What is Pinkwashing?
Brands that pinkwash take the opportunity to profit off of rainbow or otherwise PRIDE affiliated merchandise in the month of June.
How did pinkwashing start?
These days, consumers may not bat an eye at pink campaigns, but before the modern progressive mentality, taking a stance against prevalent anti-LGBTQIA+ messages in the media did not exist.
After the ‘80’s, brands began advertising to queer folks after keenly identifing an emerging “Dream Market” of homonormative, double income, gay and lesbian couples.
When major companies started to profit off of their LGBTQIA+ affiliated campaigns, other companies saw success, carefully breaking into the market. The pink dollar became popular.
As with other marginalized groups, the fight for equity and equal representation endures. At first glance, the sudden onset of appreciation for the LGBTQIA+ community by mainstream brands and companies seemed wholly positive as LGBTQIA+ folks in mainstream media became more widely recognized.
Thus, without careful examination, brands appear to be putting forth effort to change institutionalized systemic oppression.
And yet, there lies the deception (the false support from private industry). As the United States in particular moved and continues to move towards putting not only fiscal, but also political power in the hands of corporate CEOs, many wonder whether companies truly intend to help the LGBTQIA+ community, or simply wish to yield capital gains.
In the 1990’s, even before the movement was more widely adopted, people viewed the bond between big companies and the then small, marginalized community as an LGBTQIA+ sellout.
What are the problems with pinkwashing?
At the onset of pink campaigning, many companies failed to include lesbian couples and trans folks in their campaigns. In what was marketed as an effort to be all inclusive, companies chose to create a palatable version of the gay narrative. (Gay= the image of a good-looking male couple.)
The way that companies use the pinkwashed image to define both themselves, and the larger message of what the LGBTQIA+ community looks like creates false assumptions. In 2005 during one of the the first high profile events of pink washing, Israel marketed itself as a progressive, gay- friendly tourist destination to attract visitors. However, the statements ended up becoming more of a marketing stunt. Their true purpose was to disguise violence and counterrevolutionary policies elsewhere in the region.
Similarly to the way Israel pinkwashed tourism, other brands have taken the opportunity to bring in capital by manipulating their image from beneath meaningless, often temporary masks. More recently, companies have taken to social media as part of a trend to change their user icons to an image of a rainbow or otherwise PRIDE affiliated image during June.
The action which some say shows surface level support, feels hollow as brands often don’t show up for their LGBTQIA+ employees, either by discriminating against them, or supporting anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians or the combination.
In years following, other brands have adopted similar tactics to deceive their audience. Some companies present themselves differently according to the audience. Last year, Facebook released a PRIDE reaction button during the month of June. Users with the button could react to other’s content with a specially designed rainbow icon.
However, in an effort to keep the user base high, not every account was given this new button. The company depended on political algorithms to designate the button to specific users and people in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston were more likely to have the new PRIDE button than people in other more conservative cities. The move made Facebook appear to be protecting their image against anti-LGBTQIA+ populations.
What does pinkwashing do to PRIDE?
The sinister nature of Pinkwashing appears in the small, often underdetected slights that companies use to manipulate their consumers. Fast fashion giant, Forever 21, released a campaign in which merchandise advertised a logo with a milk carton.
The campaign set out to honor the life and legacy of Harvey Milk, a prominent political activist in the 1970’s. The intention behind the Forever 21 campaign remains unknown, however critics argue that the milk campaign commercialized rather than memorialized the real work that Harvey Milk did for the LGBTQIA+ community.
The release of the campaign showed the brand’s transparent intention to engender PRIDE, compressing an entire history into an image on a tee-shirt. The fashion company depended on supporters to resonate with Harvey Milk, and to want to emblazon his name on their chest as a sign of respect. However, members of the community feel that the effort to elevate the great publicly gay politician did the opposite, rendering his entire life’s work meaningless, as his name symbolizes the entirety of PRIDE.
And as marketers target not just the LGBTQIA+ community, but also allies, PRIDE has crystalized into a single emotional ideology. To be PRIDEful is to simply appear physically or metaphorically clothed in rainbow for a show of support. In an unusual irony, brands that don’t support PRIDE are criticised for being out of touch, meaning they are deemed insensitive. The legacy of the violent protests at Stonewall boil down to a corporate trend, and true support of the LGBTQIA+ community loses meaning.
Smart consumers should take necessary measures to ensure that they scrutinize each PRIDE campaign they decide to purchase from or support, as some are downright destructive.
So, how do I know if a brand is pinkwashing?
Taking stock in the way companies behave during the month of June is a worthy effort, and many CEOs could stand to learn a lesson or two.
Yet, while taking precautions when consuming remains integral to the progression of LGBTQIA+ rights, complete dismissal of PRIDE may not also be a supportive choice. In a popular Medium article, writer and member of the LGBTQIA+ ocmmunity, Bjorn Johann, argues that witnessing overt, public displays of rainbow and PRIDE affiliated merchandise make her feel good about her lesbian identity.
If she can feel welcomed and visible by Target, a store in which conservative people also shop, then the reach by which corporate PRIDE achieves provides some positive benefit.
Ultimately, pinkwashing feels similar to any campaign in which companies attempt to target cultural groups to yield profit. Think of the recent black squares populating instagram, and the empty company promise to amend missteps in their racial policies. Cross checking the policies each company enacts is integral to conscious consumption. However, let us not forget that profit oriented companies dominate.
For a company to genuinely show up for their community, consumers must demand every effort taken to support them year round.
If you like this article, check out our podcast episodes: Sara Hunterand and Katani Sumner – Build your Racial Sensitivity and Bejay Mulenga – An Entrepreneur at 14
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