In case you missed it, the aftermath of last month’s infamous Belo advertisement was more than just a hasty apology prompted by the thousands of netizens voicing out their dismay against a tone-deaf beauty campaign.
Shared on social media last August 10, Belo’s controversial two-minute ad depicted a clear-skinned, slender woman rapidly transforming into an appearance that was heavily implied to be undesirable, placing a grotesque emphasis on weight gain, acne, and body hair growth as ill effects of the pandemic. However, with more pressing concerns at hand (i.e. the heavy loss of life and livelihood), online viewers have criticized the ad’s crude execution, pointing out the disrespectful capitalization that the campaign had on society’s beauty standards during an ongoing health crisis.
Facing the immediate backlash, Belo swiftly took down the video and issued an apology the morning after, but the damage was already done. The fact that the ad was even released in the first place paints a picture of how women may have been viewed by those working behind the scenes.
ICA (Immaculate Conception Academy) alumna Deng Tee, creative director of the Hong Kong-based marketing communications agency Wunderman Thompson, affirms this with a social media post that was shared last August 12:
“For years, I told myself the lie that victims tell themselves: It’s my fault. It’s probably just me. It’s a one-time thing — but no, it’s never a one-time thing. I’ve heard whispers of incidents that happened after Kidlat 2015. All hush-hush. All spoken in secrets,” wrote Tee, sharing a personal testimony of her experiences as a woman in the advertising industry.
“Now, he’s come out with an ad so disgusting, so demeaning to women, and people wonder why? FYI for all the advertising media outlets, this is not creative courage. Yes. This is about Herbert Hernandez.”
#IStandWithDeng: A woman’s voice
Herbert Hernandez is the co-founder of Gigil, the creative ad agency that has spent the last year making headlines for its viral cases of disruptive marketing, working alongside brands such as RC Cola, Trese, and Danes Cheese, among others. Prior to the Belo controversy, Hernandez was hailed as one of the most renowned names in the industry.
“The darling of all the creative magazines,” coined Tee. “Venerated, loved, featured, bro amongst bros, boy’s club galore. That Herbert.”
This respectable reputation was one of the reasons for Tee’s initial silence on her story. “I thought, ‘He’s ECD (Executive Chief Director) of Y&R, and I’m [from] Saachi, he can’t do anything to me. This isn’t harassment.’”
With this thought in mind, all the way back in 2015, Tee brushed it off. But even years later, rumors about Hernandez continued to circulate. The same things kept cycling around until Tee realized that nothing was ever going to change unless someone spoke out about it:
“This newest Belo ad is just another callous move after a ton of moves in this direction. This is what happens when you laud communication na “wala lang”. This is what happens when you allow people to get away unchecked. They’ve never had to suffer the repercussions of their actions.”
So Tee took to posting about what had happened: On the opening evening of Kidlat 2015, the country’s most prominent advertising awards ceremony, Deng Tee received text messages from Herbert Hernandez, a married man, inviting her to his hotel room with the promise of becoming a substitute judge for the competition.
“Back safely in the hotel, I remember Herbert still messaging. He messaged about how there was an opening on the judges’ panel the next day and if I could come in as a substitute. Stupid messages. Sweet nothings. Lustful notes,” detailed Tee, recalling how she had been drunk and afraid going so far as to double-bolting her door.
This experience is not Tee’s alone. According to national women’s rights organization Gabriela, at least five other women have stepped forward with reports of sexual harassment against Hernandez. Campaign Asia has also reported more cases of incidents involving other men in the advertising industry.
When looking objectively at the facts, it is more than apparent that Tee’s experiences are far from being an isolated case. And with the advent of international social movements such as #MeToo, the call to speak up about the injustices against women both in and out of the workplace has long been in the making. Deng Tee is one of many voices now joining the fray.
As of this writing, Tee’s Facebook post has garnered over 2,000 reactions and 291 shares, leading social media platforms to be flooded with support and the hashtag #IStandWithTeng.
In response to this, Hernandez has filed a cyber libel case, claiming that Tee’s post contains “defamatory statements or imputations,” which have advertently made him “the talk of the town in the advertising industry.” The decision to do so, although not surprising, has prompted conversation on the culture of silence that has prevented women from pursuing actions against men from positions of authority.
Gabriela secretary-general Joms Salvador, in an interview with Campaign Asia, commented:
There are many factors that deter victims from pursuing legal action, such as the fear of having to relive their experience, of causing more pain to themselves and to people close to them, the possibility of being wrongfully and unfairly judged for their actions, the effects of possible retaliation from a more powerful or influential perpetrator (for example, the cyberlibel retaliatory suit filed by Hernandez against Tee), the inconvenience of and having their lives changed by a legal pursuit, and also financial considerations for pursuing a legal suit.
Having initially been silent about her experiences, Tee has revealed in her post that her intentions are to ask for a “sincere apology or acknowledgment” from Hernandez, as well as to simply get the experience off her chest.
Creating a safe space for women
Ultimately, what Deng Tee’s online post has created was not only a personal sense of closure but also an opportunity for others to do the same. Having taken a courageous stand on platforms as open as social media has essentially allowed other women to see that there is a space for them to speak, especially about the injustices committed against them.
In a show of support, Gabriela has proclaimed their stance to support Tee with a Facebook post uploaded on September 23.
“Gabriela stands with Deng Tee. End the culture of silence around sexual harassment now!
“We are one with Deng Tee, and the survivors in the industry are coming together to seek guidance, to learn from each other’s stories, and to find the strength to stand up against their predators,” posted Gabriela.
The Philippine chapter of international trade association 4As has also started to take steps to widen and fortify safe spaces, having communicated with Gabriela last August 18 to provide avenues for women who would like to report behavioral misconduct experienced in the workplace.
Since then, Gabriela has reported having received various accounts of sexual harassment in the advertising workplace. The organization is now working toward providing counseling and legal advice for female victim-survivors.