Progressive without Progress: Reining in Rainbow-Washing
Rainbows paint the streets and flyer promotions are plastered all over: from store windows to web pages, they are everywhere – until they aren’t. In recent years, Pride Month has no longer been just a celebration of the LGBTQ2S+ community. It has become a powerful commercial tool for corporations seeking to brand themselves as socially responsible. There is hardly a brand without a pride collection. For any business’ social media account, it is likely that a rainbow version of their familiar logo can be found occupying their profile picture during the month of June. While Pride celebrates the fight for equality, the ‘rainbow-washing’ of businesses often celebrates nothing more than financial gain.
When Pride branding stands alone without support towards the social movement, it is no longer an inspiring show of solidarity for the community - it is a performative tactic used to improve consumer perception. The Data for Progress’ Pride Corporate Accountability Project tracks companies from the United States that have held Pride campaigns while simultaneously donating to anti-LGBT causes. Instantly recognizable names such as Toyota, AT&T, Amazon, Walmart, Bank of America and Microsoft stand out on this list, donating over $1.6 million to anti-LGBTQ campaigns and politicians altogether since the beginning of their Pride promotions. Disney, a corporation which promotes Pride and sells rainbow merchandise in June, donated over $100,000 to Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, who supported the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. This legislation bans teachers from speaking about sexuality or gender identity with students.
Not just a Rainbow
Reducing the movement of Pride to a monetary fundraiser also dilutes the origins of the month. More than just a piece of branding to attach to an $80 hoodie, the rainbow symbolizes the decades of resistance for acceptance and liberty that persist today. Even when money is donated back to the community, the commercialization of Pride into priced-up limited edition collections communicates an odd message. In 2019, despite seemingly positive intentions, UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer launched the “Pride limited-edition LGBT sandwich,” a decision which was met with heavy backlash. Critics argued that rebranding Pride and the support of the LGBT community into a BLT knock-off felt trivializing. LEGO launched the “Everyone Is Awesome” set in 2022, featuring lego characters arranged in colours to represent the Pride flag. Confusingly, the set is deemed 18+. The set represents “everyone, no matter how they identify or who they love,” the set designer states. Supposedly, everyone is awesome - for $44.99.
Supporting without Exploiting
Still, not all marketing campaigns related to social movements must be exploitative. Three key factors differentiate a campaign from being exploitative and supportive: 1) the intentions behind the campaign, 2) the results from the campaign, and 3) the integration of the campaign’s values into the company. Following these principles, a campaign should not merely be done with profits in mind; a significant share of revenue should be donated, and the corporation should internalize the campaign’s message into the company culture. For example, during Pride month, Skittles released all-white Skittles with the slogan ‘only one rainbow matters,’ and proceeds were donated to LGBTQ+ charities. Additionally, LGBTQ+ artists were commissioned for the packaging, with each pack of Skittles having a QR code that allowed consumers to learn about the artist. To create a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplace, Mars, Skittles’ parent company, has also created 12 global LGBTQ+ associate resource groups across its confectionery, food, and pet care businesses.
An Alarming Trend
Unfortunately, Pride isn’t the first time such an exploitative marketing strategy has been utilized by major companies. In 2011, H&M launched their “environmentally sustainable” collections while being a main contributor to fast fashion and producing excessive amounts of clothing. There is also pink-washing for breast cancer, where companies sell pink-coloured clothing to show support for breast cancer while proceeds are not directed into cancer research.
Corporate marketing that reduces important socio-political causes into seasonal promotions and cash grabs is immensely concerning. There is an unclear delineation at which point these campaigns become exploitative, or if the monetary support from the campaigns outweighs their potentially exploitative nature. While there is no checklist that repositions marketing from exploitative to appropriate, there are clear steps companies can take to maximize the support for the movements they stand with.