What is the danger of rainbow-pandering?


This is the age of woke-washing and virtue-hustling

Breast Cancer has been pink-washed. Women’s rights have given rise to femvertising and faux-feminism. For decades, environmental concerns has led to green-washing in an attempt to fix public image issues.

Now, during pride month 2019, cities around the world are celebrating their support for the LGBTQ community with parades, marches, parties, and festivals, all marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

And that means we are neck-deep in pride marketing. 

What’s Up with All the Rainbows?

You’ve undoubtedly noticed some extra rainbows this month. Around the world, brands are signaling their support for the LGBTQ rights movement in their marketing, aiming to drive sales, awareness, social impressions, earned media, and employee acquisition/retention. 

  • Changing their logos to a temporarily rainbow version on social media

  • Highlighting LGBTQ team members in branded content this month

  • Using models this month in ads who represent gender and orientation diversity

  • Hanging rainbow banners and flags in retail locations and offices

  • Having a group of employees and allies marching in their local pride parade

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It’s rainbow-washing. It’s everywhere.

And in 2019 there is more than ever.

Why Do Companies Do It?

In short, it’s just good PR, baby.

Public support for LGBTQ rights is at an all-time high after decades of activism, most recently marked by the US Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in 2015.

24% of US internet users are more likely to do business with companies known to be LGBTQ+-friendly. Particularly, gay and lesbian individuals (71%), bisexual people (54%), millennials (32%), and high-income earners (34%) all said they’re likely to spend money with LGBTQ+-friendly businesses. (eMarketer).

Organizations seek to align with where the future is going, where the groundswell is, and more importantly, where the conversations are happening.

This year, plenty of major corporations are rainbow-washing in an attempt to connect with consumers to earn their affection, preference, and trust. This year in my hometown of Boston, over 400 groups were registered to march in the city’s largest pride parade in 49 years. 

What’s the Upside to Pride Marketing?

On one hand, this is thrilling – it indicates a wonderful cultural shift towards equality. Any of us would gladly take the current onslaught of rainbows over the senseless anti-gay cultural norms and legal realities this community has endured through US history and around the world. 

So, to get this point out of the way because it has to be said:

Corporate backing and public support for this community is something that should be appreciated for its intentions and as an alternative to a darker time in our not-so-distant past. This is the second anniversary of one of the worst mass shootings ever in our country, and it was targeted at the LGBTQ community. 

It may also help sway government policy towards equality as businesses like Netflix put pressure on individual states because of anti-LGBTQ laws.

Consumers even expect this from businesses. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Reportfound more than three-quarters (76%) of the general population want CEOs to take the lead on change instead of waiting for government to impose it.

(Ask me another time about my concerns with the amount of trust consumers place in the institution of business. Hint: it’s alarming.)

With that consumer trust comes power.

And, that means there is some room for optimism. Advertising and marketing as a ubiquitous, every-day agent in our world has the potential to drastically change attitudes and opinions. That’s what it does fundamentally, and that’s why companies pour billions of dollars into it.

Cause for celebrating all pride-related marketing, right? If you’ve read my previous takes on this subject, you know the answer…

Not quite.

The Problem with Rainbow-Washing

The truth is, most rainbow-washed marketing doesn’t align with any real action or represent the reality of being LGBTQ inside the companies using it. Hell, most campaigns don’t even donate a portion of the proceeds to nonprofits benefitting the community – the literal least a brand could do.

So, let’s call it what it is: rainbow-pandering.

Rainbow-pandering is when companies exploit LGBTQ rights in their marketing without meaningful action at their organizations, or in the greater world.

This is a form of virtue signaling – defined as “empty gestures intended to convey socially approved attitudes without any associated risk or sacrifice.”

Just like faux-feminism, there is a fundamental risk to the movement for LGBTQ equality when companies signal their support on the surface through marketing and fail to live up to these ideals.

7 Examples of Rainbow-Pandering:

  1. Adidas sells rainbow merchandise in a “pride collection” but spent millions in Russia as a major sponsor of the 2018 World Cup. Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws made the event “unsafe for fans and athletes.”

  2. Six of nine corporate executives who signed a letter criticizing then Indiana governor Mike Pence’s anti-LGBT legislation represent companies whose CEOs or political action committees donated to Pence while he was campaigning against LGBT rights per Chicago Sun Times.

  3. PINK, a lingerie and apparel line from Victoria’s Secret recently tweeted support for LGBTQ associates and customers. Twitter users were quick to remind the brand of its CMO’s refusal to include transgender models for its annual Fashion Show. (Similar exclusions were made about plus-size models. This is hardly equality. Hell, it’s hardly trying.)

  4. Goldman Sachs is facing a high-profile allegation of sexual orientation discriminationand retaliation from a gay former executive who says a supervisor excluded him from an important conference call because he “sounded too gay.” Sigh. The company flies rainbow flags and marches in pride parades globally, supports an LGBT employee affinity network (which this executive led), and even published advice on “how to be a good ally.” Maybe his supervisors should read it.

