Why are LGBTQ+ Activists Criticising Brands for their Pride Campaigns?
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
During pride month in June, we saw many companies use the pride rainbow on their brand logos and products, and by July, the Pride flag is gone from marketing campaigns. In this article, we ask why do brands participate in Pride?
Is it their place, and does their support for the LGBTQ+ community extend beyond marketing in June into wider structural society changes?
Why are some LGBTQ+ activists and influencers criticising big brands for their pride campaigns?
During June, companies such as Amazon, Disney, and McDonald's have incorporated the support of Pride into their marketing campaigns. Support of Pride is shown by waving rainbow flags in storefronts, temporarily rebranding themselves on social media with themed designs, and even creating new merchandise with Pride colours for a limited time.
While these marketing campaigns may appear genuine on the outside to show equality and tolerance, some LGBTQ+ activists and influencers remain sceptical and criticise the campaigns as nothing more than a marketing ploy to engage larger audiences.
Why are big brands participating in Pride campaigns, and what's the issue?
The corporate support for the LGBT+ rights movement has gained traction in recent years and with social media platforms readily available to spread the message, showing branded support during Pride Month makes it easier for big companies to interact with larger audiences and younger generations.
General support for the LGBT+ community also continues to grow, and many big brands see increasing tolerance as an opportunity to capitalise on target audiences and expand their reach.
However, the primary issue is that many big brands fail to back their support during Pride Month with legitimate policies that protect the LGBT+ people or donations made from marketing during Pride to causes that help the Queer community, thus making their Pride campaigns empty and baseless.
Why are some LGBT+ activists and influencers speaking against the big brands' Pride campaigns?
Some of the community's activists have called out the big brands for their hypocrisy in engaging in Pride Month marketing activities without changing internal policies or while simultaneously supporting other harmful causes to the LGBT+ community and their rights.
LGBT+ writer and strategist Fran Tirado noted that "In an ideal world, there would be no Pride campaigns. Brands and companies profiting off marginalised identities with bad, rainbow-washed advertising ploys is an abhorrent tradition of this country."
Alex Hirsch, the creator of Disney's Gravity Falls, criticised Disney for using Pride Month as a marketing tool to grow the business rather than advocate for marginalised audiences. Hirsch noted that a gay scene was ultimately cut from the show's finale because the company was worried about losing business in Russia and China, two countries with strict anti-LGBT+ censorship laws.
Chris Stedman, a professor and digital communications expert, also notes that many people feel as though big brands are taking the language and identity of the LGBT+ community and investing in it for their business gain, rather than understanding the historical and cultural context behind the movement.
What are some examples of big brands' Pride hypocrisy?
There have been several instances of big brands showing hypocrisy while advocating for the LGBT+ community. Some big brands have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-LGBT+ politicians, while others actively participate in or support laws and legislation that discriminate against the community.
In the US, the Equality Act was designed to "federally prohibit discrimination based on sex, gender, identity, or sexual orientation" but failed to pass in the Senate, as it had not received enough conservative-backed support. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, spearheaded the pushback against the Equality Act while simultaneously accepting donations from big brands, such as AT&T and American Airlines – both of which have participated in Pride-related campaigns.
Amazon was also guilty of donating over $450,000 during the election period to the same politicians who voted against the legislation designed to protect LGBT+ people. Similarly, the department store Walmart (which also owns the UK's ASDA supermarket chain) donated nearly $400,000 to those politicians who blocked the legislation.
These same companies were eager to alter their social media logos and rebrand themselves just long enough to profit from LGBT+ identities and audiences without actually changing anti-LGBT+ policies.
However, the hypocrisy doesn't just extend to elections, as many big brands are active in foreign countries that fail to protect rights for the LGBT+ community. In 2018, Adidas, for example, quickly altered its branding in honour of Pride Month while continuing to support the World Cup that was held in Russia, where anti-LGBT+ laws actively persist.
Why is it problematic for big brands to participate in Pride campaigns?
Karen Tongson, a professor at the University of Southern California, emphasises how big brands have used the LGBT+ identity, culture, and struggles and turned them into marketing commodities that benefit capitalism rather than the community itself. Tongson also points out that brands who use Pride Month to temporarily show their support for the community fail to implement long-term initiatives that will benefit LGBT+ individuals.
Another growing issue with big brands using Pride Month for their gain is that the corporate image of Pride is gradually becoming less relatable for LGBT+ individuals. Those who once connected with the culture and were proud to showcase their queer identities are growing hesitant to do so because "Pride" products lack the necessary engagement and true meaning of Pride.
People's identities are more than a rainbow flag, and much of the LGBT+ community believe big brands treat Pride Month as a costume and stopgap for discrimination, rather than assessing the prejudices and fighting back against them.
"People's identities are more than a rainbow flag."
The disconnect between big brands and their attempt to capitalise on the LGBT+ identity during Pride Month without any genuine appreciation or support for the cause marginalises the community further. This is because wider society begins to see brand pride representation as a more tolerant world for the LGBT+ community, which is not the case, further making it more difficult for individuals to gain suitable protection and equal rights.
Furthermore, when brands use images of the rainbow to further their corporate agenda, it projects the notion that showing support through design is enough, rather than being held accountable for discriminatory activities and the marginalisation that continues to happen behind the scenes.
Are there any brands that positively show LGBT+ support?
Not every big brand that waves the rainbow flag during Pride Month necessarily does so for capital gains. Some brands are actively participating in Pride Month and using their influence positively that extends beyond a temporary rebranding.
Skittles, for example, has used their platform for a Pride campaign that seeks to highlight personal stories from influencers within the LGBT+ community. The programme, called Skittles QueeR Codes, explores themes including drag performances, makeup, music, and dance, giving recognition to LGBT+ artists. The company also announced a new packaging design, in which all purchases will see a portion of proceeds donated to LGBT+ causes for advocacy.
The Samuel Adams beer company has also actively supported the community during Pride Month with their campaign called "Love Conquers Ale," in which LGBT+ individuals created a custom beer blend and participated in the brewing process. The company has pledged to donate all of its proceeds from its speciality drink to LGBT+ causes.
How can other big brands improve their support to the LGBT+ community?
Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of the NGO GLAAD, has stated that companies who actively want to retain their LGBT+ audiences need to do much more than market to the community; they must also implement policies and work that help the community in a meaningful way.
Therefore, the best way for brands to showcase their dedication and support to the LGBT+ community is to refrain from activities that backhandedly support anti-LGBT+ individuals, activities, and legislation. Big brands can also incorporate internal company policies that protect the community's rights, including any employees, customers, and partners of the LGBT+ community.
Furthermore, big brands need to focus more on enhancing protection for the community, especially during Pride month, instead of using it as a marketing tool to sell more services or products. Big brands should implement structural change, integrate LGBT+ voices into their work, and cooperate with activists to address the ongoing problems that are often overlooked.
With their donations, public platforms, and brand influence, big brands have the power and resources to redirect their attention to legislation that protects the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals and supports the community as a whole.
For more resources like this, head to our dedicated LGBTQ+ Rights & Issues section.