By Armaan Gheewala
50% off. 75% off. Clearance sales for pride merchandise can be seen from the windows of shops and in online stores. As June comes to an end, firms are gearing up to start their next advertising venture. This begs the question of whether the commercialisation of pride harms its original intention, and where we draw the line between companies genuinely caring about LGBTQ+ rights or just wanting to boost their short-term profits for the month of June.
The first pride parade took place on the 28th June 1970 – marking the one year anniversary of the stonewall riots on the 28th of June 1969 in New York City at Stonewall inn where police raided the bar at a time where police brutality against LGBTQ+ people was the norm. The customers of the bar, however, fought back: fighting for their right to live authentically, and by doing so, sparking a global movement that we would come to know today as pride. This historical moment of hope opened the opportunity for organisations and charities to be established to help protect and prevent the oppression of the LGBT+ community.
Some may argue that, in the UK, pride month is unnecessary as queer people have legal equality, but to what extent have they have social and economic equality?
A pay gap between heterosexual/cisgender people and LGBT+ people still exists resulting from persisting social attitudes within the workplace: economic inequality has yet to be eliminated. There have been several efforts to close the pay gap, for example a study conducted in the UK following the implementation of Employment Equality Regulation found that 57.8% of workers were out and research indicated that there was the presence of positive relationships between LGB and non-LGB colleagues and the existence of LGB groups. However, because of certain prejudices employers hold, they may offer a lower wage solely to LGBT people – the main driver of wage inequality. From a solely economic perspective, this can be seen as an inefficient use of resources – making jobs less competitive to queer people, leading to an inefficient use of productivity and output, promoting overall economic welfare loss – a sacrifice solely due to social prejudice on behalf of the employer.
Further, within the workplace, Stonewall and YouGov found that 18% of gay people experienced some sort of discrimination based on their sexual orientation in the last 12 months, signalling that even if wage equality is attained, we not yet eradicated the obstacles faced by queer people in the workplace. While strides have been made to minimise LGBT related discrimination, it continues to persist.
Pride is not limited to celebrating the progression attained to those living in more liberal economies. It is also important to recognise the inequality that is faced by millions of LGBT+ people in countries around the world where it is illegal to be gay or transgender. Beyond legal inequality, many people suffer from an extortionate amount of abuse and discrimination leading to higher amounts of social and economic inequality which can range from lower wages compared to co-workers to fear for one’s wellbeing and safety: in much of the middle east, for instance, citizens face prison time for being gay.
Thus, we must recognise that while huge strides have been made in recent decades for citizens in the western world, being able to live authentically without any legal prosecution is not a freedom that is shared globally.
The scepticism towards firms during pride month is therefore unsurprising, as one may quite reasonably question whether these companies are simply piggybacking off the already popular message of pride. There is a concern that by reducing its message to simple virtue signalling slogans, firms may take away from the component of pride that raises awareness of the atrocities that so many face around the world.
The main way in which companies commercialise pride whilst exploiting their consumers is through a method called performative activism – where an agent engages in activism not because of their devotion to the cause but to further their social or economic capital. Through this, they appropriate pride month, an already well-known movement, to revamp their business image and appear more appealing to consumers by demonstrating their support. As soon as firms advertise these products, they align themselves with the LGBTQ+ community by sending a message to their customers that they support legal, social and economic equality for LGBT+ people. When they violate this stance, they must be held accountable.
In 2011 Heinz released an advert depicting two men kissing. Yet, the advert was immediately pulled when it angered anti-LGBT group. Their decision to pull the ad rendered them labelled as homophobic, for their action demonstrated that the company prioritised customers who openly discriminate against gay people over supporting the LGBT community. This action perfectly highlights the double standards that some firms hold – that ultimately, they act solely with the goal of maximising profits and do not necessarily feel compelled to align themselves with the ideology of queer equality, if it damages their reputation. So, whilst the commercialisation and consumerism of pride does not necessarily harm or hurt the image of Pride, it has the potential to dilute and reduce the intent of the month. Pride month is about celebrating how far the community has come, but also recognising the struggles many queer people still face and how there are still harmful views being held by much of the world.
Another example of performative activism is the Deliveroo LGBTQQIAAP soup, a play on the typical alphabet soup. Whilst this product may be perceived to have good intentions: the company are illustrating their allyship towards the community and all proceeds are going to switchboard – a British LGBT+ telephone helpline, the product itself is quite harmful. First, the play on words may be interpreted as offensive, playing up to the trivialisation of each of these identities without stating what each of these identities means – thereby not informing allies and queer people of the spectrum of the community. It also reinforces the criticism applied to virtue signalling firms: ‘how do you help the LGBT community, buy our products’. This method of advertising can convince consumers that they are aiding the community, without considering the motivations of the firm: profit maximisation and industry dominance.
Some firms instead choose relatively simple ways to show their allyship to the community, for example, by temporarily changing an application icon or hanging a rainbow flag in their store. By doing this, they are signalling to everyone that they support the LGBT+ community and discrimination will not be tolerated in their space. For many people, whether they’re part of the community or not, this symbolic gesture is appreciated. There is less likely to be an ulterior motive through this method of signalling, for there is less opportunity to increase profit. By focusing less on the commercialisation of pride, these gestures retain some of the original intention – to signal support for the full equality of LGBT+ people.
When examining how firms profit from pride and the LGBT+ community, one must consider the idea of pink money and pink capitalism – concepts alluding to the purchasing power held by the community and their integration into the market economy. In the UK, the pink pound is estimated to be worth £6 billion per year. This has created the opportunity for firms to capitalise on the community, especially during pride month, by infiltrating the ‘pink economy’ as well as through the purchasing power of allied heterosexual/cisgender people to generate as much profit as possible. This is mainly done through pink washing or rainbow washing – producing limited edition products adorned in rainbows or other signals of the LGBT+ community unsubstantiated with support.
Yet, with the growth of the LGBT+ community and broader awareness of rainbow washing, firms must adapt to appeal to the LGBT+ consumer by attempting to cater to their needs. A study found that in the USA and Western Europe, there is a positive correlation between the growth of the pink economy and expenditure on luxury goods and services. It is estimated that gay people spend 15% more than straight people on luxury goods. Knowing this information, companies will use this to tailor their business models and advertising strategies to tap into this market and maximise their profit. With the growth of LGBT+ rights being granted globally, putting a rainbow on their products will not be enough for firms to attract LGBT+ customers, but instead must diversify products that are directly aimed at to this new and expanding demographic which will help to reduce the commercialisation of pride.
In the last few years, more companies have started to engage in meaningful marketing – where the motivation of the firm’s branding and advertising goes beyond the sale of the product, to help educate and encourage the donation to LGBT+ centred organisations, in a way that does not benefit the company in any way. This reduces the impact that the oversaturation and commercialisation of the rainbow has caused and by donating and truly promoting these organisations and encouraging the spread of information, companies can truly and authentically signal their allyship and support of the LGBT+ community. More than monetary donations, the most important goal of pride month is to inform everyone about the community, and it’s struggles to ensure that true social and economic equality is an achievable goal.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.