Paul Dazeley
Jun 27, 2022

Rainbow-washing: a partial, half-hearted defence

Not all brands should have free reign over the rainbow, but nonetheless brands do have a unique power to disrupt society and inform our culture.

Rainbow-washing: a partial, half-hearted defence

As quickly as the Jubilee celebrations ended, marketers have folded up their Union Jack bunting and dusted off their rainbow flags. After eleven months of radio silence on LGBTQ+ issues, brands are gearing up for Pride month with their most authentic attempts at inclusivity. At the same time, the past 12 months have witnessed the rise of the “Hi gay” meme, capturing the truth that audiences now struggle to distinguish between well-executed satire and a genuine Pride campaign.

As the annual rainbow-washing season commences, it’s important we distinguish between those lazy misfires and the more sinister attempts to exploit the Pride movement. While it could be argued that rainbow-washing is as dangerous as it is disappointing, being critical by default of all Pride activations risks discouraging brands from doing work that directly benefits the LGBTQ+ community.

Rainbow-washing is a relatively new term, reflecting the growing frustration with brands attempting to exploit the Pride movement. The spark that ignited the now annual purge of corporate rainbow-washers could well be the infamous LGBTQ+ sandwich that M&S launched back in 2019. For some people, it was simply an amusing and slightly clumsy gesture, while others were more cynical.   

It’s doubtful that M&S set out to deliberately exploit Pride, and it seems unlikely that it brings an annual surge in profits in June as the LGBTQ+ community grab the rare opportunity to enjoy guacamole with their BLT. More likely, it was simply an amusing idea from an LGBTQ+ colleague that somehow became a reality. And if a throwaway suggestion can successfully inspire an annual donation to the Albert Kennedy Trust, that should be seen as a positive thing. The corporate donations LGBTQ+ charities receive during Pride Month have a huge impact on their annual accounts.

But making a donation might not even be necessary in order to escape the fury often levelled at rainbow-washing brands. Perhaps controversially, it’s possible that simply plastering a rainbow across every brand touchpoint does have a positive impact (assuming it’s the Pride Progress Flag rather than the traditional rainbow, which could now be attributed to the NHS – but that’s a whole other article).   

For one month a year, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the LGBTQ+ community exists and their favourite brand is a proud ally. Every high street shop front, every supermarket aisle, even the app logos on our phones; there is one month of the year that Pride is simply unavoidable.

This is not an insignificant thing. For every disappointed LGBTQ+ person complaining about a brand lazily hijacking pride, there are many more people who would prefer the LGBTQ+ community existed quietly behind closed doors. As bigotry has evolved in recent months from outright homophobia into an unashamed attack on the "woke agenda", brands have an almost unique power to disrupt society and inform our culture.

This doesn’t mean that all brands should have free reign over the rainbow. If a business behaves in a way that is actively discriminatory towards the LGBTQ+ community, it’s unacceptable for them to misappropriate symbols of the Pride movement. When a clothing retailer launches a "gender neutral’"clothing line or a gym proudly proclaims it welcomes "every body", they are telling the LGBTQ+ community that this is a safe place. If a trans or non-binary person is then excluded from changing rooms or refused service, that brand’s rainbow-washing has put people at risk. When a marketing campaign puts people in danger, an inexcusable line has been crossed.  

Almost any brand engaging in Pride will attract a degree of questioning, but it is important to recognise that not all rainbow-washing was created equally. When brands do drastically fail to live up to the inclusive values that they align their brand with, they are rightly derided with public outcry or staff retaliation. Such well-publicised backlash does hold those corporations to account and may even drive tangible change within their organisation and progress for the LGBTQ+ community.  

To that end, let’s not lose sight of the gold standard for Pride activations. We should always be aiming for truly authentic representations of the diverse LGBTQ+ community in campaign activity that is created in partnership with paid LGBTQ+ collaborators. We should have measurable KPIs focused on the benefit that the LGBT+ community will receive from the campaign, and we should ensure that our business policies and behaviours reflect the inclusivity we promote for both our consumers and our staff.   

Optimistically, some of this year’s Pride activations will be incredible and impactful for the LGBTQ+ community. Likewise, some pride activations will be entirely disingenuous and rightly derided for their misplaced virtue signalling.

The unremarkable but well-meaning majority will end up hastily blasting a rainbow across their social media avatars or launching a dubiously themed snack – going some way to ensuring the Pride movement remains visible to the world. We should, of course, aim higher and focus on delivering value back to the LGBTQ+ community but, if all else fails, a bigot-scaring rainbow won’t go amiss.


Paul Dazeley, head of planning at TMW Unlimited

Campaign UK

Related Articles

Just Published

1 hour ago

Sexual harassment at Cannes: A 'difficult yet ...

People need to trust that employers, event organisers and others with a duty of care are looking out for them, says Digital Cinema Media's Karen Stacey.

1 hour ago

Amazon and GroupM partner to embed brands in live ...

E-commerce giant and media agency network have been engaged in an exclusive partnership for the past six months to create branded shoppable livestreams.

1 hour ago

Havas pushes integration with new ‘Converged’ ...

French agency group’s moves come ahead of possible stock market float.