LGBTQ advocates call ‘rainbow wash’ as Pride ad campaigns ramp up
Toronto graphic designer Dylan Horner says many of the marketing campaigns he encounters during Pride Month make him cringe.
Throughout June brand ads featuring Pride imagery are appearing on televisions, billboards and especially social media feeds. Companies ranging from local businesses to multinationals are launching new Pride-themed products and adding pops of rainbow decor to their logos, all in the name of LGBTQ ally.
But if a company’s political policies, products and activities in the other 11 months of the year don’t align with its colorful advertising during Pride Month, they’re increasingly likely to being called out for “rainbow washing” – public displays of support for the LGBTQ community that are temporary and not backed by action.
“When companies try to push their own agenda while including the community, it’s the (campaigns) that drive me crazy,” says Horner, who is gay.
But his feelings about it aren’t black and white. He thinks marketing and advertising campaigns during Pride month have value, particularly if there are nuances, noting that visibility is particularly helpful for people who might live in rural areas, feeling lonely or not quite comfortable with who they are yet.
Horner is not alone in finding the question nuanced.
“I think mega-corporate sponsorships can often be beneficial for queer creators, and financial support for that can often propel us to the next level,” says dragperformer Kendall Gender. “However, I (have) a problem when (referrals are) inauthentic.”
This year, Gender is working with Canadian cosmetics company Annabelle on a Pride collection and campaign. Annabelle says cash donations will be made to Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps LGBTQ people escape violence and persecution in their home countries.
Marketing industry watchers agree that authenticity is important and that Pride Month campaigns can serve a positive purpose, but there needs to be substance behind them.
Scott Knox is the founding president of PrideAM, an organization that works to ensure that LGBTQ people are more visible in marketing agencies and that representations of the community in advertising are not one-dimensional.
He finds that the advertising industry in Canada tends to do a better job compared to other markets he has worked in when it comes to ensuring authentic LGBTQ representation and around Pride month in particular. .
“In Canada, we’re part of the fabric of how brands talk to (consumers) and sell products” all year round, he says.
At the same time, he says big companies need to ask themselves if they really value the LGBTQ community or are just trying to cash in on Pride Month, illustrating his point with the example of a hypothetical company adding rainbows Sky at a branch of its operations located in the gay village of Toronto during Pride month, but at no other location and at no other time.
“They’re safe in the community space, but will they be doing something in another country, in another city, at another time of year other than Pride month?” he says.
Craig Pike, owner of Craig’s Cookies, points to a level of superficiality and a lack of understanding from some large organizations he has encountered. He says they went to his small business, which has a location in Toronto’s gay village, to get free cookies for their Pride campaigns rather than paying for them.
“We have been approached by banks, hotels and other major food brands asking us to donate cookies for their Pride events,” he says. “In my opinion, if you want to support gay small businesses during Pride, put your money where your mouth is.”
The cookie company makes its own efforts throughout the year, hiring diverse groups of employees who best represent the people it bakes for, ensuring it is always visibly queer, and learning how it can do better for marginalized people within the wider LGBTQ community.
For large corporations, there are easy actions that can be implemented at the policy and system level long before Pride Month that represent tangible support for the LGBTQ community, says Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity . Feminuity helps organizations improve their diversity and inclusion efforts.
She stresses the importance of implementing data collection tools for customers and employees that go beyond gender and sexuality to better understand who people are and what they need, and to help the company determine if its products are inclusive.
Another example is in benefits, specifically working with healthcare and benefits providers to expand insurance to cover gender-affirming medical care for transgender and non-binary people. Ensuring dress codes aren’t gender-specific is another easy place to start, she adds.
This is just the start, of course. Saska says consulting with the LGBTQ community to see what other actions are beneficial, and whether a company’s plans are actually helpful, necessary, or useful, can go a long way.
Ultimately, Horner believes being a progressive company goes beyond a checklist to satisfy during Pride Month.
“Being progressive is a way of being. If you really want to do something, you will do it,” he says.
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