  5. Major retailers including H&M, Primark, Target, and Levi Strauss all sell rainbow apparel like rainbow fanny packs and sequined caps. But, as the NYTimes pointed out, much of it is manufactured in countries where it’s either illegal to be gay or where persecution is commonplace such as China, Turkey, and Myanmar. Each brand quoted in the full piece point out the good work they are doing to truly help the community. While their PR efforts are on full display, it doesn’t hide the underlying conflict.

  6. YouTube, which has branded all its social media channels to rainbows this month, has come under fire for failing to remove hateful, anti-LGBTQ content, “putting LGBTQ support and hate speech on the same platform.” It has also struggled with categorizing LGBTQ content as restricted or potentially inappropriate. Internally, Google employees have petitioned YouTube to strip its social channels of Pride branding calling it “hypocritical co-opting of their community.”

Nandini Jammi, part of the massive (and Cannes Lion winning!) Sleeping Giants advertising accountability movement (read about them in the NYTimes), said this about brands advertising on YouTube:

The company said last week that they intend to protect hate speech and harassment as "free speech." But what brand marketers heard is that YouTube will continue placing their ads next to harmful and offensive content indefinitely. In other words, brands cannot expect to be kept safe on that platform.

I get it. This is a total buzzkill.

Alex Abad-Santos at Vox says it best:

“It’s a hell of a lot easier to commodify a party than it is a political act.”

But political acts, policies, and real action are what’s necessary to create lasting change.

Rainbow-pandering masks the real work to be done. It hides the reality of the situation facing LGBTQ people in the workplace and creates an illusion of progress.

Ultimately, this kind of marketing creates a dangerous blind spot, as those exposed to it come to believe the world to be fairer and more equitable than it really is.

We don’t even have standards to measure the way LGBTQ workers are affected economically. Even the way we measure economic recovery since the 2009 crash masks what’s really going on:

“Post-recession economic analysis should take into account the ways in which discrimination in hiring and firing, wage gaps, workplace harassment, and other employment barriers limit economic prosperity for all workers, including LGBTQ workers.” Source.


Consumers Are Not Buying It

eMarketer found that customers “pick up on this as a marketing ploy.”

Half of internet users in the US said that if a company debuts Pride-related merchandise or content, they’re more likely to see that as a marketing tactic than as a true reflection of the company’s values.

Any time spent on Instagram, Reddit, or Tumblr lately will show you the true feelings of consumers who are increasingly skeptical and wary of capitalism painting its nails with the colors of the rainbow. I offer a few memes for your consideration:

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God, I love the internet.

What it’s Really Like to Be LGBTQ in the Workplace

The real problem with rainbow-pandering is the fact that there is so much real work to be done to reach the glossy rainbow-colored reality that pride campaigns seem to indicate exists.

Consider the reality of the LGBTQ worker, please:

  1. Millions of LGBTQ Americans can be fired, legally, due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

  2. There is no federal statute addressing employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (rights within individual states vary, and the Supreme Court is taking up the issue later this year related to how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is interpreted. Fingers crossed.)

  3. More than half (53 percent) of LGBTQ employees reported that they have experienced or witnessed anti-LGBTQ comments by co-workers.

  4. LGBTQ millennials face larger financial struggles and economic instability due in part to average lower income rates.

  5. Conscious and unconscious bias against LGBTQ applicants often prevent them from getting hired. Research finds that up to 68% of LGBT people report experiencing employment discrimination.

  6. Many employees at tech brands are scared to speak up about addressing problematic LGBTQ issues for fear of retaliation – not just being fired, but being doxed (when private or identifying information is made public online maliciously.)

  7. 1 in 10 LGBTQ people reported removing items from their resume to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from employers.

  8. Between 11 percent and 28 percent of LGB workers report losing a promotion simply because of their sexual orientation.

  9. 1 in 6 transgender people have been fired from a job because of their gender identity (according to USTS) and they experience violence at an ever-increasing, alarming rate across the country, often without much national media attention. In many ways, transgender members of the community are treated as disposable.

  10. Many LGBTQ community members hide personal relationships, delay health care, change the way they dress, or take other steps to alter their lives at work to avoid discrimination.

This is the everyday reality for millions of American workers.

This is the ugly truth behind rainbow-washed marketing.

This should be a wake-up call that this community is in need of real support and policy, not just a rainbow color treatment during the month of June.

The Pride or Pandering Marketing Litmus Test

So, which campaigns should we celebrate? Which are simply virtue-signaling and rainbow-pandering, and which are appropriate for brands to celebrate? Are you a marketer considering applying the rainbow treatment to your brand or client?

Campaigns fall somewhere on this spectrum:

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And because it's important to name the enemy here… meet Pandering Panda. 

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He looks cute, but he’s deceptive.

Pandering Panda will claim to support any movement, as long as it’s not too risky and he doesn’t have to make any real changes to his organization. He'll profit from the sale of rainbow-colored merch without any donation to LBGTQ groups, while continuing to discriminate his employees.

