Behind the gay-washing accusations, the quiet revolutionary power of brands supporting Pride

The original Rainbow Flag, recently acquired by the Design Museum

Pride in London, and brands sporting rainbow colours in various marketing guises, have endured a heavier amount of stick than usual this year.

First came the memes – namely Steve Buscemi's ‘How do you do, fellow gays?’ poking fun at brands’ sudden interest in the LGBTQ+ community come July. Then came the criticism of the poster campaign for the UK capital’s official festival, which was criticised for priortising the straight narrative. Pride in London took down the offending creative almost immediately.

There were other legitimate concerns raised too, including Smirnoff’s exclusion of women from its #ChooseLove exhibition branding.

Yet for the majority of the Twittersphere, brands that are seen to be ‘gay-washing’ their comms once a year are a relatively easy target to knowingly snort at. Another meme doing the rounds, for instance, is an edited version of Netflix’s ‘Rainbow is the new black’ altered to read ‘Rainbow is the new marketing strategy'.

But why shouldn’t Netflix – a platform that streams a range of LGBTQ+ films that most traditional broadcasters never would – co-opt the rainbow flag? It’s a question that may not cross the minds of those already reaching for the retweet button, but one that photographer and Pride in London supporter Bronac McNeill believes needs answering.

“In the scenario where you’ve got a multi-million-dollar business that’s trying so hard to make money around the world, and you’ve got the likes of Russia and a shedload of Americans and other people around the world that are just so anti-gay, seeing this big company is supporting the LGBTQ+ community that speaks volumes,” she said. “We know that businesses are putting their money where their mouth is, especially the likes of [long-term Pride supporter] Starbucks, which as a huge American business is up against someone like Trump and – in the UK – the DUP. I think it is a bigger thing than them jumping on the gay bandwagon.

“So many people in the UK and around the world can’t live openly as gay or queer. I think more visibility through sponsorship is a good thing. It saddens me that our community doesn’t get behind Pride in London wholeheartedly but it’s a varied community, and all communities have factions that don't feel heard."

McNeill still believes in the power of the rainbow flag and what it symbolises – a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. To that end, she believes brands’ decisions to integrate it into their packaging or marketing is still a brave one, as they are consequently not just “going after the pay pound”, but turning actively away the cash of the anti-LGBTQ+ brigade.

Mark Runacus, president of PrideAM and co-founder of Karmarama, agrees that there are good intentions behind the majority of brand campaigns supporting the Pride movement.

“I’m certain that even those who some might say have only made a token gesture, have the right motives,” he said.

“But PrideAM does always encourage brands to go beyond ‘gay-washing’: just sticking a rainbow flag on existing work. That’s because the Pride audience – LGBTQ+ people and their families, friends and allies – is a progressive audience. They’ll see gay-washing for what it is. They will think much better of brands who authentically connect with their audience.”

“If there is too much [gay-washing happening], part of me celebrates the fact that this means awareness is spreading so much wider,” commented Sam Espensen, co-founder of Espensen Spirit. “But for those in the community, it may feel trite and that the nuances are being missed, or that Pride is being hijacked. If those brands who are gay-washing see an uptake in sales or brand awareness or an ROI from their activity, you can only hope this encourages them to do more and better.”

This same conclusion is reached by Richard Ware, senior account director at Eulogy, who penned a blog on the perceived discomfort between brands supporting a social cause and operating as commercial entities. Whether a company’s motivation to support Pride is one of “commercialisation or comradery”, he said, “it’s hard not to count that as a win”.

“Fifty years ago, police were raiding gay bars as a matter of routine," he added. "Now they stand with the LGBTQ+ community. Corporations that used to discriminate against them now jostle to join in — and they help make the collective voice louder, and progress more secure.”

The British Army will distribute rainbow camo cream at Pride in London

There’s no doubt that brands have and will continue to get LGBTQ+ marketing wrong in the same way that they have and will continue to get marketing to women wrong (step forward, Bic's Pen for Her and Dove’s body-shaped bottles). But in the short history of this pocket of advertising there have been campaigns that have transcended getting it just right and gone on to be known as iconic: Absolut’s Out poster series, American Apparel’s Legalize Gay campaign and Love Has No Labels from the Ad Council.

More recently, Espensen’s head has been turned by an LGBTQ+ ad from Budweiser, albeit a fictional one. “I love the TV show Nashville and I also love the meta from Bud, which plays in the show and features a gay country and western singer Will Lexington,” she said. “Nashville is a soapy drama that challenges many stereotypes – the country and western scene is not always thought of as being inclusive – and I really like their approach in tackling subjects like this.”

“The ANZ Bank Hold Tight ad made me cry the first time I saw it,” recalled Runacus. “My straight friends who have seen it tell me it moved them too. The insight is so powerful, because it happens to me nearly every day when I’m with my partner.

“Sometimes he’ll feel uncomfortable in a situation and will push my hand away, and sometimes I do it to him. This made me realise I will keep campaigning until I feel happy holding his hand everywhere and every day.”

Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

All by Katie