Glitter & Rainbows Can’t Cover the Stench of Horseshit: The Hypocrisy of Brands Co-Opting LGBTQ+ Pride and How Yours Can Do Better

Photo by  Jason Leung  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Pride month is over, but let’s keep the conversation about LGBTQ+ rights going.

If you’ve been to a Pride parade in recent years, you’ll notice the procession of rainbow-themed billboards on wheels. Yes, a good portion of sign real estate has been occupied by all sorts of brands. Bleh…the corporatization of Pride is now mainstream.

During the month, retailers have taken to displaying rainbow flags in stores, sometimes, along with Pride-themed products. Brands update their profiles with rainbow versions of their logos on social media.

Is this a sign that the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is over? If big corporations are showing support, then we can all go home and rest now, right?

Nope, and definitely not.

On the surface, these are nice gestures, implying a (very small) step towards a more inclusive society.

However, many of those same corporations are funneling millions of dollars to Republican candidates during election cycles, many of whom have explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ platforms. (Sure, some of these Pride campaigns feature organizations like The Trevor Project and GLAAD, but the numbers still don’t add up in favor of LGBTQ+ communities.)

Effectively, these brands are having their cake and eating it too. “Happy Pride! Your money? We’ll take that… And, oh, what’s that? You want equal rights? Fuck that.”

Evil laughs ensue.

Furthermore, the corporatization of Pride can send the wrong message. People can be led to believe that “gay people have rights now,” therefore homophobia has ceased to exist. As you know, just because marriage equality is now the law of the land and brands are flying the flag, it doesn’t mean everything is perfect.

“Once it’s been co-opted as a commercial venture, Pride only extends to those who can consume that commerce, leaving the most vulnerable queer populations — those in need of real advocacy, protections, and action — out of the picture entirely.” Naveen Kumar, them.

Photo by  Allie Smith  on  Unsplash

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Meanwhile, 11 black trans women have been murdered in 2019.

There is a real risk of the LGBTQ+ movement stalling in mainstream America, similar to the fraught racial dynamics we have in place right now. (The narrative that race is no longer a concern in our country is similarly mind-boggling.)

The silver lining is that queer folks get a month in the spotlight.

Mainstream representation is usually a positive step for marginalized communities—if only for the fact that it can give people hope that “it gets better” when all seems bleak.

Businesses co-opting Pride is not a black and white situation. While we might throw up a little bit in our mouths every time we see some multinational incorporate a rainbow in their logo or product, there are some benefits to—blaaaaargh… sorry, just threw up thinking about it.

Hypocrisy meter? The meter broke. Wanna talk the talk, then you gotta walk the walk.

Impact meter? Mainstream representation matters. Big brands “supporting” the LGBTQ+ community—no matter how superficial—makes a difference.

What about brands that have a legitimate interest in supporting the movement for LGBTQ+ rights?

Is it possible for brands to participate in a way that moves the needle in a positive direction?

Of course.

As being a good ally requires setting aside your own ego and self-interest, brands should do something similar.

A brand’s support should not be tied to profit. (Repeat that a million times.)

To illustrate, here are examples of brands doing good, OK, and not so great with their Pride declarations.

The Good: Ben & Jerry’s

I think there are a lot of good examples of queer-owned businesses that make a point to fight for LGBTQ+ rights. However, how the purposes of this article, I wanted to choose a relatively well-known business that wasn’t queer-owned to illustrate what a good brand “ally” looks like.

And, boy, finding a good example was HARD.

Honestly, I could barely keep my eyes from rolling browsing through some of these pandering Pride campaigns of corporate brands. Some are hypocrites (as mentioned above). Others didn’t tie their campaign to any particular cause. And the saddest thing is most of these businesses only started supporting LGBTQ+ people after it was “cool.”

That’s why I chose a business that I didn’t even notice in the news this past PRIDE month.

What makes Ben & Jerry’s different from the other big brands out there?

History, for one thing. Apparently, they have been publicly supportive of the community since 1989; they were “the first major employer in Vermont to offer health insurance to domestic partners of employees, including same-sex couples.”

And it seems like they’ve been consistent in their views since then.

They don’t just get involved one month every year. They’ve made it one of the “issues they care about” that they’ve featured on their website.

They’re constantly speaking in favor of marriage equality around the world. They have an ongoing partnership with the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, who have received the proceeds from various sales campaigns throughout the years. (For example, 100% of “I Dough, I Dough” sales in 2015 to celebrate marriage equality in the US.)

They publish content that highlights current issues on their website with relevant calls-to-action, like this article focusing on transgender rights with a link to support the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Because they’re committed to the cause long-term, it makes sense that they don’t feel the need to plaster their logo everywhere during Pride month. In fact, my research yielded just one low-key collaboration with West Elm selling limited edition Pride sundae bowls with 50% of each sale going to HRC.