Don’t be like Pandering Panda.

Follow my handy litmus test before leveraging all the colors of the rainbow in your campaign next June:

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If mostly “no’s” - don’t risk it. Find something else to use in your campaigns. Find another way to get your brand into the conversation. You threaten the very real struggle for equality by perpetuating a false narrative that the world is more equitable than it is.

As this is absolutely about your bottom line, you also risk the reputation of your organization. Brands have to realize they’re opening themselves up to scrutiny when they go all-in on pride month.

Via Branding Strategy Insider, “…attempts to cash in on the rainbow (or really any color associated with a cause) without giving back to the community could send a tone-deaf message that might do more harm than good.”

If mostly “yes’s” then, right on. Thanks for actively supporting your colleagues and a community fighting for acceptance, acknowledgement, and freedom from persecution.

The bottom line: If you want the benefit of aligning yourself with the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, be prepared for the commitment.

 “The days of simply slapping a rainbow on your packaging and calling yourself ‘LGBT-friendly’ are long gone,” said Justin Nelson, president and co-founder, National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “The community demands a yearlong, enterprise wide commitment to the LGBT community within the company and in every market the company hopes to engage.” 

“I don’t have any friends that only speak to me in June. I would hope that brands would treat the LGBT community the same way,” says Jay Porter, president of Edelman Chicago

This whole topic is summarized perfectly by Shannon:

What Real Support Looks Like:

  • It’s year-round: Dell supports its LGBTQ team members “all year long.”

  • It addresses real community concerns: Via TheDrum's excellent piece on this, "Smirnoff has been praised for its Soho Angels initiative, that enlists a team of specially trained volunteers to keep the LGBTQ+ community safe at night throughout the year. This year, the drinks brand is bringing the volunteers to Pride, to ensure the safety of its attendees."

  • It impacts policy: 161 corporate sponsors urged Congress to pass the LGBTQ Equality Act, which will give civil rights protections to such individuals if the measure is later approved by the Senate. Converse Inc., Macy’s Inc. and Under Armour Inc. are among them — a stark contrast to when the bill was introduced four years ago and the only companies publicly supporting the measure were Apple, The Dow Chemical Co. and Levi Strauss & Co. (Footwear News)

  • It’s part of your history and future: As early as 1984, IBM has included sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy. Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Tia Silas told Glassdoor: “We continue promoting and defending LGBT+ rights around the world and actively influenced legislation and policy in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas.”

  • It’s measurable: The Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index recognizes businesses that are inclusive of the LGBTQ workforce. Nearly 600 firms are recognized as earning a score of 100% in 2019 for action like non-discrimination policies, equitable benefits, diverse supply chain programs, and inclusive culture/CSR programs.

  • It aligns to accepted standards: The United Nations publishes standards of conduct for business. These are best practices regarding LGBTI employees and inclusive workplaces.

  • It translates to real work: Brands like Intuit and Google foster employee resource groups for LBGTQ employees, some professional services groups do pro bono work for this community. Read more about brands like this who are hiring now.

A New Standard for Marketing

It’s a kind of golden era of marketing. We have more tools, channels, insights, data, and opportunities at our disposal than ever before. With such a massive platform comes responsibility to market with integrity to both our shareholders and the larger world.

Bottom line impact. There’s a massive risk of losing consumer trust once brand hypocrisy is exposed. Once you lose that trust, it’s an uphill battle to gain it back, and it becomes a non-starter for immediate affinity and sales. Downstream, you risk valuable long-term loyalty.

Woke-washing, virtue-signaling, and empty lip-service stunt marketing campaigns are a short term, high-risk strategy.

(They are infuriatingly lazy, to boot.)

Societal impact. More broadly, you have a responsibility to the very movements you’re appropriating to operate with some measure of integrity.

Marketing with integrity is always going to be an aspirational concept, but a girl can dream, right? It indicates to consumers that we’ve considered the implications of where our products are used, and who our marketing budget dollars are supporting.

While so many brands jump on the bandwagon, my calls to action are as follows:

  1. Consumers, only patronize those brands who live up to the promise of support for this community. Be discerning consumers of marketing. Vote with your wallet.

  2. Employees, recognize your collective power in whistleblowing, and give your talent to those companies who understand the importance of equality.

  3. Marketers, agencies, founders, and all in positions of decision-making authority, put the kibosh on campaigns when your client / company doesn’t live up to the very basic standards of integrity, here.

In a world still filled with discrimination, fear-mongering and “otherness” based on our differences, pride celebrations around the world are a call for each of us to treat LGBTQ community members with the acceptance every human being deserves, in all our forms.

It’s not worth risking what this movement stands for in order to gain some short-term brand lift.

In the words of Ru Paul, don’t f*ck it up. 


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Note: This talk had its world premiere last week at the Boston Leadership Forum with Lesbians Who Tech. I tend to tell it like it is on stage. You can book me to speak here.