Marketing & PR

Rainbow Washing: Understanding Corporate Performativity

rainbow washing

Many people know June as Pride Month — the celebration of the LGBTQ+ community,  its history, and the ongoing fight for equality in the world. But with the celebration of Pride comes the opportunity to exploit it as well. Corporations and companies take part in “rainbow washing”, which is defined as the use of the Pride flag, rainbows, and other LGBTQ+ imagery by corporations, companies, and other for-profit businesses to indicate support for the community with minimum effort and action. 

Rainbow washing serves as a way for these businesses to pander to LGBTQ+ consumers and other “woke” members of society by feigning support with little attempts to take further action. Whether it’s donating profits to relevant charities and organizations or making inclusive and non-discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ employees, a lot of research shows a huge disparity between a company’s LGBTQ+-targeted advertising compared to their tangible support for the community. 

A history of corporate pride

Rainbow washing is just another form of performative activism, used to increase clout and social standing with an audience, rather than engaging in meaningful activism. Monetizing a movement like Pride among others (particularly Black Lives Matter) is essential to keep a business afloat. In an age where credibility and corporate social responsibility rule corporations, it is so important for them to prove their support for a movement like Pride and maintain brand loyalty within their customer base. 

With such important (and somewhat bleak) beginnings, treating Pride as if it’s a marketing opportunity is an insult to the people who fought and continue to fight for our liberation. 

While many of us treat Pride like a celebration now, it began as a fight for freedom of identity and expression. People often attribute the start of the LGBTQ+ liberation movement to the Stonewall Riots in the late 1960s, which began after New York police raided the Stonewall Inn. The raid resulted in a riot, with six days of protest and bloody clashes with law enforcement. With such important (and somewhat bleak) beginnings, treating Pride as if it’s a marketing opportunity is an insult to the people who fought and continue to fight for our liberation. 

Problematizing rainbow washing

If you’ve reached this part of the article and still don’t see the problems with rainbow washing, let’s break it down further. Corporations repeatedly commodify the imagery, presentation, and culture of a marginalized community by turning it into a marketable and saleable product. What’s more, profits made by selling these rainbow-slapped products often go right into the pockets of these corporations that often openly support anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and initiatives, rather than the community, whether it’s a charity or something similar.

Corporations often don’t show any further support for the community apart from tossing rainbows all over their marketing and changing their company logo for more than a month. It shows us that it only intends to support the LGBTQ+ community when it can benefit them in some way. Consider one of the most controversial cases of rainbow washing — the one and only Walt Disney Company. The epitome of the family-friendly entertainment media industry has had more than one brush with controversy over its rainbow washing and alleged “support” for the LGBTQ+ community. 

In 2022, the company released a collection of Pride merchandise, created plans to host Pride celebrations at all their parks, and tried to donate to the Human Rights Campaign for LGBTQ+ rights. All the while, Disney executives have repeatedly asked filmmakers to censor same-sex affection in their films and even celebrated having  “first-openly gay” characters 13 times, despite the so-called representation proving rather questionable and insubstantial. 

All in all, Disney and other corporations just like them fail to show their support in tangible means. 

And as the final nail in the coffin, Disney hasn’t confirmed its stance on the controversial Florida law “Don’t Say Gay” which prevents teachers from discussing gender and sexuality with young students. Disney’s largest theme park, Walt Disney World Resort, is in Orlando, Florida and many LGBTQ+ Disney fans are constantly being let down by their inability to show solidarity with the community. All in all, Disney and other corporations just like them fail to show their support in tangible means. 

How to stop supporting rainbow washing 

If you’ve ever fallen for these marketing and PR tricks, it happens. These products are purposefully marketed like that and it’s not necessarily your fault — but knowing this phenomenon, it’s up to you to look out for these initiatives and not invest in them. Granted, it’s easier said than done but there are a few things you want to look for

  • Companies that show their support throughout the year — consistent donations and initiatives for example
  • They center LGBTQ+ voices on the issues they want to address
  • Their support is transparent, meaning they have a clear mission statement on how they plan to uplift the LGBTQ+ community in their workplace
  • There is evidence of their support — their initiatives yield results
  • They address community issues and listen to feedback from members of the community

Personally, I’ve never supported the idea that big businesses can ever provide full support to the LGBTQ+ community without prioritizing profit. I’m more inclined to buy Pride merchandise from small businesses owned by LGBTQ+ members and independent artists who aren’t selling products for profit. 

However, I also know it can be difficult to get away from all the big brands and even harder to get away if you’re on a tight budget. Ultimately, understanding how companies market their products and recognizing when their strategies are harmful is the key to practicing responsible buying habits. 

Cover: Raphael Renter

Edited by: Yili Char

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