Filipino authors

What we learned from #PaintTheirHandsBack

Shakira Sison
Advertising boards and media censors may attempt to silence LGBT lives, but we are not going away anytime soon

When the first images of Bench’s defaced EDSA billboard started circulating online, the immediate assumption of many was that the image of the gay couple was vandalized. After Bench released its initial vague statement that the Ad Standards Council (ASC) “thinks holding hands is too gay,” and the council denied ordering the painting over of the ad, it became unclear who did the deed that became the subject of the resulting trending meme #PaintTheirHandsBack.  

A few days too late, Bench has now released its official statement detailing the company’s interaction with the ASC. Bench confirmed the original billboard erected along EDSA already had the hands obscured from the image in compliance with the regulations of the ASC, which rejected some of Bench’s “Love All Kinds of Love” billboard images, citing “traditional Filipino family values” as the reason. This means that at the time Bench put up the ad on EDSA, they had already painted over the men’s hands themselves.

Publicity stunt? 

#PaintTheirHandsBack contribution of artist Kanako Shimura

This has led to accusations that Bench deliberately staged a publicity stunt and intentionally led the public to believe that an act of vandalism or censorship was involved in the painting over of the hands of Vince Uy and his boyfriend Niño Gaddi. Because Rob Cham’s #PaintTheirHandsBack meme went viral (catching even the radar of BuzzfeedUK’s GayStarNews, and major news outlets), people who felt the outrage and participated in their version of advocacy felt like they’d been tricked, and that Bench took advantage of the LGBT community. 

As a member of that community, I personally don’t feel this way against Bench (full disclosure: I have no past, present, or likely future relationship with the company). Publicity stunt or not, Bench has always been a prominent progressive (or progressive-seeming?) brand, even featuring committed LGBT couples in their B/Proud Pride Month Special last year. Regardless of this current controversy, their present EDSA billboards still promote a message of love and equal treatment across genders and sexual orientations.

It would take a hermit to not know that Bench has always pushed the envelope when it comes to their advertising materials, promotions, and fashion shows. It would also take a very naive person to believe that Bench is promoting LGBT messages as a public service.

Not a public service

First, let’s remember that Bench is a corporation, and not an advocacy group or NGO. Its job is to make money, and it does so by advertising and maintaining their brand so that consumers keep purchasing their products.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that their pro-equality message is solely out of the goodness of their hearts. If it were so, then they would have pushed the ASC harder and convinced them that two men holding hands is not against “traditional Filipino family values.” (Instead, they defiantly complied with the council’s outdated homophobic standards in a way they knew would create a stir.) 

In the end, the fact that Bench features gay couples in their advertising materials is only a beneficial by-product of their business strategy. But let’s not forget how important it is for the community for brands like Bench to keep making money off LGBT-positive marketing, if only to show that it is indeed profitable to target progressive consumers as a fashion brand. If a company like Bench is able to profit from these markets, other companies will follow suit.

Brands will soon learn that being a pro-equality brand is not a negative, and promoting LGBT presence is actually a very lucrative move. 

Money always talks

In my previous article, “The Untapped Power of the Pink Peso,” I mentioned that the LGBT community in Asia spends at least $800 billion per year on goods and services. A brand that is able to tap into even a sliver of this group of consumers would be very wise.

During the height of #PaintTheirHandsBack, Sebastian Castro (gay personality and partner to out and proud news reporter Ryan Chua) even tweeted to over 70,000 followers that he is more likely to purchase Bench clothes from now on. Trust that Castro’s fans will not care who painted over those hands the next time they’re going to choose a clothing brand.

The more disturbing reality in the Philippines is that advertising standards still treat depictions of affection between members of the same sex as unacceptable. When the ASC rejected some of Bench’s billboard images, they said that it was against “traditional Filipino family values.” Maybe it is time for this and other governing bodies to learn that LGBT relationships are not invisible or offensive, and that love of any kind is a Filipino value, whether they like it or not.

While this fiasco has proven that gay messages sell (or at least lead to publicity), the most important part of this equation is the recipient of these images.

The most important target

A young person, especially one who is struggling with his or her sexuality, is helped tremendously by seeing people like him/herself on an EDSA billboard. The presence of attractive, successful, and affectionate same-sex couples in mainstream media can spell the difference in the lives of teens who are often alienated from their peers and from a society that continues to penalize and correct “gay behavior.”

There are definitely more positive messages in images of loving couples of all genders than what is currently being advertised in that major thoroughfare.

Have you taken a look lately? It seems that no approval is needed to advertise invasive cosmetic procedures. Nobody is taking down glutathione ads that promote the idea that whiteness equals beauty (at the expense of one’s health). No brand has had to paint over their billboards showing almost naked heterosexual couples in suggestive poses. That girl in a bikini over Cubao is most definitely part of “traditional Filipino culture,” right?

But the gays have to be blurred out, taken down, suggested as inappropriate, and are considered not family-friendly. Giant brands like Bench have to worry about what advertising committees think about images of same-sex love between fully clothed, respectable professionals.

If that’s not censorship, I’m not sure what it is. Fortunately, the number of out and proud visible gay and lesbian couples is increasing. During the height of this meme I even lent the hashtag my own legally married hands as a show of support.

Advertising boards and media censors may attempt to silence LGBT lives, but we are not going away anytime soon. Trust that we will keep on making ourselves visible in ways that cannot be controlled.

The good news in all of this is that if any government body tries to censor LGBT visibility in media and advertising, they now have an idea of what to expect from audiences and target markets. Movements like #PaintTheirHandsBack successfully showed us last week that some netizens do have the LGBT community’s sentiments in mind. They know what is fair and unfair treatment, and will even stand up for what is right. –

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