As Pride Month begins each year, corporations launch ad campaigns with rainbow logos, products, and more in the hopes of engaging an LGBTQ+ audience. #Pinkwashing specifically describes the adoption of LGBTQ+ cultural symbols during Pride Month by corporations that fail to support inclusivity and diversity initiatives like non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ community, internal and external representation, or authentic community involvement. It’s layered cultural appropriation.
This year, the LGBTQ+ community has been more vocal on social media about instances of pinkwashing. Disney has been called out for pinkwashing in a tweet from June 1, 2021. The Tweet consisted of a rainbow graphic with the caption, “There’s room for everyone under the rainbow. Happy #PrideMonth!”
Respondents critiqued Disney’s authenticity due to the company’s recent cancellation of an animated film, Nimona, which would have featured their first LGBTQ+ lead characters. Other criticisms voiced include: the overall lack of LGBTQ+ representation and the queer-coding of villains in Disney productions.
Rise of Pinkwashing and the Pink Dollar
The rise of pinkwashing has accumulated over recent years as more companies recognize the potential of the “pink dollar,” a term for the buying power of LGBTQ+ people. The estimated purchasing power of LGBTQ+ individuals is $1.1 trillion in the United States as of 2020, up from $965 billion in 2015. Globally, the pink dollar is worth $3.9 trillion. And that number continues to grow as trends in LGBTQ+ research develop.
The exact number of LGTBQ+ folks in the workforce varies according to different studies. One comprehensive study estimates that there are 32 million Americans who identify as LGBTQ+, about 13% of the total population. And that number is growing generationally. While 8% of Baby Boomers identify as LGBTQ+, successive generations have a larger share of LGBTQ+ identified individuals: 13% of Gen Xers, 20% of Millennials, and 31% of Gen Z.
It is important for marketers to focus on the LGBTQ+ community. Investment in the LGBTQ+ community is proven to engage loyal early-adopters. 69% of LGBTQ+ people want to be the first of their social circle to try new things, compared to just 55% of non-LGBTQ+ people. In addition, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to spend a higher percentage of their disposable income, with 48% self-identifying as “spenders” (Scheider, J., & Auten, D.).
Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation
The key to understanding the LGBTQ+ audience is understanding meaningful representation and cultural appreciation. With a good understanding of audience and social listening, marketing executives are aware that inauthentic depictions of LGBTQ+ consumers can subject their company to substantial backlash. It will end up in accusation of cultural appropriation. Rather than do nothing, LGBTQ+ audiences simply want advertisers to go deeper. 84% of LGBTQ+ people feel positively about rainbow-washing of consumer goods, likely because it’s increased the feeling of acceptance of their identities. A 2013 study showed that nearly all LGBTQ+ people feel that societal acceptance of their community has increased over the prior decade, quite possibly due to increased mainstream representation and efforts toward cultural appreciation of the queer community.
Absolut Vodka is the gold standard for LGBTQ+ advertising without pinkwashing. The company began investing in LGBTQ+ print media ads in the 1980s and later created customized ads featuring symbols of the community (Elliot, S.). In 2018, Absolut changed its Pride campaign bottle emblazoned with the rainbow flag and made it available year-round. The company also funds LGBTQ+ interests as a sponsor of GLAAD Media awards and RuPaul’s Drag Race, and they have donated over $40 million to LGBTQ+ centers (Wolinski, C.). Absolut Vodka’s parent company, Pernod Ricard, has the top score on Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index 2021 which demonstrates that the organization’s internal policies match their external show of support for the LGBTQ+ community. The vodka brand stays relevant by continually updating their campaigns each year and investing in LGBTQ+ causes, thereby capturing the loyalty of LGBTQ+ consumers.
So, what can marketers do to connect with LGBTQ+ audiences without facing pinkwashing criticisms?
Aim for genuine representation of the LGBTQ+ community. A majority of LGBTQ+ people say they don’t see their lifestyle represented in advertising, and they wish they could see more advertising with families like theirs. At The Colibri Collective, we understand the role that storytelling plays in mobilizing people. With data- and story-backed methodology, marketers can build genuine connection with LGBTQ+ audiences.
Show public commitment to the LGBTQ+ community, starting with internal processes. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation releases a yearly Corporate Equality Index which rates corporations’ support of the LGBTQ+ community based on four criteria: workforce protections, inclusive benefits, supporting and inclusive culture and corporate responsibility, and responsible citizenship. In 2021, 70% of all Fortune 500 Companies met their requirements. There must be more corporations willing to build support of LGBTQ+ individuals into their infrastructure.
Donate proceeds from Pride Month merchandise to LGBTQ+ causes. This has become a major point of analysis for critics of pinkwashing. 87% of LGBTQ+ members surveyed believe that corporations should donate all proceeds from these revenue streams to relevant charities. By investing in the LGBTQ+ community, companies show substantial social responsibility.
Support the LGBTQ+ community year-round. This simple request is incredibly impactful. The main criticism of Disney’s Tweet was a lack of support during other times of the year. 96% of LGBTQ+ individuals agree that brands should support their community throughout the whole year, not just one month (Chinery, A.). Many LGBTQ+ individuals highlight “rainbow capitalism”—the support of LGBTQ+ only one month of the year—as a central criticism of brands that roll out rainbow merchandise and logos for June.
Adams, P. (2021, June 1). H&M develops rainbow-detecting scanner app to enable immersive Pride storytelling. Marketing Dive.
A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide. (2018). Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
Brown, A. (2017, June 13). 5 Key Findings About LGBT Americans. Pew Research Center.
Brown, A. (2019, June 18). Bisexual adults are far less likely than gay men and lesbians to be ‘out’ to the people in their lives. Pew Research.
Elliot, S. (2011, October 26). Absolut Celebrates Its 30 Years of Marketing to Gay Consumers. New York Times.
Estimated LGBT Purchasing Power: LGBT-GDP. (2020) LGBT Capital.
Chinery, A. (2019, July 15). Should Brands Use Pride as a Marketing Campaign? Reboot Online Marketing.
Corporate Equality Index 2019. (2019). Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
Corporate Equality Index 2021. (2021). Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
Gates, G. J. (2017, January 11). In US, More Adults Identifying as LGBT. Gallup.
Robledo, J. (2021, February 27). Disney cancels production of its first LGBTQ+ led animated film. Gay Times Magazine.
Scheider, J., & Auten, D. (2019, February 3). The Growing Demographic Marketers Don’t Know About. Forbes.
Schneider, J., & Auten, D. (2018, August 14). The $1 Trillion Marketing Executives Are Ignoring. Forbes.
The LGBT Financial Experience. (2017). Prudential.
Wolinski, C. (2018, June 8). How Did Vodka Become the Spirit of Pride? Vinepair.