We’re over the rainbow: It’s time to stop Pinkwashing

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Horrendous rainbow suits are on sale, brands have momentarily added some multicoloured pizzazz to their logos and, if you’re lucky, you might get a mumbled “Happy Pride” as the barista hands you your flat white. It can only mean one thing – Pride month is upon us. An incredible time to raise awareness around issues the LGBTQ+ community is facing and raise money for the charities tackling these problems.

It’s also a great time for brands to slap a rainbow on something so they can look inclusive, while at the same time not actually giving anything back to the community other than “visibility” or “opening a dialogue” Even worse, it can mean brands that actively fund political or religious parties that are homophobic or anti-trans can wash away their sins with all the colours of the rainbow. This is the world of Pinkwashing.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you’re likely tired. Oh so tired. And not just in that “when will this pandemic end?” type of way, but also in the “when will brands, politicians and gobs for hire stop using my identity and that of my siblings to earn points and money” kind of way Y’know!

Or, maybe you don’t. If you don’t live your life as part of the LGBTQ+ community you’re likely to have your own things going on. Your own worries, passions and activisms that are important and personal to you. So, here's a quick rundown of what the community has faced recently.

Don’t get us started on the co-opting of the rainbow to celebrate the NHS on the run up to Pride last year

In the past week, major newspapers published derogatory articles targeted at the UK’s leading LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall and its stance on trans issues. Our own government has pulled out of Stonewall’s diversity scheme. Hate group, the LGB Alliance received a blue tick on Twitter the same weekend as its allies doxxed LGBTQ+ activist David Paisley causing him to leave his home. Only last month, Ali Fazeli Monfared, a 20-year-old gay Iranian, was beheaded by his family just days before he was able to leave his country for safety. And then, to bring it all back round to Pinkwashing, don’t get us started on the co-opting of the rainbow to celebrate the NHS on the run up to Pride last year, diluting the messaging and harming potential revenue streams from rainbow branded merchandise.

Over the last year we’ve all learned a lot about activism and the harm that virtue signalling can do for a cause. Brands showing support on a superficial level and without meaningful action not only points to  hypocrisy, it can cause upset and anger, derail the conversation, and act as a distraction from the real issue. This ends badly for the brand and already vulnerable communities get to feel another jab of pain. We’ll just say three more words on this and we feel that’s all you need. Kendall Jenner Pepsi. 

Throughout June you’ll see rainbows everywhere, with brands claiming support for the LGBTQ+ community whilst not actually passing on any of that sweet sweet profit they’re making

Throughout June you’ll see rainbows everywhere, with brands claiming support for the LGBTQ+ community whilst not actually passing on any of that sweet sweet profit they’re making. It’s like claiming exposure is just as good as getting paid. However, let’s be frank exposure doesn’t fund charities that help LGBTQ+ kids find homes after their families have rejected them (over ¼ of homeless young people identify as LGBTQ+ according to research from the Albert Kennedy Trust). Neither does it support those who need help with suicidal ideation, nor continue the fight against conversion therapy, or stop important institutions like Manchester’s LGBT Foundation from having to close their doors.

We need to get this right. When it comes to how we discuss gender and sexuality it’s not a niche audience we’re highlighting, it’s a growing group that are questioning and accepting a new normal. The number of young people identifying as transgender has increased dramatically. A study from Gay Times and Karmarama showed that around 1 in 10 of 18-24 consider themselves transexual and only 35% of the same age group consider themselves to be 100% heterosexual.

That said, there are brands out there that are getting it right

LEGO released their Everyone Is Awesome set on 1st June in partnership with Workplace Pride, Stonewall and Open for Business. This rainbow set with gender neutral mini figures was not only a cute way of celebrating diversity, it also gave LEGO the chance to show how they support diversity in the workforce.

Barclays is Pride in London’s main sponsor. It was also one of the first banks to feature a same-sex couple back in 2012 and has actively listened to and improved the workplace for LGBTQ+ colleagues.

And, Paddy Power, which could be considered a “lad brand”, has been one of the most imaginative supporters of the LGBTQ+ community. We worked with Paddy Power to create the From Russia with Equal Love campaign, where they committed to giving £10,000 to the Attitude Magazine Foundation for every goal Russia scored during the  2018 FIFA World Cup. They not only highlighted Russia’s history of violence towards LGBTQ+ people but the homophobia in football, all while raising £170,000.

So, what can you do?

Advertisers, marketers and communications specialists are in a very powerful position to guide brands into doing the right thing. These questions might help steer conversations and make valuable changes:

  • Is this activity only for June, what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
  • Does the brand have internal structures that help support and reflect the lives of LGBTQ+ people e.g. equal allowance for LGBTQ+ people needing to take time off when starting a family?
  • Who else do you donate to or sponsor, do their views match those of the Pride movement?

We have moved beyond discussing, providing visibility and “normalising” the community. It’s time to take action. Donate to charities, make real structural change, add value to the communities that are spending money with you. If a brand isn’t willing to fully show its out and proud support, then maybe it should sit back and listen.

We want to keep the conversation going on this topic and we've invited Shon Faye to join us for a live discussion via Zoom on Monday June 28th @ 12:00pm. If you'd like to learn more about what brands can do to drive meaningful change for the LGBTQ+ community you won't want to miss it. Click here to save a place.

David Blackett is Senior Strategist at Engine.


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