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Ads, Campaigns, and Rainbow Washing: Can Brands Do Better This Pride Month?

A community cannot be a brand's accessory. Period.

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Oh, to live in the 21st century. An era where we're constantly growing more conscious about inclusivity, yet one where allyship can often become a tokenistic attempt to gain capitalistic gains off of the real lives of people. It's truly a wonderful world, isn't it?

When we talk of faux allyship, it isn't just something that the modern population has put on the frontage but also the facade that many brands showcase. So, this Pride Month, how much tokenism and rainbow washing are we prepared to see?

Over the years, the queer community has witnessed a struggle for identity. And while we, as allies, may try to show up in the best ways we can, it doesn't make up for the lost time.

Agreed, as a brand, there is no better time to showcase allyship and support towards the queer community than Pride Month, it's also a way to participate. But that isn't enough on its own. Not anymore.
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The Game of Logos

Let's face it – few things are more ridiculous than witnessing a brand that has never talked about allyship change its logo during Pride Month. If you're lucky, they may even release an empty statement of solidarity and create social media posts that you just tell were last minute. It's the template example of rainbow washing. A community cannot be a brand's accessory.

What's worse? This performative allyship doesn't stop at the logo change. It goes all the way from using homophobic slurs in hopes of a viral campaign to limiting the community to a certain sexual orientation instead of accepting the spectrum.

Over the years, I have seen brands reduce the community and diminish the spectrum to gay people because they would rather spend the time on creating a viral campaign – negative or positive – than educating themselves and creating an impact.

Last year, I came across this social media post that had "Homophobia is SOOO gay" written in big, bold and colourful letters. Catchy? Yes. Clever? Not really.

The problem here is a lack of introspection and thinking things through. How is calling homophobia "gay" in any way allyship? What it is, is an attempt to create a viral post while using "gay" as a negative connotation, yet again. 

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Reclaiming? Not Really

And it doesn't just stop there.

Brands have gone to the point of using homophobic slurs to create viral campaigns in the name of reclaiming. The problem is they try to speak for the community when the entire idea should be to pass the mic on and raise actual awareness about real problems.

Let's talk about our favourite "King" and its Australian campaign that was not just tokenistic but also left no stone unturned to reduce the community to their sexual preference. This widely criticised campaign involved selling burgers with either two top buns or two bottom buns. An empty attempt at allyship using age-old and worn-out stereotypes? We think so!

A community cannot be a brand's accessory. Period.

Burger King ad.

(Photo: Twitter)

We'd be missing out if we didn't talk about Starbucks' latest ad – the one that's bound to leave you teary-eyed. It ticks all the boxes; it's addressing the right issue, delivers the right message and emotionally connects with the audience. Despite that, the brand has received massive backlash – and rightfully so.

Let's clarify – we're not talking about transphobic and homophobic individuals (they deserve no real estate in this piece). It's the backlash received for being … you guessed it, performative. The brand showcases allyship in its brand films. However, globally, they have repeatedly been called out for the discrimination their POC and queer employees face.

A community cannot be a brand's accessory. Period.

A still from the Starbucks ad.

(Photo: Screengrab/YouTube)

Without core values genuinely determined to lift the community, any piece of advertising, no matter how well made, becomes performative. If Starbucks, as a global name, couldn't bother reworking its inclusivity policies to create a safe space, what message is it delivering?

In fact, struggling with clients keen on performative allyship for the sake of their global counterparts is a heavily discussed topic amongst industry insiders. A few years ago, a fellow marketeer told me that a client refused to do a Pride campaign or even a single post. Cut to the middle of Pride Month, and they frantically called them, asking them to change their logo to incorporate the Pride Flag. The reason? All their investors and partners had done it – and they didn't want to be "left behind."

Allyship is not an aesthetic. It will never be an aesthetic. Brands need to think; their profit-driven mindset might convert profits, but is it worth it at the cost of a community?

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Fetishisation of Women in LGBTQIA+ Community

It's no secret that life as a woman has its struggles. But to be queer woman – that's a whole other conversation. As victims of dual oppression, it takes a lot to come out and convey their story. But when a well-known brand reverts to the stereotypes and positions queer women as sexual beings, it further promotes the notion.

Several brands fail to go beyond sex when it comes to their Pride campaigns. Food delivery service Postmate is another example of brands using worn-out and problematic notions of queer relationships being purely sexual.

Moreover, lesbian representation is absent in most brand campaigns – the brands limit themselves to the gay community because it is a more widely known term. Not including an entire spectrum and showcasing support holistically can cause more harm than good.

Let's talk about Fastrack, for instance. Ten years ago, it was probably one of the few brands that "dared" to put a lesbian relationship in their ad. The women in the ad fit a very stereotypical lens of what lesbian women look like. The male gaze is evident. The showcasing of two lesbians coming out from a closet with messy hair is the last thing we need, considering women in the community are hypersexualised already.

A community cannot be a brand's accessory. Period.

A still from the Fastrack ad.

(Photo: Screengrab/YouTube)

Would we consider that enough representation? Ten years ago, maybe. Times have since changed. The way brands include and represent needs to change at an equal pace. Skin tones, body shapes, and authenticity are some of the many ingredients required to showcase genuine authenticity. We need to do better, way better.

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Rainbow & Beyond: Brands That Got It Right

As someone who has worked in marketing for over a decade, I'd be lying if I said I haven't witnessed a good chunk of wholesome campaigns led by brands – ones that have gained support, passed on the mic to those who didn't have the privilege of having it, and have made an impact-driven contribution.

Nike sparked debate with its Be True campaign. But it also struck a chord with the community because it checked all the boxes. It worked on creating change through amplification, opening opportunities to the community and advocating for conversations and change – in all the right ways.

Unlike most other brands that prefer staying in a grey area to not spark controversy, Nike took a difficult yet staunch stand, supporting trans women in sports – a debate that is still ongoing.

To further strengthen their support, they worked with a trans designer to design the latest Be True collection. Instead of simply talking about the importance of inclusivity, they made the space for inclusivity. The Be True line, truly, is for Pride, with Pride.

A community cannot be a brand's accessory. Period.

A still from the Nike Be True campaign.

(Photo: Screengrab/YouTube)

Actions are louder than words, they say. So, I have got to mention one of my other favourites – the Skittles campaign.

Striking the perfect balance between brand-building and advocating for inclusivity, the brand is making all the right efforts towards delivering an empathetic message. Apart from their Pride packaging, they have collaborated with a queer-led organisation and for each package sold, it will contribute $1 to the organisation.

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The bottom line? Building resilient, empathetic campaigns that make noise and encourage conversations is crucial. Brands, agencies, and freelancers should stand for all-things-inclusivity. So, the focus should be to build campaigns from the ground up:

● Campaigns that create awareness

● That pushes their audience to educate themselves

● That uses the platform to create space for the community and finally,

● Campaigns that partner with organisations that are rigorously working towards the betterment of the community.

Love is love is love, and if all marketers who consider themselves allies (especially those in decision-making roles) understand that, every campaign, creative, and collaboration will be inherently inclusive. Now, that's a world I'd like to dream of.

(Ankita Mahabir is a strategist, a writer and the founder of Socially India – a Delhi/NCR based creative digital agency. As both, a marketer & a writer, she is driven by the power of well-written, stereotype-free content. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Starbucks   Brands   Fastrack 

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