Hershey’s trans-inclusive IWD push sparks familiar backlash

    • Hershey’s has found itself in the culture war crossfire over an International Women’s Day (IWD) campaign that features a transgender woman, per media reports.  
    • The chocolate marketer’s IWD push in Canada this year spotlights Fae Johnstone, a self-described queer, trans and feminist activist, along with four other women making changes in their communities. Each of the ambassadors of the Her for She program appears on special packaging and in materials detailing their background.  
    • A #BoycottHersheys hashtag trended in response to the campaign, with many critics espousing anti-trans rhetoric. The backlash was followed by outpourings of support for Johnstone, marking another instance of brand marketing becoming a flashpoint for political skirmish.  

    A confectionary marketer has again set off a heated round of discourse, underscoring the potential risks in positioning brands around topical issues even as those same issues can be a valuable tool for fostering affinity with consumers. 

    Hershey’s IWD and Women’s History Month efforts make a point of profiling women from diverse backgrounds who are trying to affect change in areas ranging from gender equality to access to clean drinking water among Indigenous communities. Along with Johnstone, the Canadian leg of the initiative for 2023 features activists and researchers Kélicia Massala, Rita Audi, Naila Moloo and Autumn Peltier. Each of the Her for She representatives appears on custom candy wrappers available at retail outlets. 

    In the U.S., the marketer is also running a packaging play through limited-edition chocolate bars that emphasize the “she” in the brand’s name with purple coloring. The products are further decorated with hundreds of adjectives like “fearless,” “loving” and “hardworking” that are intended to boost women. Hershey’s partnered with Girls on the Run for the project and is deepening its work with the nonprofit elsewhere, including by sponsoring mentorship opportunities at a Future CEO event and via donations. 

    While Hershey’s is pulling out several stops for Women’s History Month, the inclusion of a transgender woman has surfaced the uglier side of social media and resulted in a familiar back-and-forth between opposing sides of the political aisle.

    Brands frequently get threatened with boycotts for stepping into social issues, whether intentionally or by accident. The bottom-line impact of these backlash movements tends to be minimal if present at all. But in Hershey’s case, the controversy threatens to steal attention away from other aspects of the campaign the company views as important. Conversely, it could draw attention to causes like trans rights.  

    “The reaction to my inclusion as a trans woman in Hersheys [sic] Canada’s IWD campaign shows just how far we still have to go in the fight for feminist liberation and trans rights,” Johnstone wrote in a tweet responding to the campaign’s reception. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not shutting up. I will always stand up for women and girls, cis and trans.”   

    The situation echoes what happened earlier this year with M&M’s. The Mars brand received criticism from right-wing personalities for rebranding its spokescandies to be more inclusive, with derisive applications of the word “woke” tossed around liberally. M&M’s issued an apologetic note stating it would retire its spokescandies as tensions ran high, but that ended up being part of a — not particularly well-received — Super Bowl stunt.  


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