With spring turning to summer, our Pacific Northwest skies are clear. Yet we’re still awash—or at least our clearance shelves are—in rainbows. Yep, just like clockwork, brands across the spectrum went gay for pay.
With LGBTQ consumer buying power nearing a trillion dollars, it’s no surprise that companies are looking to curry favor and cash in. But too many are doing so without a sense of provenance or long-term purpose. And it isn’t working.
Let’s step back.
Why a rainbow anyway?
It goes back to San Francisco in the ’70s. Army veteran and gay activist Gilbert Baker designed the first rainbow flag at the behest of gay rights icon and soon-to-be-martyr Harvey Milk. The original eight-stripe flag first flew at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade celebration in June 1978. Each of the colors bore a different significance: violet for spirit, indigo for serenity, turquoise for art or magic, green for nature, yellow for sunlight, orange for healing, red for life and hot pink for sex.
What about the pink triangle that Nike slapped on last year’s issue of its BETRUE collection?
It’s a reclaiming of the symbol used to mark gay men in concentration camps—victims and survivors of some of the Nazis’ most abhorrent treatment. Inspired in part by commentators like William F. Buckley calling for the internment or tattoo identification of AIDS patients, graphic designer Avram Finkelstein reintroduced it—now flipped to sit point high—in the late ’80s on his groundbreaking “Silence = Death” poster. Finkelstein quickly granted its use to ACT UP, an organization founded to drive political action on behalf of people living with HIV and AIDS. ACT UP had things to say about Nike’s coopting it to sell shoes. This year, Nike went back to the flag—the original eight-color version—to honor Baker.
So why June?
In 1960s New York, bars that catered to LGBT clientele were subject to frequent raids and their patrons to citation or arrest. On June 28, 1969, a raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village ignited a Molotov cocktail of oppression, alcohol and disaffected youth that exploded into the Stonewall riots. The violence spilled into the next night, the crowd growing into the thousands. In the months that followed, enterprising activists channeled that energy, catalyzing an unplanned uprising into a turning point in the fight for LGBT rights. The first Pride marches were held one year later in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Now, Pride events held across the U.S. and beyond in mid- to late June continue to celebrate LGBTQ empowerment and visibility.
Do I have to pass an LGBTQ history test before I use a rainbow in my marketing campaign?
Obviously not. But what if you did? How would that change your approach?
Appropriation happens when brands use the symbols of specific cultures or communities without full understanding of their history and nuance. When brands create products or campaigns without input from the people they’re trying to represent, it’s easy for diverse groups of people to get distilled to a single caricature: women like pink; black people like bling.
Sure, some of us like to deck ourselves out in rainbow gear one weekend a year. But we spend far more money across the other 51. And, when we do, we want to be seen as whole people. And we want to see proof that brands and companies see us that way too. We want visibility without the technicolor.
That’s why it matters so much to see brands like shaving company Harry’s include LGBTQ visibility in their year-round marketing campaigns—the ones that don’t run during Pride Month. Harry’s April TV spot, “Shave, or Don’t,” created in partnership with Fitzco, features an authentically diverse cast of men from different backgrounds, including a trans man. He isn’t the focus. And he isn’t a token. He is simply part of the wide world that Harry’s speaks to every day.
This year some brands, including Converse, IKEA, Lush, American Eagle and Nordstrom, sold limited-edition products for which 100% of the proceeds went to LGBTQ charities like GLAAD, GLSEN, The Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign and the It Gets Better Project. Others offered no transparency, gave paltry percentages with low maximum donations or simply went the straight cash-grab route—obliquely referencing past donations if pushed. These charities are doing valuable work and deserve all the money they can get. But LGBTQ consumers deserve more.
We deserve brands willing to go beyond a quick marketing campaign or a limited-edition, short-run product. We deserve brands like Harry’s, Absolut, Ben & Jerry’s and Levi’s with long histories of supporting LGBTQ rights. We deserve brands like Apple and Target and American Airlines that are willing to leverage their influence to push back against discriminatory legislation.
And we deserve better than brands that stay heteronormative 11 months a year, only letting their rainbow flag fly once the sky is already full.
So what can I do?
You can look inward before marketing outward: Do your company’s own values and policies address the needs of LGBT employees? You can seek out underrepresented voices: What do they think and what’s their experience with your brand? You can assess your marketing: Does your photography reflect and align with the audience you’re trying to reach?
You can ask questions.
Because when a rainbow is just an attempt to lead your brand to a new pot of gold, your audience sees it for what it is: just another trick of the light.