Big brands seem to agree, tripping over one another in the race to bring their celebration of LGBT+ people firmly out of the closet and into the public eye. However, despite the fact I can now buy bottles of shower gel adorned with the rainbow flag, I remain deeply cynical about surface level tokenism and the air of performative allyship that tends to go hand in hand with some of these initiatives. Instead of feeling buoyed by the saturation of corporate rainbow-bright banner waving, the commodification of queerness and attempts to capitalise on activist history has left a bitter taste in my mouth, despite Listerine’s best attempts to assuage it. There is an argument that increased visibility is part of normalisation and increases public support, but something about that purported correlation doesn't stack up. In a year when more brands than ever are displaying their rainbow flags, LGBT+ motivated hate crime is on the rise both in the U.S. and in the UK. This year the usual mutterings about straight pride have actually garnered some traction. There is a huge inconsistency between the hollow flag-waving uptick in corporate support that suggests acceptance, inclusion and heightened support for LGBT+ people on the one hand, and the reality that LGBT+ people are experiencing higher rates of backlash and violence on the other.
Terms such as ‘rainbow’ or 'pink' capitalism, 'pinkwashing' and references to courting the ‘pink pound’ or ‘pink dollar’ are relatively recent. I use the term rainbow capitalism here to reference the commodification of LGBT+ identities, marketing aimed at LGBT+ consumers and co-opting queer history and identity for corporate profit. I use the term 'pink pound' to refer to financial investment in corporations or products by LGBT+ consumers. When thinking about historic instances of rainbow capitalism, using the broader LGBT+ acronym is misleading as the type of consumer targeted by corporations was not so broadly diverse as the use of the a more expansive acronym would suggest. Brands seeking to capitalise on the financial potential of the pink pound focused primarily on affluent, gay, predominantly white, cisgendered men. Although lesbians also attracted some brand attention, they were historically less likely to be targeted by corporations, as noted by historian Rebecca Jennings who observes that they were initially thought to wield less purchasing power. The associations between women and domesticity remained influential on marketeers well into the late twentieth century.
Although it might seem as though everyone with a product to sell is suddenly obsessed with rainbows, scholars such as Justin Bengry work to undo the myth that marketing products towards an LGBT+ consumer is a new phenomenon. The potential spending power of gay male consumers in particular has been recognised by marketeers for a long time. Bengry suggests that the link between homosexuality and consumer capitalism vastly predates those marketing strategies that followed legislative change in the U.S. and Britain from the 1970s onwards, the period most commonly associated with the boom in advertising designed to harness the spending power of white, affluent gay men. Bengry uses the British Men Only magazine published in the 1930s as an example of such strategies in its use of “visual and textual codes…which could speak to queer consumers while remaining hidden to the unknowing” (Bengry, 2009). Less covert marketing began with the golden days of gay liberation in the 1970s when “marketers started conceptualizing gay men as a potentially lucrative market” (Campbell, 2015) and “[g]ay men became the hot new demographic for corporate America” (Faderman and Timmons, 2009). Advertisements were strategically placed in magazines catering to the gay male reader and corporate branding infiltrated spaces like San Francisco’s Castro District, seeking to profit from the mass migration of gay men that flocked to cities such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles during that decade.
The brands in those days were not concerned with less economically viable LGBT+ people, but rather the ones with the economic means to spend. The consumers most obviously targeted by brands were noticeably different to the people at the forefront of gay lib activism such as the transgender women of colour, butch lesbians, hustlers and LGBT+ homeless youth that spent time at The Stonewall Inn. In the UK too, such a limited focus by corporations was at direct odds with the politics of activist groups such as the London Gay Liberation Front, who were stridently anti-capitalist and sought to “change society, not conform to it” (Tatchell, 2019). Many of the people associated with LGBT+ activism both in the UK and the U.S. during that period sought to resist assimilation and fought for radical change. Their focus looked beyond the limited demographic that corporations seemed to find so compelling, and extended beyond LGBT+ communities, to advocate for other marginalised groups. The corporate investment in marketing towards gay men was not only inconsistent with the broader aims of LGBT+ activism at the time, but it also didn't translate into any political reprieve. As big brands sought to capitalise on the purchasing power of affluent gay men in the cities, the same gay men continued to find their sexuality routinely and aggressively policed both in the U.S. and the UK. It is difficult to see what benefit the marketeers focus on the gay male demographic had on LGBT+ people more broadly, or even on gay men themselves. The commodification of queer space would become partly responsible for the later erasure and sanitisation of many counter-cultural facets of queer life in the areas that had been so vibrant. Many brands targeting gay men also proved to be fickle when it came to their favoured LGBT+ consumer.
