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  • Heather Cleal

‘Rainbow-Washing’: Where Do We Stand in 2023?

© Daniel James via Unsplash

Can corporate allyship ever claim sincerity? Or is it time we reconsidered its potential?

Waking up and scrolling through social media on the 1st of June, initially it feels like any other day. But amidst the usual onslaught of sponsored content and frenzied tweets, something has changed. The top of Instagram’s feed is looking considerably more colourful; brands, publications, and corporations alike have swapped out their standard profile picture in favour of one that now incorporates every colour of the rainbow.

This isn’t just any rainbow of course, but the unwavering symbol of Pride and the LGBTQIA+ community. First claimed in 1978 by American activist Gilbert Baker as a symbol of hope for gay and lesbian communities, the pride flag has continued to evolve into the 21st century with multiple redesigns, as it seeks to represent a greater range of identities.

As the official emblem of Pride month, the rainbow flag becomes the first port of call for brands that wish to share in the celebrations and demonstrate their support. From British Vogue to British Airways, social media handles, hashtags, and targeted ads take on a whole new persona at this time of year, as big businesses pledge to further the rights and voices of LGBTQIA+ persons and causes.

Gestures don’t necessarily translate into impact, however. In recent years consumers have begun to question the authenticity of such. Dubbed as ‘rainbow-washing’, a number of companies have been found guilty of trading off of Pride’s positive connotations in return for – you guessed it – a big fat juicy profit. For example, in 2019 Metro found that after an analysis of 122 companies visibly supporting the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride month, that just 64% were in fact donating proceeds to related charities. Talking to the BBC, founder and director of Queer Emporium Yan White acknowledged that during Pride “huge amounts of massive companies do just slap rainbows on their products and sell them at a higher price.”

It is deeply disheartening that Pride affiliations appear to have a diminishing impact in 2023. In conversation with Forbes, brand strategist Ed Watson raised his personal concerns: “As a gay man that came out in the ‘90’s… I have to say that I’m in two minds about this show of support. On one hand it’s amazing that so many organisations are literally showing their pride in pride and it’s great that there is so much visibility. However, I rather cynically question whether many are tokenistically searching for the ‘pot of gold; at the end of the rainbow’”.

For the brands that do donate and sincerely utilise the month of June to raise awareness and visibility, where do consumers draw the line today? It’s hard to deny that within a capitalist structure, allyship can’t usurp profit-oriented targets. Therefore, is all corporate allyship essentially ‘rainbow washing’? And how, if at all, can brands claim genuine, issue-driven support for Pride?

© John Cameron via Unsplash

As could be expected, it remains a conflicting matter with a number of differing perspectives. Those in defence of alleged ‘rainbow washing’ argue that it isn’t just big corporations that profit from Pride month. Non-binary tik-toker and content creator Hina (@hina) told non-profit media outlet NPR about the reliance on Pride celebrations from LGBTQIA+ creatives, claiming that they personally make around $120,000 in partnership deals throughout June. However, following recent conservative backlash in the US against Pride campaigns from the likes of Bud Light and Target, income opportunities have decreased as other brands back-pedal on campaigns. Furthermore, digital creative Fran Tirado (@fransquishco) recently spoke out on TikTok about how whilst the LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t wish to exist within the constraints of capitalism, “unfortunately we are beholden to it. All of my friends; queer and trans creatives, DJs, artists, illustrators, designers, drag queens… we all rely on the month of June to substantiate the rest of the year’s pay. That’s not an exaggeration; we rely on the month of June for our livelihood.” They too have faced a decline in inquiries for brand partnerships following right-wing criticism of certain Pride marketing, and a broader questioning of its impact. Whilst we continue to call out brands for their alleged greed and insincerity, we forget that in some instances this can be a mutual exchange.

Following recent controversy, others argue that even allyship born out of a drive for profit remains preferable to the potential for brands to retreat altogether. Fernando Lopez, executive director of San Diego Pride, told the Independent how brands are growing fearful of mounting backlash, “I had a sponsor say their CEO is skittish about getting political, the fact that they’re even having that conversation is disheartening at best.” In this instance, surely corporate silence takes us nowhere but square one?

Total abandonment of support remains unthinkable. That being said, how can brands and corporations claw back an authentic public image when it comes to Pride? Ultimately, it remains dependent upon how this support is being portrayed. For instance, by focusing advertisements and digital content on a brand’s values and community, rather than pushing a single product alongside a token image or gesture, it ensures more inherent meaning and impact. Skincare brand BYOMA succeeded in pledging genuine support for Pride that went beyond its products, by donating 50% of all its sales in June 2022 to GLSEN, a non-profit dedicated to gender inclusion and awareness amongst youths. This year, they are currently partnering with a number of LGBTQIA+ digital creators, including Cyrus Veyssi (@cyrusveyssi) and Munroe Bergdorf (@munroebergdorf).

© Byoma via Instagram

Looking at ‘rainbow-washing’ today, it’s especially difficult to keep the profit-oriented marketing strategies of big corporations entirely separate from their more altruistic missions. For those feeling particularly pessimistic, it can feel impossible to really believe in this strain of allyship and advocacy. We may never be fully able to dissect the truth without key insight into internal operations. But if we can’t get rid of ‘rainbow-washing’, then shouldn’t we try to see the positives it has the potential to bring? Like the financial opportunities it provides for LGBTQIA+ creatives, and as a preferable outcome over that of brands retracting their support altogether. The crucial takeaway here remains accountability. To transform the perspective of ‘rainbow-washing’ into something positive, vocal support must be matched with demonstrable action year-round, in lifting LGBTQIA+ voices and supporting relevant causes, alongside reflecting on internal corporate structures and culture.


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