Pinkwashing, or rainbow washing, is a term used to describe advertising campaigns that exploit the social movement for LGTBIQ+ rights for commercial purposes, instead of genuinely helping the community.

With the arrival of June, many brands update their company image and their way of communicating to show support for the LGTBIQ+ community. And this is fantastic, but do they really do it because they support the community or to earn undeserved praise and “look good” with their customers? If the answer leans toward the latter… they are engaging in pinkwashing.

What is pinkwashing

June is Pride Month because it commemorates the Stonewall riots in 1969, which lasted several days and are considered the beginning of the movement for the rights of this community. The first marches began to be held on June 28, 1970, and over time, they extended from being celebrated for just one day to being celebrated throughout the entire month, thus becoming “LGTBIQ+ Pride Month.”

There are other types of “washing” that also exploit social struggles for profit. A well-known example is purplewashing, where companies try to improve their image by using campaigns in favor of equality or the feminist movement without any real commitment. On the other hand, there is also greenwashing, which takes advantage of the sustainability movement.

According to Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey data from 2020, LGTBIQ people in the United States has a national poverty of 23% percent. Knowing that, when June arrives, people who belong to the community do not look favorably upon the use that brands make of this “rainbow capitalism” to increase their profits. And more when this rate is increasing year by year.

This is due to the constant marginalization that LGTBIQ+ individuals have faced throughout history. For every dollar earned by a worker who is not part of the community, a queer worker earns between 4 and 40 cents less, depending on their race and gender.

Some people defend pinkwashing by arguing that the fact that companies change their logos to rainbow colors during the month of June increases the visibility of the community. And they are not entirely wrong.

But as we have already mentioned, it is pointless to do it just for show; it devalues the cause even if it brings attention to it. It is important to remember that in June, we not only “celebrate” Pride Month for all the achievements that have been made, but we also remember the victims and continue to fight for everything that still needs to be accomplished.

The only known photograph taken during the first night of the riots, by freelance photographer Joseph Ambrosini, shows gay youth scuffling with police

The only known photo taken during the first night of the Stonewall’s Riots by Joseph Amrbosini

What you should consider before launching a Pride campaign

No, it is not wrong for your logo to turn rainbow-colored in June or to launch a marketing campaign around this movement. What you should consider are the following questions:

  • Does the cause align with your brand’s values?
  • Does your company’s action invite reflection or is it just following a trend?
  • Was anything done before the highlighted date related to the cause in question?
  • Are your company’s employees encouraged to support the cause both within the organization and privately?
  • When the highlighted date passes, does your company remain committed to the cause?

It is very important to have clear answers to these questions because it is pointless to wrap yourself in an LGTBIQ+ Pride flag, wear a purple ribbon, or a green ribbon if, in practical terms, LGTBIQ-phobic, sexist, or environmentally harmful behaviors are still allowed within your own company.

How to know if a company is engaging in pinkwashing

First, research the company’s practices in question and ask the same questions we mentioned earlier: Is the company genuinely committed to supporting the LGTBIQ+ community or is it just “a poser”?

Then, look for brands and companies that are transparent about their commitment to equality and diversity. You will notice that those truly committed will have shared information about their internal practices or possible charitable donations to the fight for the community’s rights.

What does the LGTBIQ+ community think about all these advertising practices related to their struggle? Listening to their perspective and opinions can be key to understanding what should and should not be done in these cases.

Finally, evaluate whether the company’s actions go beyond the advertising campaign itself. Are they working to address real issues?

Pinkwashing examples

Unfortunately, in advertising world there are always good and bad advertising campaigns. One of the most notable examples of pinkwashing or rainbow washing in the political arena is that of former U.S. President Donald Trump. During the 2020 campaign, he appeared several times waving a rainbow flag, despite having rolled back significant advances made by the community during his previous term.

As we mentioned before, painting your brand with rainbow colors does not have to be inherently wrong; what is reprehensible is if this is your only contribution to the LGTBIQ+ cause. The situation worsens if, in addition to not contributing, what your brand does is contrary to these advocacies. This was precisely the case with FIFA in June 2022. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association was lazy and opportunistic, falling into this bad practice.

Let us recall that this federation was finalizing preparations to celebrate the 2022 Qatar World Cup in November that year. One of the largest sporting events in the world, it earned the nickname “World Cup of Shame” due to the controversial location chosen for the event. Qatar is a country where the rights of women and LGTBIQ+ individuals are violated, with homosexuality being punishable by imprisonment.

It is no surprise that both people belonging to the community and their supporters showed great indignation at FIFA’s attitude and denounced its hypocrisy.

Good practices during Pride Month

However, we should not only highlight bad examples; it is also important to recognize when good work is done, and that is the case with Starbucks and Absolut in Spain.

Starbucks’ campaign in India during Pride Month in 2023 was very emotional. In the advertisement, a traditional Indian couple is seen waiting seated in a Starbucks. Due to the delay of their child, the father calls them on the phone and shows an image of how he has their contact saved, with a photo and their name “Arpit.”

In response, the woman asks him not to get angry this time. Shortly after, a woman enters the café and sits with them—she is their transgender daughter. She tells her father that although she knows it is difficult for him to understand her gender change, she still loves him. In response, he gets up and orders three coffees under the name Arpita (her name), showing her that changing gender does not make him love her any less.

With this campaign, Starbucks highlights how challenging daily life can be for individuals in the community and the importance of support and acceptance from our loved ones to be who we want to be. The main character is a transgender model from India.

This is not a one-time action, as Starbucks conducts awareness advertising campaigns every year and collaborates with organizations that support the community. Additionally, they have created their own projects in favor of the community, such as the “Proyecto Arcoiris” in Argentina.

For Pride 2023, Absolut released the mini-series “An Absolutely Normal Family,” written and directed by Brays Efe. The vodka brand aimed to produce the “series we should have seen in the 90s,” a production featuring a diverse family composed of two lesbian mothers, their son, the drag queen aunt, and the trans grandmother, with a classic sitcom figure, the building neighbor, also involved. The cast itself is made up of people who are part of or committed to the LGTBIQ+ community.

With this campaign, Absolut highlights the importance of representation. If during the golden age of sitcoms there had been shows with diverse characters and casts, showcasing all kinds of realities and family models, we would now be much more tolerant and respectful. However, we now have the opportunity to address this and create cultural products in which people of all generations (and not just the younger ones) can see themselves reflected.

Now that you know what pinkwashing or rainbow washing is, you have all the tools to avoid replicating it and to identify when a brand is exploiting a social movement to generate more sales.

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