Hershey campaign celebrating women sparks anti-trans backlash

*This story was updated March 3

Hershey Canada has found itself in the middle of an international social media maelstrom over a marketing campaign honouring women for International Women’s Day.

The “Her For She” campaign, developed with Toronto creative agency Mint, includes limited-edition packaging and online videos celebrating five Canadian women working to build a better future for women. But Hersheys’ decision to include trans woman and LGBTQ+ advocate Fae Johnstone among the five has sparked social media criticism and calls for a boycott.

While it is a Canadian campaign (Hershey U.S. is running a different campaign), Hershey has been trending on Twitter in both countries. And as is almost always the case with Twitter, the trend is fuelled by extremist takes and vitriol.

However, while outrage and #boycott is common on Twitter, by Thursday morning, major mainstream media outlets—including CNN, Fox, The New York Post and Daily Mail—were covering the story.

The story has not received as much media attention in Canada, with none of the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, National Post, or Toronto Sun, for example, reporting on it by Friday morning (March 3). Late on Thursday afternoon (March 2), the CBC posted a story focused on how supporters of Johnstone had started to “rally around” her.

After initially declining to comment to The Message, Hershey Canada shared a short statement to its Instagram account on Thursday: “We value togetherness and recognize the strength created by diversity. Over the past three years, our Women’s History Month programming has been an inclusive celebration of women and their impact. We appreciate the countless people and meaningful partnerships behind these efforts.”

Growing calls around the world for transgender equality in recent years have been met by louder and more active resistance from those who don’t believe trans women are “real women,” and there has been an increase in anti-trans laws in the U.S.

Such is the polarizing nature of the issue, that any act or statement is viewed as an absolute declaration of support of one side over the other. In this case, the decision to include Johnstone for its International Women’s Day campaign may have felt like a relatively simple statement that trans women should be celebrated as part of International Women’s Day. But it’s also the kind of statement that can trigger new battles amongst those who love to go to war online.  (A Canadian campaign for Simons late last year sparked a similar backlash in the U.S., eventually growing so loud and vicious that the brand and its agency decided to pull it.)

The other women included in the campaign are: Indigenous rights and water activist Autumn Peltier;  gender and education equality activist Rita Audi; climate tech researcher Naila Moloo; and Girl up Québec founder Kélicia Massala. Like the first #HerForShe campaign launched last year, the limited-edition chocolate bars include portraits of each woman by Toronto mural artist Gosia Komorski, although last year’s bars were not available for purchase by the public as they are for 2023.

Along with the special wrappers, Hershey and Mint created short videos about the women. “We can create a world where everyone is able to live in public space as their honest and authentic selves,” says Johnstone in her video. The videos were being amplified through paid media handled by UM Canada.

“Last year’s initiative exemplified Hershey Canada’s larger values and commitment to support and advance gender equity,” said Brittany Chopra, senior marketing manager at Hershey Canada, in a release introducing the campaign. “We’re so excited to extend the message even further in 2023. Having the bars on sale across Canada only serves to amplify women’s voices and stories, and will encourage more Canadians to spotlight those making change in their own communities.”

As part of the campaign, Hershey is donating $40,000 to Girl Up, which provides training and tools to young women working to accelerate social change. The campaign was inspired by a Brazilian program from 2020 based on the fact that the words “her” and “she” form the name of the world-famous chocolate brand.

“The Her For She 2023 campaign is crucial to empower women to become leaders and to teach young girls that anything is possible,” said Audi of her decision to collaborate with Hershey Canada. “By featuring the accomplishments of local women, Hershey’s raises awareness of both the progress we have made towards gender equality and the amount of work we still have to do.”

David Brown