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Genuine Pride or corporate rainbow washing?

May 28, 2024
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#LGBTQ+, #pride, #corporate social responsibility, #rainbow washing, #pinkwashing
by:Gerardo Bandera
How should companies celebrate Pride? And how can consumers avoid pink-washing traps?

Months before June, companies’ marketing calendars remind them to begin working on their Pride campaigns: the graphic design department decorates logos and slogans with colourful rainbows; the copywriting department writes jingles and puns with queer lingo; and the finance department estimates how much profit the campaign is forecasted to generate.

By the time Pride month rolls around, the corporate world explodes in a colourful carnival of pro-LGBTQ+ advertisements, campaigns and rebrandings.

What was once a civil rights protest and riot to demand equal rights has therefore become part of the corporate pipeline.

Nevertheless, Pride provides companies with the opportunity to make their values clear, show support for their LGBTQ+ employees and, in the best cases, use their platforms to demand social change.

However, over the past decade, as civil liberties have been expanded to LGBTQ+ communities in many countries, corporations have been called out for rainbow washing and hopping on the bandwagon of the Pride celebration without real activism or support.

What is rainbow washing?

Put simply, rainbow-washing is the practice of using rainbow-themed symbolism in branding, advertising, merchandise or social media, ostensibly in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people during pride month, but without active support of LGBTQ+ people’s identities or rights.

The term (sometimes also referred to as 'pinkwashing') is used to call out organisations or corporations that disingenuously use Pride branding for their own gain or to give themselves a deceptive air of liberalism and allyship. It is akin to the term greenwashing, whereby companies claim to be eco-friendly while still performing or supporting environmentally damaging practices or policies. 

What is Pride?

Pride month, and its corresponding parades and celebrations, commemorate the Stonewall riots that occurred in June 1969 in New York City, during which queer people, tired of oppression, faught back against violent police officers and organised protests in the following days.

The event is said to be one of the key moments in the gay liberation movement, inciting the queer community to organise in their demanding of equal rights and protection from the law, by voice or by force. Apart from being an event of affirmation and community for LGBTQ+ people, Pride was first and foremost a protest march, whose disruption was meant to demand change and progress in equality. 

50 years later, Pride marches look less like protests or celebrations of queer people by queer people and more like rainbow-coloured corporate parties. Miles and miles of corporate-sponsored floats, each of which can cost thousands of dollars to approve and create, parade down city avenues, throwing out rainbow-coloured and branded merchandise to crowds.

Of course, this change is in part due to the large strides that many countries have made in advancing equal rights for LGBTQ+ people and reducing discrimination since the Stonewall Riots. But this is also due to the appropriation of Pride marches by corporations eager to rejuvenate their public image and tap into new customer markets. 

Understanding the rainbow flag

The rainbow flag has been used as a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community since the late 1970’s and is meant to represent the diversity of human sexuality and gender. It was created by artists Gilbert Baker, Lynn Segerblom and James McNamara, with the support of other activists. Over the past 50 years, the flag has undergone various revisions.

It is internationally recognised as an emblem of queer communities, organisations, people and establishments as a symbolic message of ownership or support. 

The problem with corporate rainbow-washing 

While public support of the LGBTQ+ community by organisations and companies is important to pushing visibility and creating change by social pressure, it must be used in genuine ways that transcend marketing campaigns and public relations stunts.

Pride campaigns are inappropriate when they are not followed by financial support to the LGBTQ+ community and activist organisations; when the profits from any merchandise sold as Pride paraphernalia are swallowed up; when companies discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in their recruitment processes; and, especially, when companies espouse homophobic, transphobic or queerphobic politicians and provide them with funding. 

The use of the rainbow logo is an appropriation of its imagery and significance - with all of its history, background, progressive agenda and fight for equality - and an integration of it into the image of the company’s identity and branding. Branding, as a reminder, is a marketing tactic to attract consumers of specific consumer groups and shopping habits by visual designs. Aligning a company’s image and values to the target consumer group is therefore a simple and effective way of attracting consumers, leading them to automatically identify with the brand and encouraging them to make purchases.

When rainbow branding is done without additional proactive support, it is a performative and manipulative tactic used to improve brand perception and increase monetary gains. It also commodifies Pride symbolism and dilutes the significance of its message. 

Examples of rainbow-washing corporations

Prior to this year’s Pride festivities, the organisation Data for Progress released a list of companies that, in the United States, have hypocritically prepared Pride campaigns while also donating to politicians and organisations that actively discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.

The most salient among these companies are Toyota, AT&T, Amazon and Comcast, who altogether have donated over USD 1.1 million to candidates with anti-LGBTQ+ agendas

Furthermore, many retail companies create merchandise for Pride, adding rainbow designs or logos to their products. While some of these companies also donate to LGBTQ+ organisations, they often do not disclose how much profit they have truly made from the merchandise, and whether their profits have exceeded their donations amount.

This raises the question of whether it is ethical for these companies to pocket the profits made from a civil campaign or if they are therefore taking advantage of the excitement generated around Pride, like a trend.

How should companies celebrate Pride?

Meaningful support of Pride should tie back to its roots: Pride is not just a celebration, but a moment to collectively demand equal rights, treatment and opportunities for LGBTQ+ people from governments, organisations and people alike.

This can take the form of using one’s voice and platform to demand change, donating to organisations that advance LGBTQ+ rights or providing opportunities for LGBTQ+ people in the workforce, where they often face discrimination. 

What can consumers do?

Consumers should adopt a sceptical approach before purchasing from companies that claim to support the LGBTQ+ community or have collections for Pride, ensuring that they also give back to the community and employ queer people.

An espousal of Pride should come with an uncompromising support of its platform, particularly the advancement of rights for the most vulnerable and discriminated people in the community, such as transgender individuals and people of color.

Image by Mercedes Mehling.

Article written by:
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Gerardo Bandera
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The Pride march began as a protest and riot to demand civil liberties and an end to violent oppression and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.
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Today, Pride is a colourful celebration of diversity. Thousands of people show up to march in Pride parade around the world.
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Many corporations rebrand their logos in rainbow colours in support of Pride month.
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