In the 1980s the moral panic that accompanied the AIDS crisis saw corporations distancing themselves from gay male purchasers and focusing on the heterosexual male in a new wave of commercialised masculinity that marked what Helene Shugart refers to as “the start of a dramatic shift toward the general objectification of the male body.” Although this commercial shift in the 1980s was explicitly geared towards heterosexual consumers, marketing campaigns employed the covert strategies of old in the hope of continuing to attract the pink pound, relying on homoerotic aesthetics to appeal to the gay male gaze. In the 1990s "corporate interest in courting the gay market increased...after several marketing surveys constructed an image of gay men and lesbians as economically prosperous and highly loyal consumers" (Campbell, 2015) and mainstream marketing continued the trend of courting gay male consumers whilst simultaneously disavowing them. This was a primary and much-derided feature of metrosexuality in the 1990s, at times aggressively homophobic and gendered in its arduous attempts to distance itself from ‘gayness’ and effeminacy. It is noteworthy that many corporations explicitly targeted LGBT+ communities during a time of particular prosperity and were noticeably silent during a period of unparalleled loss, stigma, grief and rage. It is certainly difficult to set aside initial cynicism about rainbow capitalism today with the benefit of that context.
To consider where we are now—post-marriage equality in a Pride month that has seen multiple big brands jumping on the bandwagon of rainbow capitalism—marketing strategies of old provide useful context. The demographic of consumer they were designed to appeal to, their impact on raising the visibility of that demographic as the desirable stereotype and the cynical and fickle nature of such strategies are important to keep in mind when critiquing rainbow capitalism today. It has been around for a long time and whilst the desire to court the LGBT+ consumer may be well and truly out of the closet these days, it feels as though not much has changed in terms of the purchasers much of the branding aims to attract, or the manner in which they show support in the least objectionable fashion, the path of least resistance. When big business throws its weight behind LGBT+ causes it tends to support, rather than subvert, those marketing strategies that have historically privileged certain members of LGBT+ communities. As others such as Teen Vogue have noted, the commodified queerness offered by big brands today upholds and reinforces privileges that are already present in LGBT+ communities, with an eye on most affluent members that wield the most purchasing power and economic influence. Although some corporations are more thoughtful in their strategies and/or seek to engage more diversely with LGBT+ consumers, in all cases rigorous attention is required to establish which corporations really put their money where their rainbow flag is.
On the one hand, when big business throws its weight behind LGBT+ causes it can be assumed to have a positive impact on LGBT+ employees in those spaces. However, there is an inconsistency between the banner-waving, parade-leading corporate message and statistics that demonstrate as many as 35% LGBT+ employees in the UK are closeted in the workplace (Stonewall, 2018) and 46% in the U.S. (HRC Foundation, 2018). In the case of the U.S. that figure has decreased from 50% in 2008 but over a decade on from the first study there doesn't appear to have been much change that would correlate with the increase in LGBT+ friendly corporate branding. Deena Fidas, director HRC's Workplace Equality Program, comments in the context of the study: “While LGBTQ-inclusive corporate policies are becoming the norm, LGBTQ workers too often face a climate of bias in their workplace.” Analysing big business and its support of LGBT+ people becomes still more complex when you consider the affiliations and investments made by those corporations on a global scale. It is an arduous task to go through the full chain of corporate ownership to establish whether colourful and celebratory public support of LGBT+ people is consistent with other business strategies throughout the organisation. Even a good record of LGBT+ employee satisfaction alone does not equal unqualified and meaningful LGBT+ support. A recent article by LGBTQ Nation demonstrates how big businesses scoring highly on LGBT+ equality in the workplace have also donated to politicians with anti-LGBT views. In a globalised economy it is possible that many of the big corporations that are so visible during Pride month may have trading arrangements with jurisdictions where being LGBT+ remains a criminal offence. It takes a significant amount of diligence on a corporation by corporation basis to establish the extent to which the ethics of those ultimately gaining the most financial profit from waving the rainbow flag in ‘safe’ jurisdictions are consistent with their wider, global policies or their political affiliations.
