Jessica Goodfellow
Jun 1, 2021

Pride month: How can brands avoid pinkwashing?

To mark the beginning of Pride month, Hesperus Mak, the head of strategic planning at TBWA Group Vietnam, shares his tips on how brands should approach the LGBT event.

Pride month: How can brands avoid pinkwashing?

Pride celebrations in some markets in Asia have been gaining momentum in recent years, a good indicator of either growing LGBTQIA+ acceptance and inclusion, or a more empowered community. In other markets, progress is being undone. Brands seeking to align with the celebration should understand the difference.

Taiwan, which recovered quickly from Covid-19, hosted the world’s biggest in-person Pride celebration of the year in November with an estimated 130,000 attendees. The market drew its largest-ever Pride gathering in 2019 with more than 200,000 attendees, in the same year it made history as the first country in Asia to legalise gay marriage. 

While the LGBTQIA+ community in Taiwan came together the celebrate progress, the Philippines gathered the largest Pride parade of Southeast Asia in Metro Manila in 2019—with an estimated 77,000 attendees—for a different reason. One month before the celebration, President Rodrigo Duterte told a crowd that in his younger days he "cured" himself of homosexuality with the help of "beautiful women". His comments became a talking point of the event, as marchers pushed for same-sex rights in the deeply Catholic nation.

Contrasting the two record-breaking Pride events in 2019 shows the event is as much a political protest as it is a celebration. As we have discovered in our series exploring the lives of LGBQTIA+ individuals in Asia, while communities are growing, for many they are doing so under repressive laws. Daily discrimation, family and religious pressure remain common for many in the LGBTQIA+ community.

For some, the Pride celebration has been taken away altogether. In 2019, Hong Kong's annual Pride parade was downgraded to a stationary rally as police cracked down on gatherings amid the pro-democracy protests. China's only major annual celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community, Shanghai Pride, which had been growing in momentum over its 11 years, was shut down in August last year following mounting pressure from the authorities.

With awareness of LGBTQIA+ rights in Asia growing, we continue to see more LGBTQIA+ individuals featured in advertising and media, and a longer list of Pride-themed campaigns and products. But the requirement for brands to back up campaigns with action and understand the sensitivies in Asia is increasing. As with every diversity movement around the world, Pride should not be seen as simply a monetisation opportunity.

As we enter Pride month, we ask Asia-Pacific-based agency executives who are in the LGBTQIA+ community or have devised Pride campaigns, to give their advice on how brands can authentically celebrate the movement and avoid pinkwashing.

We begin with Hesperus Mak, the head of strategic planning at TBWA Group Vietnam, who also took part in our LGBTQIA+ interview series, providing a perspective from Vietnam.

Campaign Asia-Pacific: Brands are increasingly being called out for aligning with festivals or events without having policies in place to support the movements, from the Black Lives Matter movement to International Women’s Day. If a brand wants to celebrate Pride, what steps would you recommend they take to avoid being accused of pinkwashing?

I think there is a fine line between pinkwashing and supporting the movement. People today are very good at smelling inauthenticity. Authenticity is grounded in actions. Even Ellen DeGeneres, an icon of authenticity, had been cancelled overnight when people found out her actions didn’t match with what she said.

Often companies may overlook the fact that Pride is just one of the many occasions for the community. Firstly, Pride parades or events often happen at different times of the year depending on the country. Secondly, Pride usually exclusively shows people who have already come out, and forgets the majority that live under the radar.

So rather than using Pride to monetise, use Pride as an occasion to celebrate what your brand has done to support the community every day. There is more to be done in your company’s everyday practices. Start by looking at how you support your LGBT staff or cast a LGBT role in your regular ads.

How do you feel about pride-themed products, is this appropriate?

While it’s delightful to see more brands launching their Pride-themed products, I would expect more especially from international brands. It’s rather superficial to just slap the rainbow colour on your products and call it supporting the community. Design a good product but also donate part of your proceeds to support a LGBT cause. (RED) by Apple which supports HIV/AIDS programmes is a good example that shows launching a product can benefit a community.

In general, how do you feel about brands jumping on the Pride bandwagon? Do you find it ghettoising, that this is for many the only time they celebrate the LGBT community, or is it a positive reminder to do so?

In general it’s a positive trend to see, especially in Asia, that the acceptance towards the LGBT community is not as prevalent as in Europe or America. While I would hope to see brands make it more of a year-round effort, it’s still a good first step for a brand to just come out and say they recognize this community.

Which has more merit: a campaign targeting discrimination and stigmas, or a campaign celebrating the community?

I would encourage both because we need more conversations to talk about what LGBT community is. I think there are still lots of misconceptions in Asia. However I would gravitate towards unity over divide—the more we focus on the differences, the less likely the community would gain wider acceptance. Research shows that even in countries that have low LGBT acceptance, they would agree that LGBT right is a human right. Focus on the universal values that we all share helps us to be included.

If you see brands or organisations sharing the stories/experiences of their LGBT staff during Pride, how does this make you feel? Would you be more likely to buy from a brand that has actively engaged with the LGBT community?

I would certainly favour the brand a bit more if they actively engaged with the LGBT community. However I would also be curious about if they have a DEI policy in place to support those LGBT staff.

Can you provide examples of brands (preferably in APAC) that have nailed it when celebrating Pride?

Alibaba did an ad featuring a gay couple returning home in the Chinese New Year last year. It’s a perfect example of showing inclusion in the most important day of the year for a Chinese family. AIG Japan partnered with the New Zealand national rugby teams All Blacks and the Black Ferns to create a Pride Jersey. The jersey was made from a fabric that appears black but reveals a spectrum of rainbow colour when stretched to communicate the message of Diversity is Strength. What makes it believable is that AIG Japan has been rated Gold in the Pride Index in Japan for five consecutive years, showing its efforts in promoting diversity and inclusion.

Can you provide examples of brands (preferably in APAC) that have totally missed the mark when celebrating Pride?

Marks & Spencers launched a LGBT (Lettuce, Guac, Bacon, Tomato) sandwich in UK. It’s just embarrassing to see.

How would you say the Pride movement has evolved across APAC in recent years?

Pride participation was gradually increasing pre-Covid-19. However, the pandemic certainly took a toll on the movement with our attention turning to health as a priority. On the other hand we see more brands coming out to support LGBT community, which is definitely a motivating sign.

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