Want to sell something to gay people? Put a rainbow on it!
That seems to be the logic behind yet another round of pandering Pride Month ads.
Every June, the LGBT community marks the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots by hosting celebrations in major cities around the world. Corporations mark the anniversary with lazy and manipulative marketing targeted at LGBT consumers.
On the first of the month, the Maytag Man appeared on Twitter holding a six-layer rainbow cake with the caption: “Proud to be in any home.” An odd way to come out of the closet, certainly, but it explains why he was always so lonely.
Other brands quickly followed suit. Absolut re-introduced its limited-edition rainbow vodka bottles.
And SKYY Vodka tweeted out a bizarre amalgamation of a heart, an American flag, and a rainbow with the hashtag #ToastToMarriage:
Not to be outdone in the athletic department, Adidas rolled out its own set of rainbow footwear because—in case it’s not clear by now—rainbows are super gay and all gay people love rainbows.
This might come as a shock to advertisers but LGBT people do not have a Pavlovian response to the rainbow. Our flag might be a rainbow and, yes, many of us have a rainbow-colored button or bumper sticker kicking around somewhere.
But few of us want to wear a rainbow tee while drinking a bottle of rainbow vodka that has been chilled in a gay-friendly Maytag freezer.
Deploying the rainbow to appeal to the LGBT community is a relatively new but increasingly common form of “pinkwashing,” a term used by critics of corporate breast cancer campaigns to describe the profusion of pink merchandise that appears on store shelves every October. Some call it “rainbow-washing.”
Not only does the breast cancer awareness variety of “pinkwashing” operate on fairly reductive logic—pink equals women equals breasts—the companies behind pink merchandise often donate very little to breast cancer research or, worse, hypocritically use potential carcinogens in their products.
Rainbow-washing is similarly suspect. Companies that market to the LGBT community don’t always treat their own employees with respect.
Adidas only scored an 80 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2015 Corporate Equality Index (CEI)—but at least its transgender employees can pay out-of-pocket for their medical visits while wearing rainbow flip-flops!
Last year, Burger King produced a viral ad for a “Proud Whopper” that, of course, came in a rainbow wrapper. Its CEI score at the time? A not-so-whopping 55.
Nike and Whirlpool, which owns Maytag, both scored 100 on the CEI so their merchandise feels less hypocritical by comparison. But outliers like Adidas and Burger King make it clear that superficial changes to existing merchandise are much less complicated than changing internal LGBT policy.
Beyond the potential hypocrisy of rainbow-washing, much of this rainbow merchandise is simply ugly, which makes it even more audacious of corporations to try to hawk it to a community that pioneers mainstream style trends.
Splashing some rainbow paint on a low-top sneaker is an almost pathetically misconceived attempt to court a community that knows the difference between style and gimmickry.
But those companies slapping a rainbow on their logos aren’t just trying to sell to LGBTs, they’re trying to show their cool and progressive credentials to a broader, straighter community of consumers who respond positively to companies’ support of LGBT issues.
As condescending as rainbow-washing can be in its presumption that members of a minority will buy any product with their symbol on it, it is still preferable to the overlying cloying ads that come out every Pride season.
Last week, AT&T released a new promotional video for its “Live Proud” campaign in which a young gay couple at a coffee shop is unknowingly surrounded by LGBT patrons and employees, all of whom reflect on their own picture-perfect LGBT lives when they spy the couple holding hands:
Last month, Absolut tried its hand at a lesbian version of the viral marriage proposal video:
And perhaps most noticeably, Wells Fargo has been running an ad for the past two months featuring a lesbian couple who learn sign language in order to adopt a deaf child:
Commercials like these seem to be resonating with consumers who are starved of LGBT media representation.
Autostraddle, a site for lesbian and bisexual women, saw the lesbian adoption spot and declared, “If this Wells Fargo ad doesn’t make you cry, you’re a robot.”
The Wells Fargo commercial in particular is gunning for lesbian heartstrings so overtly that it verges on being exploitative, even if it is a refreshing break from typical hetero home loan imagery.
In terms of promoting LGBT inclusion, these are all reputable corporations—Wells Fargo and AT&T both have a 100 on the CEI and Absolut has a long history of supporting marriage equality—but their ads assume that the best way to reach LGBT people is through an overdose of saccharine sentimentality surrounding their minority status.
LGBT people are on the cutting edge of fashion, true, but we’re also famous for being witty and a simple “¿Homo estás?” gift card from Chipotle resonates deeply with our culture in a way that this current slate of syrupy videos does not.
Along with the hypersentimentality of these ads comes the fact they tend to showcase the most normative forms of LGBT life: coupling, marriage, family.
In the world of high fashion advertising, homoeroticism has a time-honored place—some Dolce and Gabbana ads flirt with gay porn—but in mainstream marketing, there’s rarely a hint that LGBT people are sexual creatures or that they can exist outside of safe, almost platonic relationships with loving partners.
For Absolut to sponsor a marriage proposal doesn’t require boldness when most of the country supports same-sex marriage anyway. A real risk for a spirits company would be to produce a TV commercial in which two men flirt with each other at a bar.
Wells Fargo can score points with the LGBT community and straight allies by producing a lesbian adoption ad but a spot about, say, a childless May-December gay couple buying a beach house would be more of a challenge to the status quo.
But advertising doesn’t have to make social statements, either.
Advertising is a genre that has an ulterior motive and, as such, it’s an ill-suited form for feel-good fluff.
If companies could simply include LGBT people in their promotional material at more or less representative rates instead of churning out rainbow junk and tinkering with our emotions, that might be the most revolutionary outcome of all.
At the end of the day, it’s not hard to advertise to LGBT people. The Maytag Man can eat his rainbow cake and AT&T can save its pride for its own track record. Just show gay people buying stuff. Non-rainbow stuff.