I am not intrinsically opposed to any affiliation between LGBT+ rights and corporate support. Some corporations donate 100% of their profits to worthwhile causes, some give visibility to smaller, queer-led organisations, and charities who do significant work lobbying parliament and/or helping marginalised people in local communities frequently require the financial support of businesses. That support can help pay their volunteers or put funds into projects that desperately need them. It can encourage political focus or otherwise impact positively on LGBT+ lives. I come from a background in finance myself, and I have friends that work tirelessly within big institutions to raise visibility of LGBT+ issues. Even then, I can't help thinking about queer labour. There is time—often freely dedicated—and emotional work involved in spearheading these initiatives or becoming a spokesperson for a cause within big organisations. In all spaces the burden of education is too frequently placed on those belonging to marginalised groups themselves, those who experience multiple barriers to entry, yet are simultaneously part of promoting corporate diversity, required to balance day-to-day work with raising awareness of systemic issues in the workplace that continue to impact LGBT+ people today.
Supporting a cause involves much more than colourful and ultimately meaningless attempts to capitalise on the positive, the happy and the glitter-soaked party atmosphere of big Pride events. In the hands of LGBT+ people the rainbow can speak of defiance and community. It can be used in ways that respect a history of activism. In the hands of corporations with an eye on the profit margins they are all too frequently used as lip-service, a tick-box exercise in corporate diversity that fails to engage with the work that is the most pressing and urgent. There is racism, biphobia and transphobia rife within our own communities, and outside our purportedly safe spaces LGBT+ motivated hate crimes are increasing at a staggering rate. In that context it is difficult to feel cheered by the abundance of rainbows accompanied by bland statements like ‘love is love’ that themselves feel exclusionary when it comes to large swathes of LGBT+ people. Big brands can’t show up to the party empty handed and disappear before the clean-up takes place. More is required than the hollow rubber stamp of corporate approval for an acceptable kind of queer happiness driven by ideas of conformity and assimilation.
On one level the normalisation and visibility of LGBT+ people within big business could be considered a win, an improvement on the covertly coded marketing of old. On the other hand, there is little to be gained by a rainbow-saturated vision that appropriates and profiteers from one, celebratory aspect of queer experience in ignorance of all others. Most worryingly, the co-opting of symbols of LGBT+ activism by big brands has the knock-on impact of suggesting to the outward observer that things are better than fine—that progress has now gone too far, a criticism commonly levelled by those on the right of politics, the ones trying to organise the straight prides. It can also lead to complacency among LGBT+ communities and allies at a time of increased vulnerability in a turning political tide propelled by the sentiment that enough is enough.
When thinking about this topic I keep coming back to Audre Lorde’s cautionary note that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Heightened visibility and financial backing through corporate support has the ability to do much good, but not if such support is qualified or limited to a dominant and already privileged group of LGBT+ people. Not if it reinforces the binaries that harm so many people within LGBT+ communities, or when it serves to erase the continued struggles faced by many LGBT+ people today. To be vocal about the less complicated issues, the ones that are unlikely to put off straight, cisgendered consumers, or to embrace only the fun parts of LGBT+ activism whilst staying noticeably silent on others is not a helpful approach.
Queer activist history is rooted in resisting conformity and critiquing political malaise and normativity. The riotous demonstrations and protests that formed such a critical part of bringing about change were not born out of apathetic rainbow branding. They were instigated by people who remain some of the most vulnerable and marginalised within LGBT+ communities today. That is a disgrace and it demonstrates how much work remains to be done. Work that extends far beyond counting the gold at the end of the corporate rainbow.