Why are brands obsessed with Pride?
By Juan Nicholls
Another year, another Pride month over. While Pride parades and celebrations will continue around the UK and elsewhere in the world for many weeks more, June is (unofficially) officially the month of the rainbow flag.
It’s an almost impossible symbol to miss at this time of year, as brands and organisations from Primark to PlayStation bedeck their logos in the familiar 6-colour spectrum. Every year there seem to be more and more companies temporarily redesigning their logo to celebrate Pride, from banks to insurance companies, food delivery to shoe retailers – is it to demonstrate their LGBTQ+ inclusive credentials? Or their tireless campaigning for equal rights? That’s harder to determine.
2019 so woke
This year there have been a huge number of brands jumping on the Pride parade float, more than ever, it feels like, with Ikea, Co-op, Converse, Nike, Skittles, Asos, Deliveroo, Dr Martens, Primark, Barclays, Listerine, Aviva, Starbucks, Disney, and many more releasing products, promotions, or posts about Pride.
2019 marks 50 years since the Stonewall Riots started the Pride movement in 1960s New York, which could perhaps explain the apparent increase in brands coming out with support for the LGBTQ+ community. Many brands are falling over themselves to appear aware and engaged with the many pressing social and civil issues of our time, though realistically with the emphasis on ‘appear’.
It takes relatively little time and effort to temporarily change the colours of your company logo, but whether this change reflects any real action is another story.
Somewhere over the rainbow
I believe part of the reason why brands have become so enthusiastic to support Pride is to do with how Pride has evolved since those riots 50 years ago. What started out as a protest against the brutality and bigotry of the police, and later evolved into an anti-establishment movement that sought to stand against those old weapons of the patriarchy such as capitalism and marriage, has largely become a street party that celebrates and even embraces those very institutions and ideals.
Any passing visitor to Earth could look at modern Pride event and, understandably, assume that it’s purely a celebration of love for everyone. ‘Love is love’ is a widely used slogan around Pride events, and who could possibly argue against such a sentiment?
Any passer-by would also assume that we’ve reached full acceptance and equality in society, and LGBTQ+ people are free to live and love in peace and harmony. This is far from the case for most of the world, where death is still the penalty for being gay in 14 countries, imprisonment or worse the norm in around 70 more, and ignorance, prejudice, and abuse run rampant in basically all of the rest. Anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes are also dramatically increasing in the UK, with the trans community receiving the brunt of attacks, both physical and in mainstream media and social discourse.
Despite this, Pride has lost its status as a protest against these many injustices. Its message and meaning have been sanitised and made palatable to traditional society. The message is ‘We’re just like you! We want two kids and a dog and a mortgage too!’. Brands have realised this and seen the opportunity in a newly available and valuable demographic.
LGBT (Lettuce, Guacamole, Bacon, Tomato)
Corporate involvement in Pride has reached such a level of omnipresent toxicity to the LGBTQ+ community that even relatively positive actions can be derided as mere posturing. This year M&S released the LGBT sandwich (a BLT with avocado) prompting an outcry, mostly within the gay Twitter community, as people saw it as a profiteering and misjudged attempt to be inclusive. In reality M&S launched the sandwich to raise money for LGBTQ+ charities, driven by its own internal LGBTQ+ staff network.
M&S were at least doing something to back-up their rainbow-packaged sandwich, but the rainbow so often signifies nothing but the appearance of support, it’s entirely understandable why the £4.50 sandwich wasn’t universally received with open arms.
Swimming against the mainstream
Another road to the commodification of Pride is the increase in mainstream visibility of aspects of queer culture. Ask almost anyone with a Netflix account who their favourite drag queen is and they’ll probably have an answer. Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye are bringing more LGBTQ+ people into the nation’s living rooms and social media, bringing with them the many great positives of increased awareness and visibility.
However, going mainstream always comes with a price, and queer representation usually comes with the compromise of being less, well, queer. As great as these shows are, they veer much more towards the centre-ground of what traditional society will tolerate, and the shows themselves have changed to cultivate this, in turn creating safer territory for big brands.
In looking at the profusion of rainbow logos during the summer, one can reasonably wonder where the same enthusiasm is for other civil rights movements and celebrations throughout the year, such as Black History Month, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or why brands aren’t as quick to display the colours of the trans community. Pride has been successfully de-politicised and sanitised, and corporations have moved in with their sponsored influencers loudly declaring that love is indeed love.
Maybe it’s just that the rainbow flag is just such a good piece of branding design, though this too has gone through an evolution. The original Pride flag included two more colours, pink and turquoise, representing sex and magic (a lamentable loss) respectively. More recent interpretations have also found ways to incorporate the trans community colours and black and brown stripes to represent the highly marginalised communities of LGBTQ+ people of colour. Though these are the areas of queer representation most in need of support, these are the areas lost to mainstream inclusivity and the domination of the default rainbow spectrum.
Pride has become such safe ground, even the arch-bigot himself, Donald Trump, can tweet in support of Pride Month while simultaneously rolling back rights and protections for LGBTQ+ people in the US. Our own dear leader (at time of writing) Theresa May has also tweeted in support of LGBTQ+ rights, including a parting promise to be ‘your ally for the rest of my life’, despite her woeful parliamentary record on LGBTQ+ issues and her historic and recent handling of gay and lesbian asylum seekers. I’m all for someone learning and evolving their opinions, but it’s not terribly convincing when it’s not backed up by any real action or change.
This should be the test for all brands who choose to rainbow-ify their logo during Pride month. If you’re going to declare your support, don’t just say it - do it.