Brands adverts for everything from sweets to high street banks are trying to be LGBT-friendly these days. It may be cynical commerce, but perhaps it’s a price worth paying.
Last summer, I ended up in San Francisco during its world-famous annual Pride weekend. It was the last stop on that well-worn road trip along State Route 1 and, as we drove away from the coast and into the city, everything turned multicoloured. The rainbow flag hung outside state buildings and institutions. The entire city was given over to a celebration of difference and equality, solidarity and strength. I have been to Prides in the UK before, and will go to London Pride next weekend, but I had never seen one on this scale, and it was powerful and more uplifting than I could have imagined.
Such was the rainbow flag’s ubiquity, however, that shop windows were also draped in it, the merchandise either decorated with or made from this symbol of defiance. And this was where I started to feel queasy about the fixtures and fittings of Pride celebrations. Whenever I see a big brand adopting the rainbow as a sign of its social conscience, I instinctively think, that was never the point of that flag. When I see Skittles releasing a bag of plain white “lentils”, as they appear to be called, with the tagline “because only one Rainbow matters this Pride”, my first reaction is to think: “This is a marketing gimmick that ensures Skittles are in the news during Pride month.”
When the journalist John Aravosis tweeted: “And all those anti-corporate far-lefties who claim to be pro-LGBT should learn their history – corporate America led the way on our rights”, it was met with a minor storm of protest. Many people responded with the digital equivalent of an angry eye-roll and reminders of the work done by activists to demand rights for the LGBT community. Again, my kneejerk reaction was that I was with the people who were irked. Does Smirnoff releasing a limited-edition range of rainbow bottles, with cartoons of same-sex couples kissing and the slogan “Choose love”, make any positive contribution to the lives of LGBT people around the world? Or does it simply make Smirnoff look like a more caring brand, more worthy of your cash?
But something about the condemnatory response to Aravosis sat uneasily with me, too. The reality is that our lives are saturated with advertising and marketing, from billboards to YouTube prerolls to pages in a magazine that tell us which soft drink is most suited to our lives. While even some rightwing political parties are coming to support same-sex marriage, a brand’s vocal support for LGBT rights may be seen as risk-free, easy. But it is not always uncontroversial, as several protests, such as the American Family Association’s boycott of the Target chain to show disapproval of what it calls “a politically correct bathroom policy”, have shown. I would rather a company such as Coors put out a beer can with a rainbow on the side, than donate to anti-LGBT organisations, as the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A famously did.
Because it is sneaky and ever-present, advertising has the potential to reach people who may not be aware of queer rights in any other environment, or care about them in the slightest. In 2013, NatWest released a television ad that briefly featured a woman with a girlfriend doing banking stuff, just like her twin sister who had a husband did banking stuff. The point, I am sure, was that NatWest offers banking services that suit everyone, no matter what our differences.
Fine. But I remember being pleasantly surprised at the time that this was a casual, not particularly remarked-upon part of an ad that might appear in the breaks between parts of a Corrie episode. NatWest including a same-sex couple is designed both to get the bank attention and to say: “We are for everyone.” Gay people have spending power, after all.
But an advert such as that will reach the living rooms of people who have never heard of Marsha P Johnson or Sylvia Rivera or any of the brave, bold pioneers who threw bricks at Stonewall and kicked the doors down for gay and trans people everywhere. The reason NatWest could make that ad is because of the work of activists who put their lives on the line in unimaginably hostile times. Nevertheless, there is something significant in how corporate support does make LGBT lives more visible in mainstream spaces. (Whether queer people want to be “normalised” is a debate of its own.)
So my own reaction to Nike making rainbow trainers or Oreo releasing a picture of a rainbow-filled cookie is complex, because the issue is complex. If a brand simply likes the pretty colours and the idea that it is seen to be “nice”, as brands must now strive to be, then it is certainly a cynical act of decorative lip service. I would be more warmly disposed towards Facebook’s new Pride reaction button, for example, if it were available in Russia or the UAE too. But if these gestures slowly shift the thoughts of people who might otherwise not even consider it towards an instinctive sense of diversity and equality, then perhaps it is worth the price.