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The rise of pride marketing and the curse of ‘pink washing’

Corporate pride. Steven Damron, CC BY

With the gay pride season coming to a close, here is a question: have you withdrawn money from a multi-coloured gAyTM this summer? Or have you even tucked into your Burger King Pride Whopper? And if you have, are you aware that it might just be the latest stage in an awkward history of corporate “pink washing”?

Celebrating LGBT rights is a fashionable topic in marketing land. Long gone are the days where marketers may have only coyly targeted the LGBT community. In today’s marketing, at least for some, even queer products for a straight audience have become mainstream – used to sell anything from fast food to credit cards, clothing to eReaders – but it’s not clear whether this is a real “win win” for the market and the LGBT community.

It remains notoriously difficult to define who makes up the “LGBT community”, and particularly what identifying as LGBT means in terms of lifestyle, political goals and choice of partners or a mix of all of the above. It is, nevertheless, fairly simple to establish that the relationship between the “community” and “mainstream marketers” has not always been an easy one.

Rise of the pink dollar

Although the world’s first gay magazine, Der Eigene, was published in Germany in 1892, it wasn’t until the late 1950s and beyond that more prominent gay media began to emerge as laws outlawing homosexual activities were softened. However, in the early days, advertising in LGBT media was largely restricted to LGBT organisations, and LGBT-owned businesses directly targeting the community.

A vodka tonic for LGBT. torbakhopper, CC BY

Maybe because of the political (and sometimes sexual nature) of many publications, major advertisers were cautious to advertise in the gay press. Even widely discussed (and criticised) survey data kick started a narrative of the “pink dollar” and an affluent and untapped marketing demographic failed to spark a rush. The emergence of AIDS in the 1980s helped to rein in commercial attitudes towards the LGBT community and it wasn’t until the second half of the decade that the first few mainstream brands – Absolut Vodka’s campaign in The Advocate, for example – started cautiously appearing in gay magazines alongside the community organisations and businesses.

It was the 1990s which saw a genuine turnaround. Advertisers openly hailed the “Dream Market” of urban, well-educated, double-income gay and lesbian couples. Yet, there was still a palpable fear of broader public attitudes towards LGBT issues, with few advertisers trying to openly depict LGBT storylines in their advertising directed at mainstream customers.

Instead, advertisers relied on targeting LGBT-identifying individuals through increasingly sophisticated media channels aimed at the community, such as radio stations, television channels, and an increasing variety of glossy lifestyle magazines, each one educating their gay audiences where to spend their, supposedly, high disposable income in terms of fashion, travel, art and fine cuisine.

It’s complicated

Not everyone welcomed the newly found love affair between big business and small community, and the effect of “selling out” the LGBT political agenda. From the start, there have been concerns about the portrayals of LGBT individuals in marketing. For instance, research by Katherine Sender has highlighted the fact that marketers continue to avoid targeting or portraying lesbians. While Ellen and The L Word have somewhat softened the stereotype, Sender found that many advertisers still see lesbians as “neither fish nor fowl”. Other forms of sexual identities, including bisexuality and transsexual identities are virtually absent from any form of commercial representation.

Scholars have also warned that increased LGBT visibility compromises the original social justice agenda of the LGBT movement. In Alexandra Chasin’s research, “going to the market” means abandoning the effort to challenge inequalities in society. Instead there is an acceptance of normalisation and depoliticisation as a consequence of greater economic relevance – at least for those select few that have been chosen as targets for advertisers.

There is certainly ample evidence of “normalising” depictions of LGBT identities by mainstream advertisers when depicting LGBT lifestyles – something that scholars refer to as “homonormativity”. It is a concept complementary to heteronormativity, the assumption that all individuals fall into two complementary categories as males and females and that they behave in accordance with their gendered “norms”.

Homonormativity is the assimilation of these norms into the LGBT culture and identity: in other words, it is the assumption that gay couples are just like every one else. As Lisa Duggan has pointed out:

[Homonormativity] does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.

Becoming bolder

Following successes by targeting the LGBT market directly, some marketers also made bold steps out of the ghetto – and started to use gay themes in advertising targeted mostly at a non-gay audience. A first came in 1994. Playing on the stereotype of the worldly, urban gay male couple, equipped with a superior sense of style and fashion, IKEA showcased a same-sex couple choosing furniture at the store. The advert was widely celebrated by gay groups, with only fringe voices raising concerns about the stereotypical depiction of the gay characters.

First gay TV commercial IKEA ad 1994.

Other organisations followed: controversially, in 2005, Israel started to promote itself as a gay-friendly tourist destination. The campaign was designed to portray Israel as a progressive country – against a backdrop of violence and regressive policies of other governments in the region. The campaign was widely criticised as “pinkwashing”, with critics arguing the campaign was intended to offer up a “relevant and modern” alternative to the controversy and anger over the treatment of Palestinians.

Open LGBT depictions in mainstream marketing were still relatively exceptional, until recently. Taking a lead from the popularity of “LGBT inclusive” television programmes such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, big marketers have come out of the closet: From Amazon to JCPenney in the US – not to forget Barclays Bank in the UK – all have seemingly thrown their corporate weight behind the LGBT movement.

However, just as was the case with Israel, you can’t shake the feeling that these companies are glad for the distraction from their own controversies. Barclays has been the most complained about bank in the UK for a few years running now. JCPenney’s same-sex mothers and fathers advertising came just after the company announced large-scale redundancies. And Amazon faces a host of criticism ranging from poor working conditions and tax avoidance to treatment of smaller publishers.

Their association with the LGBT equality message might genuinely reflect a desire to distance themselves from past controversies – and to become more inclusive and open. But the suspicion will be that they are indulging in a bit of low-cost “pink washing” to soften the edges of some spiky reputational damage. Companies need to do more than just depict a gay guy, or a lesbian couple, or adorn their products with the rainbow flag – especially when faced with increasingly knowledgeable, and cynical, consumers who hopefully can see through a touch of pink sparkle.

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