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For the past decade or so, it’s been an unofficial sport among LGBTQ people (and their allies) to mock brands for their heartbreaking attempts to celebrate Pride Month. While much of this marketing seems well-intentioned and harmless at worst, it’s ultimately self-serving: Companies can appear “progressive” by doing the bare minimum to acknowledge and honor a marginalized group—and sell directly to that demographic in the process. It’s often as basic as switching to a rainbow logo.
You can see what the empty circles are a little bit about this: In what way can cough medicine represent the values associated with Pride? Just by public token on social media. The practice, sometimes called “awakening washing,” has drawn not only derision but criticism from those on the left who find it a cynical extension of the commercial impulses that drive capitalism itself.
Of course, it’s not like rainbows were sitting well with homophobic elements on the right, either. “Why does everything have to be political nowadays,” these haters, no one in particular, might grumble. But brands can ignore this opposition because of the profit to be made from LGBTQ and liberal consumers who are charmed by the appearance of inclusivity and tolerance.
This changed over the past year. The hardline “anti-woke” movement — supercharged by the internet, amplified by politicians, and focused on demonizing LGBTQ individuals — has mobilized to threaten businesses that publicly show a whiff of solidarity with these groups. From Bud Light and Disney to North Face and Target, companies are finding that harmless rainbow merchandise, ad campaigns featuring trans or gay celebrities, and donations to LGBTQ organizations can lead to online hate campaigns along with calls for a boycott. Historically, these attacks haven’t done much harm to bottom lines, but they’ve skyrocketed lately — and brands are clearly terrified of the noise.
Business has met the new challenge in different ways, usually aiming for a turbulent compromise that satisfies no one. For example, Target promised to remove some Pride-themed clothing from its stores, only for belligerent conservatives to film themselves throwing tantrums about the Pride shows that remained there. The Los Angeles Dodgers rescinded a charity group’s invitation to Pride Night due to pressure from the right, then re-invited them and announced “Christian Faith and Family Day”.
Other companies, however, seem to have given in completely to the anti-LGBTQ mob (see Major League Baseball logo quick swap above). Some kept silent about the month of pride, despite previous promotions on the occasion. Which means that brands sticking to their marketing language of “love is love” — the kind of cheap, bland sentiment that once might have been dismissed as calculated emotional play — now sound like, well, bravery? Initial? Ready to face the fanatics, no matter the cost?
PetSmart was among the names that faced “backlash” in the past week, thanks to a line of Pride-based clothing and toys that are supposed to wake up your pooch. (They also donated $200,000 to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which works to end bullying and violence against LGBTQ youth in schools.) When the day began June 1, PetSmart didn’t hold back, instead offering the collection as planned on Facebook, along with Pictures of guinea pigs and lizards in rainbow gear.
Blown along with Target for Pride clothing, however, Kohl’s encouraged people to “inspire and embrace your authentic self” with a video featuring LGBTQ models wearing the items, enduring a barrage of nasty comments. Absolut Vodka, one of the first major alcohol brands to advertise in exotic media and in line with Pride, continues to sell its trademark rainbow bottles. And despite MLB’s capitulation, the New York Mets staunchly maintained the Pride banner on Twitter, unfazed by the chorus of exasperation in their responses.
It’s almost embarrassing to be grateful that a handful of multibillion-dollar corporate behemoths have shrugged off a disgusting moral panic, suggesting they’d rather have LGBTQ clients than extremists bent on erasing these identities from public life. After all, a lot of that support still boils down to, uh, the colors. For some brands to avoid falling into the culture war trap is a bit of a bittersweet victory.
However, they’ve passed a critical test right now, and in that sense… you’ll probably have to hand it over to them. Gestures that meant relatively little in “normal” times are taking on new significance in an age of genocidal rhetoric about a powerless minority. By standing up to such organized abuse, even if it’s only online, you can send an implicit message that no corporate giant could spell out: “Fuck you losers.”
Was this not always the other side of the joy expressed in pride? If you want to stay mad at people who enjoy their sheer diversity, too bad for you. Yes, companies haven’t stopped trying to squeeze money out of the occasion, but when the alternative is to watch it stop abruptly—as if for fear of alienating fascists looking for the next brand to scrap it—we know the better outcome. I wouldn’t say I have to buy a rainbow tie for my cat. It’s nice that I can.
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