like a big difference. The real (Brazilian currency), after all, currently stands at almost four reais (R$4) to the dollar, meaning that for dollar or Euro wage earners in Brazil (i.e. foreign nationals who work for large corporations with satellite offices in the country) or for many tourists, the price for such goods in Brazil seems fairly equal to the price at home, if not cheaper. This temporarily opportune moment for foreigners, however, spells crisis for the Brazilian market and obscures how Brazilian citizens experience problems on the ground. To put things further in perspective, according to the IGBE (a national statistics institution), the average monthly salary in large Brazilian cities is around R$1836, with lower income workers earning around R$ 833 per month. While I am no economist, I can safely say that once one accounts for the high rent and food prices customary of major cities, not to mention transportation costs, utilities, and other basic living expenses, shelling out R$69.99 for a tube of lipstick sounds imprudent at best, and financially-prohibitive at worst. Enter Avon to save the day.
With their new ad campaign for their “Pink October” product line in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Avon continues its trend of “disrupting” the status quo in Brazil, only this time, the company is targeting social norms. By featuring Candy Mel, a transwoman of color, as the model and spokesperson for the line, Avon works toward increasing the visibility and humanization of a sector of Brazilian society that faces considerable challenges. Not only do transwomen in Brazil encounter discrimination, which accounts for a lack of formal occupational and educational opportunities and related socio-economic disparities, but they also pay dearly with their lives simply for daring to exist. According to the Grupo Gay da Bahia, an LGBT rights organization in the northeast of Brazil, of 266 LGBT-related homicides reported in 2011, transpeople made up an alarmingly high 36.8% with 98 victims.
Featuring transpeople in mainstream film, tv, and advertising will certainly not resolve the marginalization of transpeople in Brazil, but increased visibility will help initiate the process of chipping away at pervasive stereotypes of transpeople in popular media if/when they appear at all. If the comments on the youtube page for the Avon ad serve as any indication, things are headed in the right direction. The comments are overwhelmingly positive, with many viewers noting that Candy Mel looks beautiful and that the ad is inspiring. Detractors are met with considerable dissent, with many fans of the ad responding in support of Candy Mel, defending Avon’s casting choice, and/or “schooling” the haters with moral appeals for equality and calls for acceptance.
Beyond Candy Mel’s open identification as transgender, she also happens to be a woman of color. Her presence in a beauty product campaign, particularly with her hair styled big and curly, marks yet another turning point for Brazilian advertising. Despite Brazil being home to a significantly large population of people of African descent, with more than half of its 200 million people identifying roughly as “black” or “brown,” those who fit into these categories have seen little representation in the media until recent years. Thanks to the activism of multiple race-based organizations throughout the country, Brazil has slowly begun to feature non-whites as protagonists in tv series, soap operas, and films.
This change has not been without issue. First, many of those roles are steeped in stereotypes, such as the controversial 2014 series Sexo e as Negas, a drama/comedy that was hailed as the black Brazilian version of Sex and the City. The show drew considerable criticism from black Brazilian women activists who alleged that the series peddled in stereotypes dangerously close to longstanding ideas of Afro-descended women, particularly that their worth lies in their supposed sexual voracity. As a result of limited job opportunities and a history of relying on sex work as a way to make ends meet, transwomen in Brazil, particularly those of color, grapple with a similar line of stereotyping that reduces their significance to the sexual realm.
The steadily-increasing visibility of Afro-descendant Brazilians has also been met with notable resentment and racism, some of which manifests along the fault lines of black hair. In July, Brazil’s “first black weather girl” Maria Júlia Coutinho was the victim of racist online harassment. Perpetrators ridiculed Coutinho, calling her names and implying that she only got the job because of affirmative action. But among multiple insults, derogatory comments about Coutinho’s hair, which she wears naturally curly, spurred the most outrage. And while not directly connected, just weeks after reports surfaced of the harassment, several race-based activist groups in São Paulo put on the city’s first march for natural hair pride in response to pervasive negative attitudes toward natural hair [note: please see the comments below for footage of the march and my translation of the audio].
On the one hand, I am inclined to read Avon’s casting of Candy Mel as the face of their October campaign as part of a growing trend in Brazilian media to be more inclusive of all members of its diverse population. Avon’s inclusion of Candy Mel does not feel like an act of tokenism. It bears noting that Candy Mel is already fairly famous in Brazil from performing in Banda Uó and the products she displays in the ad align well with her colorful, kitschy style. She has been open about her gender identity since early on in her music career and, from a quick perusal of interviews and press campaigns, has also long embraced her curls. Avon has a history in Brazil of featuring models of color on its site and in its print and tv ads. And in terms of transgender representation specifically, model Maria Clara Araújo (pictured below, on the left), who also happens to be of color and a fellow curly girl, became the first transwoman to feature in a major ad campaign in Brazil when this year, at the age of 19, she became the face for the“oH! Maria” campaign for Lola Cosmetics.
Though Candy Mel and Maria Clara are the only two transgender people period in Brazilian advertising at the moment, the ads do not mention their gender identity, nor does their inclusion come as part of a larger series on diversity as we see in many U.S.-based ad campaigns that have been making a point to feature interracial and/or same sex couples (i.e. Honey Maid’s “This Is Wholesome” campaign). Avon and Lola Cosmetics portray Candy Mel and Maria Clara as spokespeople and models, plain and simple.
On the other hand, I find it somewhat difficult to declare the ad a big move for Brazil because the trend it reflects tends to be relegated primarily to foreign corporations. Anecdotally speaking, from having watched lots of Brazilian television, I can safely say that almost all of the ads that include men and women of color or aesthetic choices that counter the norm (i.e. curly hair) come from foreign corporations. Coca Cola ads in Brazil regularly feature people of color and even people from lower income backgrounds (see their ads from the World Cup, such as this long ad/video featuring singer Gaby Amarantos). Adidas and TRESemmé regularly feature non-whites in their ads as well, and the latter even features an actress with natural hair in an ad for its restorative product line (below) and has done web campaigns involving natural hair bloggers.
By contrast, print and tv ads for Brazilian companies remain overwhelmingly white. Perhaps with continued “disruption” via multinational corporations that simultaneously seek to reflect the diversity of Brazil’s population while projecting an outside image of Brazil’s diversity onto the nation, Brazilian companies that continue to lose business to outside competitors, albeit an unfortunate side effect of the circulation of capitalism around the globe, will catch on and follow suit. With notable economic growth as of late within communities of color in Brazil thanks to a wide array of federal and state programs geared toward educational and occupational inclusion on the basis of race and class, the Brazilian consumer base is changing and companies must respond to their needs and interests to remain afloat.
Likewise, LGBT advocacy has encouraged some Brazilian lawmakers to consider new ways they can offer support to their transgender constituents. In the city of São Paulo, for example, the mayor created a program that would support transgender individuals who wanted to go back to school. Participants in the program would receive a small stipend, training, and tutoring as they prepared to take the national college entrance exam known as the ENEM. No matter the stage of transition, participants would also qualify to receive hormones free of charge. From a purely economic perspective, as transgender Brazilians gain greater visibility and opportunity, perhaps their consumer habits will begin to make waves in the market as well. In the meantime, some companies like Avon are just ahead of the curve. Here’s hoping that these moves toward a more inclusive Brazil - no matter their source - will continue to expand over time.
Here’s a video of Banda Uó just for fun!
*news of the Avon ad via Geledes