Every year on the 1st of June I wake up to a twitter timeline filled with rainbow flags and glitter as my friends and I proceed to post something like “happy pride month!” on our social media pages. It’s a great feeling, seeing people celebrate such a wonderful community, and there’s lots to be proud of. It’s not just us though, many brands such as Adidas, H&M, and Pret would have posted similar messages, although theirs would be coupled with the unveiling of their new pride themed merchandise. “Only available for this month!”, the captions read as they advertise rainbow shoes and glitter cookies with hefty price tags attached.
Isn’t it ironic though? Brands like Urban Outfitters, whose CEO donated thousands of dollars to an openly homphobic senator (Politifact, 2012), then go on to sell pride themed t-shirts in the same stores at which they used to sell transphobic greeting cards (Huffpost, 2017). Victoria’s Secret’s former CMO Ed Razek commented in 2019 that they would not have transgender people on the Victoria’s Secret runway show as he felt that they would not contribute to the “fantasy” image which their brand upholds (Phelps, 2018). Only a couple of months later a new pride range of underwear was unveiled in Victoria’s Secret stores, the collection since then has been taken down, although you can still find pictures of them online (Victoria’s Secret, 2019). The kind of hypocrisy such brands are guilty of demonstrates how pride is being used as a marketing tactic, rather than to actually participate in the movement, an obvious example of performative activism.
It’s not all bad news though, brands will often donate to pro-LGBT causes while running such pride campaigns. We can see companies such as Nike and H&M boasting about their donations to LGBT charities so there is some action taking place which demonstrates commitment to the cause. However, H&M donates only 10% of the revenue they receive from their pride collection to LGBT charities which feels like very little considering that the company is profiting from the strife of an ostracised community (H&M group,2018). What this wave of rainbow capitalism has actually achieved is the pinkwashing of LGBT issues. This means that consumers are being led to believe that they are contributing to LGBT rights by purchasing such “pride” items, when the claims of donations and support can often be quite empty. This mirrors the campaign for breast cancer awareness which focused on the symbol of a pink ribbon, hence the term “pinkwashing”.
There is the argument that such campaigns are, in fact, helping the LGBT community, as being gay or transgender becomes more accepted within society due to this kind of marketing.
However, instead of more acceptance, what we see is straight people who will attend pride parades for the fun and celebration but continue to use transphobic slurs behind closed doors. Performative activism, as demonstrated by brands, has begun to rub off on the general public. Commercialisation normalises the “marketable” parts of the LGBT community, the parade, the rainbows, the “love wins”, then alienates the rest of it, profiting off from the creativity and culture of queer people but failing to recognise their struggles.
This isn’t to say that pride month should be cancelled and we should all take our pride flags down. I love shopping for glitter as much as the next person and events such as parades as well as spaces such as gay bars are integral to the LGBT community in any city. However, the ugly truth is that same-sex sexual activity is still a criminal offence in 74 countries, and this number doesn’t include laws which forbid same-sex marriage, or discriminate against gay people on issues such as adoption(Human Dignity Trust, 2020). When there is so much legal and social change needed just to ensure basic human rights, it is important to avoid commercialising these struggles as a cheap tactic to generate profit when it eventually does more harm than good. Large businesses should have a social responsibility to go further than simply producing merchandise for pride month. Brands such as Morphe donate 100% of their pride collection proceeds to LGBT charities (USA today, 2020) as well as collaborating with gay celebrities such as James Charles, Absolut have been carrying out dedicated pride campaigns since 1981 (Marketing the Rainbow, 2016) and has donated over $40 million to LGBT charities (Wolinski, 2018). As these firms demonstrate, meaningful support is to actively involve LGBT voices in management and marketing, to provide sincere donations to established organisations which aim to aid the queer community and support LGBT rights all year round, not just in June.
H&M group. 2018. H&M Love For All Collection. [online] Available at: <https://hmgroup.com/media/news/general-news-2018/h-m-love-for-all-collection.html> [Accessed 22 September 2020].
Huffpost.com. 2017. Urban Outfitters ‘Tr*Nny’ Greeting Card Slammed As Transphobic. [online] Available at: <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/urban-outfitters-tranny-greeting-card_n_1364589> [Accessed 22 September 2020].
Human Dignity Trust. 2020. Map Of Countries That Criminalise LGBT People | Human Dignity Trust. [online] Available at: <https://www.humandignitytrust.org/lgbt-the-law/map-of-criminalisation/?type_filter=crim_lgbt> [Accessed 22 September 2020].
Marketing The Rainbow. 2016. Absolut Case Study. [online] Available at: <https://marketingtherainbow.info/case%20studies/absolut.html> [Accessed 22 September 2020].
Phelps, N., 2018. “We’Re Nobody’S Third Love, We’Re Their First Love”—The Architects Of The Victoria’S Secret Fashion Show Are Still Banking On Bombshells. [online] Vogue. Available at: <https://www.vogue.com/article/victorias-secret-ed-razek-monica-mitro-interview> [Accessed 22 September 2020].
Politifact. 2012. Politifact - Facebook Post Claims Urban Outfitters CEO Backs Santorum. [online] Available at: <https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2012/apr/04/facebook-posts/facebook-post-claims-urban-outfitters-ceo-backs-sa/> [Accessed 22 September 2020]
USA today. 2020. 25 Brands That Are Giving Back For Pride Month. [online] Available at: <https://eu.usatoday.com/story/tech/reviewedcom/2020/06/22/pride-month-2020-25-brands-giving-back-lgbtq-community/3234046001/> [Accessed 22 September 2020].
Victoria's Secret, 2019. Happy Pride Month! - Victoria's Secret Email Archive. [online] Email Tuna. Available at: <https://emailtuna.com/victoriassecret.com/1305682> [Accessed 22 September 2020].
Wolinski, C., 2018. How Did Vodka Become The Spirit Of Pride?. [online] VinePair. Available at: <https://vinepair.com/articles/vodka-lgbtq-pride/> [Accessed 22 September 2020].