All this is obviously good PR for them. It helps their brand.

So what’s the difference between B&J’s and the brands that have Pride campaigns but also donate to anti-LGBTQ+ Republicans?

You get why I don’t think I have to answer that. You know what the difference is.

Ben & Jerry’s has a reputation as the “progressive” and “socially-conscious” ice cream company…

As far as the public can tell, they are “walking the walk.”

As for the latter, they’re just engaging in some classic “woke-washing.”

Note: Ben & Jerry’s has been owned by Unilever since 2000.

The Meh: Taylor Swift.

As you might know, T-Swift released a music video for her song, “You Need To Calm Down,” during Pride month.

There’s been lots of discussions on the internet about whether or not it was good for the LGBTQ+ community. Did Taylor Swift “co-opt” Pride?

Some might say that she did, and there are accusations that she was “queerbaiting.” Those are legitimate concerns.

For the sake of learning how our brands can engage with the LGBTQ+ cause and avoid co-opting their message for our own benefit, it makes sense to take a look at what she did well (and what she could improve on).

Her music video illustrates some effective ways brands can show their support for the LGBTQ+ community.

  1. Use your platform to put the LGBTQ+ community in the spotlight. Check.

  2. Involve people from the community. She brought in prominent LGBTQ+ artists and celebrities to work on the video both behind the scenes and in cameos.

  3. Lead people to an action that profits the cause rather than your brand. The music video had a call to action to a petition to support the Equality Act.

Arguably, that’s not enough. The substance matters.

The message she delivers, “You Need To Calm Down,” essentially, trivializes the problem that queer people face in our society.

Does it benefit her? Yes, and no.

She’s obviously still the center of attention here. And, yes, the music video is a promotional tool for her new music. Ultimately, she will profit directly from this music video.

In terms of whether it benefits her brand. Her team probably did the math and thought that this would be a good “PR move” for her. Even so, she DOES have incredible reach as a mainstream artist. I’m always in favor of celebrities with big platforms to use their influence for “good” causes. (It’s a positive use of their privilege.) And, at least with Swift, she has a record of supporting LGBTQ+ communities—not just during Pride month—ranging from her endorsements in the 2018 elections to her donations to TEP (Tennessee Equality Project) and GLAAD.

Upon closer examination, we can see how Swift offers a superficial product, tied directly to “aesthetics,” built off the hard work of prominent LGBTQ+ artists that overcame adversity to get where they today. In that sense, she did co-opt Pride, making the center of attention herself, presumably, a straight cis white woman.

(Of course, with much of this criticism of “queerbaiting” comes the consideration that we never want to speculate or “out” someone.)

People will always question whether there are ulterior motives or critique the way they went about it. As a public figure, you’ll always be scrutinized.

That said, it’s up to allies to listen to any thoughtful and well-intentioned constructive criticism so that they can be the best ally they can be. (So, the jury’s still out on T-Swift.)

The Bad & The Ugly: Not Worth My Time.

The bad examples are simply not worth bringing up. I won’t be giving them the spotlight, even if it’s to portray them in a negative light. Nope.

As brands, it’s imperative that we approach our involvement with care, to make a concerted effort to amplify queer voices and let them take center stage on our platform.

AKA Don’t fucking co-opt movements for your own brand or profit!

Photo by  Karl Bewick  on  Unsplash

Photo by Karl Bewick on Unsplash

You’d think this simple concept couldn’t be clearer, right?

If you want to align with a specific movement, make sure you’re doing it in good faith.

Your business should be using its platform—however big or small—to bring awareness to a specific issue for the sake of that issue and not for sales or any other selfish gains.

Also, be clear about the message. The number of brands that play it safe with “Love is Love” vagueness without any substance behind it is baffling. It’s cowardly.

Mention who you’re supporting—gay, lesbian, trans, queer, etc.—at the minimum! Be clear about the message: “Trans rights are human rights!”

The more specific the better.

In my opinion, the key elements that make for successful brand engagement include:

  • Is your support unconditional? (Not tied to making your brand look good.)

  • Is your brand using its platform to benefit the LGBTQ+ community?

    • Does it educate people and spread awareness about LGBTQ+ issues?

  • Is the campaign tied to a product or service you are offering?

    • If yes, will a portion of the proceeds go to a relevant organization?

  • In general, are you pointing people in the right direction if they feel empowered to take action?

Also, remember, make sure you have your own house sorted before you launch some grand campaign. If applicable, is your workplace inclusive? Are you paying fair wages?

At the end of the day, use your own judgment.

If conversations about incorporating LGBTQ+ issues into your brand feels like it’s mostly about how it makes your business look good, then something is amiss.


Rebels With A Cause, Assemble.

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