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Authentic marketing: Rainbow-washing and steering clear of performative activism during Pride Month

As May comes around and LGBTQ+ celebrations begin soon, we should reflect on how important advocacy is during the month of June. However, the rise of social media and its presence in social movements has heightened the amount of performative activism that is disguised as advocacy. During Pride Month, companies and brands often take part in what is called ‘rainbow-washing’ by marketing themselves as LGBTQ+ allies while displaying little to no contribution to the cause. Though this blog will discuss rainbow-washing within brands, it can come from anyone using any type of media. From social media to marketing campaigns, rainbow-washing is a real communications problem.

First, let's cover Pride Month. Pride Month is celebrated in June to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969. The riots were started by Black drag queen Marsha P. Johnson as a response to constant police raidings and closings of gay hotspots in New York City. The Stonewall riots of 1969 are credited to be some of the most monumental moments of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Jumping back to modern-day Pride, the main attraction during the month is the pop culture attention that surrounds the global parades. Because Pride is now defined by the Pride parades, corporate America has begun to overshadow its history with performative activism for profit.

As I mentioned before, although rainbow-washing can include individuals’ performative social media posts, like the Instagram black square trend during the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, it usually refers to marketing campaigns. Basically, rainbow-washing is the practice of corporations latching on to LGBTQ+ branding during the month of June. Since marketing is communications, catchy social media content is vital to Pride Month marketing; which in turn fuels the element of performative activism because of varying platforms’ fake reality nature. With that being said, let's discuss how marketing campaigns around Pride Month are not inherently bad if done properly and truly advocate for LGBTQ+ equality.

The most obvious form of rainbow-washing, which is often met with social media controversy, is when companies release special edition products with rainbow designs, especially when the product is a differently designed version of the company’s usual product. This leaves the impression that brands are simply trying to stay relevant while doing the bare minimum with profit as the end goal.

Instead, brands may avoid seeming shallow by partnering with an organization that specializes in LGBTQ+ wellbeing. For example, the Trevor Project and GLAAD are two of the most well-known organizations that provide resources to countless LGBTQ+ communities. Then, an authentic partnership could guide traffic to an organization that is actually present in the year-round fight for rights, instead of limiting people that would want to do more to relying only on the product/company. Since social media is extremely influential on social change, brands may also show their authentic activism by sponsoring LGBTQ+ influencers whose audience is more directly affected by Pride. This way, the content being developed for a Pride campaign does not exclusively center and benefit a corporation that has no real ties to LGBTQ+ rights.

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire’s recent Pride campaign is a great example of authentic brand activism during Pride Month. In June of 2020, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire released a short YouTube series titled ‘Drag Queen Mukbang’ in which four popular social media drag stars, Patrick Starrr, Gia Gunn, Eugene Lee Yang, and Laganja Estranja, jumped on a light-hearted trend to provide fun, yet informative, LGBTQ+ content. While the influencers that partnered with the Jack Daniel’s brand brought in views and sales, they also fulfilled the very important role of spreading awareness about how damaging COVID-19 has been to the LGBTQ+ community’s financial stability. On top of highlighting LGBTQ+ voices and providing detailed information, Jack Daniel’s also partnered with multiple non-profit organizations. This campaign raised the bar on how large corporations should promote their allyship while remaining conscious of what Pride Month truly stands for.

The key to Pride marketing is not companies stepping back completely, it’s stepping forward with resources and authenticity that doesn’t minimize a historic time for LGBTQ+ human rights. After all, the corporate world has the power to raise donations, give people a platform, and bring awareness to difficult conversations. If a brand is going to insert itself into a subject they do not regularly advocate for, they should not do it lightly.

This blog post was written by Hiromi Avila, Secretary.

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