• Neeraja Jyothikumar

RAINBOW WASHING: DO CORPORATIONS TAKE PRIDE SERIOUSLY?

Updated: Feb 2

Marks & Spencer, a major British multinational retailer, launched an ‘LGBT Sandwich’ back in 2019, to mark recognition for the Pride Parade happening that year. The sandwich comprised of Lettuce for Lesbians, Guacamole for Gays, Bacon for Bisexuals, and Tomatoes for Transgenders. What may have had the good intentions of inclusivity, had only received mixed (mostly negative) reactions from the public, as the sandwich could not be consumed by vegetarians or vegans and more importantly, clearly did not consider Queer/Questioning, Intersex or the Asexual as part of the ‘LGBT’ community. Raising awareness, supporting the movement, and positively contributing is one thing, but exploiting the sufferings of a highly marginalized community through “symbolic servicescape”[1] by equating them to a sandwich for earning a certain amount of profit does not add up. While one should know that Marks and Spencer donated all the profits it earned from the sandwiches to various trusts. (Up to £ 11.000) But, for a corporation that reported profits of more than £80 million, it would only make sense for them to donate all profits they earned from the venture to actual change-making bodies that support the LGBTQ+ community, by financially and socially supporting them.

A question that arises in one’s mind after such experiences is; “Do corporations ever fly flags out of sincere support?”[2] or is it just a mere immoral marketing strategy?

One must not ignore that waving the LGBTQ+ flag is a sign of acceptance, awareness, normalcy, and inclusivity. Members of the community have felt grateful for this visual support received from corporations. However, in this troupe of rainbow logos, there are companies who are just looking for opportunities to make money out of marginalized people’s weaknesses by “appearing but failing to provide allegiance to issues of queer visibility”[3].

As sexuality, gender, sex and sexual affiliation are major personality/character traits and are what an individual comprises of, something that is so personal to everyone, some corporation see it as an evil tactic of boosting remuneration.

There is very little awareness regarding this marketing strategy that most companies have adopted, which is why there is not much information readily available, including a decent and reliable definition of ‘Rainbow Washing’. The term has posited that corporations, governmental bodies, or companies actively add the rainbow to their logos, websites, accessories etc. or release new products with LGBTQ+ affiliation to create awareness regarding their support for the movement with a motivation to increase sales and media attention, but do not take up noteworthy actions that actually support and uplift the highly marginalized and difficult lives of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Companies do it for a better pay check, a better PR, and to keep up with the socially vocal generation. Companies and corporations exhibit this behaviour in an attempt to gain the public’s preference, as these are chances for people to spend more money on companies/businesses that are vocally supportive of the LGBTQ+ movement. When reports state that some companies do not even donate a part of their profits earned to LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations, the gravity of the issue is put to display, as it is truly the least a company can do to make its support of the LGBTQ+ a case of Rainbow Washing. For instance, in the past, Uber has changed its logo by adding more colours to it, but actively running its services in nations (Saudi Arabia) that are vocally anti-LGBTQ+ and have laws that publicly punish members of the community, once out of the closet.

Passionate young millennials and young members of the LGBTQ+ community are always out to look for brands that put up an act of supporting the movement. Once spotted, they do not go unnoticed by the public easily and are made to face massive backlash, especially during pride month. If one pays attention to the marketing strategies applied by brands and the actions that are taken by them in terms of their contribution to the movement, it is easy to spot the wolf in sheep’s clothing (companies pretending to be LGBTQ+ supporters among the many), because sometimes, the wolf does not even try to hide. For example, former U.S. President Donald Trump, and his pride merchandise, that screamed hypocrisy. Trump, the same president that barred transgender folks from serving in the army is the same president selling ‘make America great again’ t-shirts in rainbow shades. “While the prevalence and increasing use of the rainbow flag may signal greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, especially in areas of a city outside of defined gay neighbourhoods, increasing use may also indicate that the flag risks becoming ““politically correct” window dressing—rainbow washing—and potentially less about pride and belonging.”[4]

With company statistics and programmes available for one to go through readily on the internet, it has become easy to not support corporations that actively practice Rainbow Washing. For example,


1. Pride Month Marketing


If a company waits until June every year to speak up or take initiatives regarding the cause, there are high chances that the company is indulging in Rainbow Washing. A company that actively cares about human rights issues and especially issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community would support them financially during all times of the year, or whenever they earn profits enough to be distributed, would put effort into recruiting personnel from the LGBTQ+ community and provide them chances of improving their skills to be better, etc.

For example, Pfizer Inc. extended their support to the Equality Act during Pride month and shared stories of individuals working in their company that belong to the LGBTQ+ community. They even went on to use the hashtag #PfizerPride to make sure the public is aware of their demonstration of “commitment and leadership on issues of importance to the LGBT community.” However, Pfizer did the unexpected when they actively gave a certain amount of financial support to individual members of Congress that openly go against the support of LGBT rights and equality.


