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‘We know when brands just want to make money’: Pink News CEO issues Pride warning

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By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

June 14, 2022 | 7 min read

In the middle of Pride month, The Drum catches up with Pink News chief exec Benjamin Cohen to discuss why the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t exist to be capitalized on by brands in for a quick buck.

Benjamin Cohen Pink News

‘Gay people are for life, not just for Pride!’ says Pink News CEO Benjamin Cohen / Image via Pink News

Despite the prevalence of Pride, many brands are still at a loss as how to meaningfully engage with the LGBTQ+ community. For each doing it right, there’s another tacking a rainbow flag to a social media profile and calling it a day.

It’s a point of contention for Pink News founder and chief executive officer Benjamin Cohen.

With over 100 million users worldwide, Pink News is something of a cultural touchstone for the LGBTQ+ community, running its own digital Pride festival online (“which makes it accessible to everyone”) as well as in-person events around the UK. When it comes to brands choosing to market during Pride, Cohen says he’s surprised many still haven’t got the message that doing one-off stunts “smack of inauthenticity.”

These surface-level campaigns can actually be more negative than positive, “because consumers are savvy and they’re able to see when your rainbow brand logo disappears.”

He says that while the sum of Pride marketing decisions are being made by “well-meaning straight allies,” they aren’t making the progress in communicating to the LGBTQ+ community that they think are. For example, “if you’re waving the trans flag then what are your policies as an employer or service provider? Could you be going above and beyond what you’re already doing?”

Cohen says that watertight internal policies, as well as truly inclusive offerings, will always be the way forward. “An example I always remember is Lloyds Bank. They weren’t just waving a flag, they were one of the first major UK employers to offer gender confirmation surgery to staff as a benefit. They were among the first banks to allow customers to easily change their pronouns on their bank account – they’re the whole package.”

He also emphasizes that brands that only want to communicate to the LGBTQ+ community during Pride are also doing themselves a disservice, as “Pride month itself gets very noisy and it’s really hard to cut through.”

“When I’m involved in speaking to brands, I’m always telling them, don’t just run your campaign during Pride, run it through the whole year,” he explains, citing Black History Month, Mental Health Awareness Week and even Christmas as other annual events that both include and affect the LGBTQ+ community.

“In fact, Christmas is a great example. When we polled our readers, about 50% of them said that Christmas is actually a really horrible time for them and we heard a lot of truly sad stories about members of the community being estranged from their families, or returning home to celebrate only to be deadnamed.”

He says that brands that really want to get involved with the community need to think more directly about the issues that affect them, signposting resources or offering access to support or counseling. “They also underestimate the intelligence of their target market. We can tell when someone really wants to stick around for the community or if they just want to spend during Pride. It always looks like you want to make money off the community rather than support it.”

Cohen also believes that the oversight in engaging with the community year-round spills over into treating it as a monolith. “Increasingly, these companies are talking exclusively to gay men, and mostly gay, cis, white men.”

“At Pink News, actually the majority of our audience are women, with a large proportion of trans and non-binary readers. So, if you’re wondering about how to communicate to LGBTQ+ audiences, you have to remember it’s not a homogenous thing.”

Among his biggest gripes, Cohen says, is also the failure to engage with LGBTQ+ media, choosing instead to run ads on ‘mainstream’ platforms as opposed to ones directly engaging with the community.

“I would say this!" he admits, but brands will create assets for the LGBTQ+ community and then run them in ‘straight’ media. “The argument is always that they have more viewers, which might be true, but in reality they don’t have more LGBTQ+ viewers than something like Pink News.”

This is even more shortsighted given the UK’s current political and media landscape. A recent study by Stonewall showed that the majority of the UK population has “admiration and respect for the LGBTQ+ community,” yet anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments from coalitions such as the LGB Alliance remain shockingly prominent across UK media, while UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently made a transphobic comment to deflect from criticism about the cost-of-living crisis.

“Brands talk about LGBTQ+ inclusion, but run ads for Pride-related content in newspapers or on websites that are publishing transphobic and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric every day,” says Cohen.

“It’s a kick in the stomach when brands finally do decide to engage with the community and then neither consult with the community nor work with any of the media companies prioritizing LGBTQ+ inclusion.”

When it comes to sincerely supporting the LGBTQ+ community, Cohen says it’s a question of really considering the issues that affect it, rather than just jumping on a Pride float.

“Do things that are authentic and thoughtful rather than just flattering, and be more mindful about whether you’re only going to run it in June, or if you can do it year-round.

“Gay people are for life, not just for Pride!”

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