One of the time-tested rules of Branding 101 is: Steer clear of controversy. That maxim would surely seem to apply to the issue of transgender Americans, who’ve found themselves in the cultural crosshairs in recent months. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states have considered so-called “bathroom bills” (which would restrict access to restrooms according to the gender on one’s birth certificate), and 14 have weighed legislation that would curtail transgender students’ rights in school. Earlier this year, the Trump administration revoked the federal protections of transgender students issued during President Obama’s time in office, drawing yet another line in the sand in the ever-evolving yet ever-contentious issue of LGBT rights.
So what brand would want to touch this cultural lightning rod? Well, MAC Cosmetics, for one. In fact, tonight, the popular beauty brand is essentially going to grab that lightning rod with a film called More Than T, a docuseries on the challenging yet frequently inspiring lives of seven transgender people. Showtime will air the program tonight at 7 p.m. EDT.
More Than T is appropriately titled—this isn’t a politically charged rehash of the issue stories that get 30 seconds on CNN every night. Instead, viewers meet strikingly ordinary people, including an actor, an attorney and even a minister, all of whom open up about what it’s like to navigate daily life in a gender other than the one they started their lives with.
“It’s not [about] the bathroom issue, but the everyday lives of trans folk,” said MAC svp Nancy Mahon, who spearheaded the project.
By focusing on those everyday lives of trans folk—not just their struggles, as one would expect a documentary of this sort to do—More Than T aims to present a side of the trans issue that’s often lost in news reports: the human side.
Viewers meet Louis Mitchell, a father, husband and minister in Springfield, Mass., and Joanna Cifredo, a Washington, D.C. policy analyst. There’s also Mia Yamamoto, a defense attorney in Los Angeles who was born in an internment camp and later served in Vietnam before transitioning.
“She was concerned that if she transitioned, it would negatively impact her cases or their outcomes,” explained Mahon, who went on to say that stories like these make the film “a human piece” at a time when all the talk about transgender people invariably swings to the political. “[The issue] is so much about exclusion and, somehow, inclusion [of] everyone is perceived as a special right. People just want to live their lives with dignity.”
So, More Than T isn’t your usual documentary, and it’s also not your usual piece of branded content. With a creative assist from agency partner Praytell, MAC was able to lure marquee director Silas Howard (of Amazon’s Transparent) and writer Jen Richards (creator of the Emmy-nominated Her Story), both transgender themselves, to create a feature that at 53 minutes is deservedly more suited to a network airing than a YouTube slot.
And while the documentary was funded by MAC, you won’t see brand plugs or not-so-subtle product placements. This is unbranded branded content, if you will, and the idea is this: If the issue is valid and the stories are compelling, viewers will make the necessary connections on their own.
“It’s not that we stand for this issue—it’s who we are,” Mahon said. “We took on a tough topic, [but] one of the things we know from our company is when you think different, you are different. The reality is that workplaces have been accepting and, particularly in the beauty industry, gender blurring and gender bending and different notions of beauty are a core to what companies like ours are about.”
To be sure, MAC products would have been a very easy to fit within the movie itself. Founded in 1984 by two gay men, the cult beauty brand’s very mission was to bring backstage-quality makeup to the masses. MAC has signed famous drag queen RuPaul to be its spokesperson, and its unapologetically jubilant Viva Glam campaign has featured the likes of Lady Gaga, Cyndi Lauper and “non-lipstick lesbian” K.D. Lang.
But MAC—or, more specifically, Mahon—chose to keep its lipsticks and liners out of the film, and this despite the obvious fact that makeup is essential for most trans women. The closest the movie gets to hanging out a shingle for MAC is a character named Gizelle Messina, who happens to work as a MAC makeup artist. Tie-ins like that would seem heaven-sent for any marketer, but Praytell founder Andy Pray explained that Mahon still held the line.
“It’s clear [that Giselle] is with MAC, and she’s wearing a necklace that’s MAC,” he said. “But the lens was very skeptical, and we wanted to have the courage to be unbranded. That’s Nancy’s courage. You can count brands on one finger that would do that.”
You can also count brands on one finger that would fund an hourlong documentary about people who change their gender, even at a time when two out of three Americans favor equal treatment for LGBT Americans on the job and in public accommodations. Mahon said that for MAC “inclusion is part of its business model from the very beginning, and it’s proven to be a brilliant business approach.” The movie, she said, is simply an extension of that.
“We wanted to tell the story of people who are trans, [and] we wanted to make sure it reflected the protagonists,” she said. “There’s a humanity and heroism to every character.”