2. Actions Taken


When corporations extend their support to the LGBTQ+ movement, they are also made to face the same amount of hate, discrimination, and controversy that members of the LGBTQ+ community are made to face on a daily basis. But it is important that these companies stick to their decisions and do not succumb to the thinking of how these opinions could affect their profit and goodwill. Backing off from support to the community cannot just cause a major negative impact on the community but also put a permanent scar on the face of the company in the eyes of the members of the LGBTQ+ community.

For example, Hallmark succumbed and crumbled under pressure when their ad displaying a same sex couple partaking in a Christian wedding ceremony was questioned by a group called One Million Moms. This not only had a long-term impact on the LGBTQ+ movement but also will have an impact on how the idea of the traditional family system is viewed by the general public. This ad could have been a way to propagate the idea that a family does not have be a male father, a female mother, and children. Hallmark’s audience, i.e., young kids, could have been exposed to the idea that a family can also comprise of two women acting as mothers. This introduction of such families in such a positive manner could have been revolutionary for the world and the corporation indeed, however, it was taken down.


3. Policies Initiated


Merely sporting the rainbow shades is not enough to truly support the movement. Internal changes and advancements in the world-place culture within the company should also be initiated by them so that each employee that belongs to the LGBTQ+ community feels supported and a part of the company just as much as everyone else does. Regardless of how they choose to identify, they must be allowed access to benefits and should not be put in a position where they are not able to report negative instances whenever they might come across any at their workplace.


For example, IKEA has been a strong supporter of LGBTQ+ rights and has provided equal opportunities to all its employees regardless of what sexual orientation they belong to or what gender identity they conform to. Needless to say, they, as a corporation, work towards building an all-inclusive environment where every employee is driven with a social drive to make a positive change in members of the LGBTQ+ community around them. They are known to give specialised benefits to LGBTQ+ employees by providing them with medical and health facilities, adoption assistance, and even support when it comes to gender confirmation surgery and subsequent counseling. In 2020, IKEA launched a specialised Pride Collection to support those members of the LGBTQ+ community that are homeless and introduced initiatives to provide them with relief. This was a gamechanger as it was hardly spoken of, as “homophobia in the family can develop into violence and active restriction of young people expressing their sexuality. For some, this can lead directly to homelessness.”[5] The product, STORSTOMMA Rainbow lunch bag, was merely $0.99, making it highly reasonable and ensuring sale from a common customer.


The LGBTQ+ movement demands real support from real companies that can withstand the backlash and pressure that comes along. These companies need to have policies and support systems that uphold employees all year long while updating the real concerns that the community is made to face. With more diversity comes better profit. When there are individuals from various parts of the society, having different personalities and different individualities, what they have to offer becomes exponentially large.


Companies must understand the fact that adding rainbows to their agendas is going to do no good until and unless their performative activism has some positive result in one way or another, that is directly or indirectly affecting the lives of people from the LGBTQ+ community. Once rainbow washing is exposed, there is a stout decrease in consumer trust, which is vital for a company to earn profits. Sadly, during these times, companies have begun treating the rainbow as a new marketing strategy, wherein, as a part of capitalistic methods, they target small grassroots-level businesses or programmes that support LGBTQ+ communities, however, suddenly sport a rainbow logo when it is the month of June on the calendar. A perfect example of this behaviour is when everyone suddenly becomes appreciative of their mothers on mothers’ day merely on social media, posting pictures and putting up statuses. Although, are they really appreciative of their mothers in real life, or is it just an act to garner goodwill from followers?


With Rainbow Washing, come short-term profit and short-term goodwill, but also comes high risk. In this world filled with uncertainties and unpredictable proceedings, is it fair to make profits out of people’s identities and insecurities by baiting them, rather than putting a highly marginalized, neglected, and misunderstood community out of their despair? With social media action and awareness, can come along government policy changes; not being true to the real problem can bring the movement back to square one and all the efforts can go to waste. Real action can end up not getting the spotlight that it deserves. The profit earned is not worth disrespecting the many pains and traumas that the community has endured to receive the space and representation that it has today.

[1] Rosenbaum, Mark S. 2005. "The Symbolic Servicescape: Your Kind Is Welcomed Here". Journal Of Consumer Behaviour 4 (4). doi:10.1002/cb.9. [2] Staff, WIRED. 2021. "The Problem With The ‘Rainbow-Washing’ Of LGBTQ+ Pride". Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/lgbtq-pride-consumerism/. [3] Woods, Nicole, and Doug Hardman. 2021. "‘It’s Just Absolutely Everywhere’: Understanding LGBTQ Experiences Of Queerbaiting". Psychology & Sexuality. doi:10.1080/19419899.2021.1892808.

[4] Bitterman, Alex. 2021. The Life And Afterlife Of Gay Neighborhoods. Springer.

[5] Takács, Judit. 2006. Ilga-Europe.Org. https://ilga-europe.org/sites/default/files/Attachments/social_exclusion_of_young_lesbian_gay_bisexual_and_transgender_people_lgbt_in_europe_april_2006.pdf.


Author bio: Neeraja Jyothikumar is a third-year student of Global Affairs at Jindal School of International Affairs with most of her schooling done in the state of Qatar. She is a feminist and is deeply passionate about tackling climate change-related issues.


Cover Image: Agustin Paullier/Getty Images

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