That was one of the many questions raised at our Lifestyle staff meeting regarding the controversy over the now-famous Bench billboards along Edsa Guadalupe, Mandaluyong.
It refers to talk that the lifestyle brand had defaced its own billboard and deliberately kept mum about it for days, as netizens expressed their outrage over the seeming censorship, causing the ad campaign to go viral.
The subject of the Bench Valentine campaign called “Love All Kinds of Love,” which includes images of two same-sex couples, is in itself controversial, and surely would have generated a lot of talk. But without the added censorship angle, would it have gone viral?
By censoring its own billboard and not addressing the issue quick enough, Bench’s intentions have been put under scrutiny. It’s disingenuous, netizens say.
If Bench’s goal was to make its ad campaign go viral, and for the brand to get a lot of buzz, was it worth earning the ire of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, the group that it purports to champion, in the process?
“Love All Kinds of Love” is audacious and ballsy and, yes, wow!
I was among the many who applauded Bench’s campaign the first time I saw it—a composite of four images featuring movie legend Gloria Romero and her grandson; actress-model Solenn Heussaff and her fiancé Nico Bolzico; and two real-life same-sex couples, magazine creative director Vince Uy and events organizer Niño Gaddi, and makeup artist Ana Paredes and interior designer Carla Peña—on Suyen Corp. chair and Bench founder Ben Chan’s Instagram.
The third and now famous photo was then in its uncensored form.
The popular homegrown brand went where very few dare to tread. Even in far more liberal Western countries, it’s news when a brand dares to feature same-sex couples in their campaigns; a Filipino brand in Catholic Philippines dared to put two. On massive billboards. On Edsa.
And so, I wasn’t shocked— vexed, but not shocked—when a couple of days hence, word on social media was that the Bench ad had been vandalized, the clasped hands of couple Uy and Gaddi obscured with black paint.
That conservative Filipinos can look past a half-naked torso on a billboard, but have their sensibilities so rattled by one innocuous gesture between two human beings that they’d obliterate all evidence of it, is not only galling but also ludicrous.
But that’s always a possibility in a hypocritical society—you can keep thieves and crooks in public office, but you can’t make an overt nod to certain realities like same-sex relationships because they’re deemed an attack on traditional Filipino values.
And public thieving is not? Twisted, but true.
Netizens were understandably quick to express their incredulity and outrage over the seeming homophobia and censorship. They declared solidarity with Bench. Many put the blame on the Ad Standards Council, the body that regulates the contents of such billboards. A move to #painttheirhandsback became viral.
Of course, there were also cynics who accused Bench of defacing its own billboard just to be talked about even more. A marketing ploy, they accused.
Those doubters got their I-told-you-so moment when, five days after the billboard went up, Bench released a statement owning up to the censored version of the image.
It was a case of self-censorship, according to the official statement. Since the original image with hands clasped (circulated on social media) was rejected by the ASC, a mockup with obscured hands was presented, which was then approved.
The latter version was what went up on Edsa—but with both hands painted over in black, obvious enough to insinuate vandalism.
The story quickly takes a tailspin: Could this be just a marketing stunt by Bench?
The LGBT community is enraged; the public feels it has been taken for a ride. Not a few netizens vow to boycott the brand.
A colleague, who was quite vocal on social media in condemning the supposed censorship, expressed her anger at the brand in some very colorful language. She isn’t just a progressive-thinking individual, after all, but a consumer as well. Why didn’t Bench come clean sooner, she asked?
However well-meaning the campaign was, did it lose its message amid all the noise? Did it, as a result, undermine the cause of the LGBT community?
Bench, of course, isn’t new to controversy. There was another issue about its billboards featuring the Philippine Volcanoes, the country’s rugby team, a couple of years back. Just last year, it got flak from women’s groups over its portrayal of a woman on a leash in its biennial underwear show.
When such issues arise, almost always there are people who threaten a boycott. And from where we’re perched, it appears that the marketing genius that is Bench is never quite perturbed—at least not as much as a smaller brand might—in the face of such consumer threats.
It is said that Filipinos have short memories. Next week, all this will be forgotten. If this was, indeed, calculated in its Valentine campaign, as netizens now like to believe, once again it was a genius move by the brand—from a marketing standpoint, at least.
But this time around, it better hope the love it speaks of encompasses the kind of love that forgives and just as quickly forgets.