How Pride Became Profitable

By: Lauren Champlin

Pride Month commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a six day series of radical protests  led by members of the queer community in New York City. The riots were sparked by a bar raid led by NYPD in Greenwich Village. These riots are credited as the catalyst for the gay liberation movement in the United States and around the world. Pride has since evolved into both an outlet for commemoration and community celebration.

However, in recent years, Pride Month has often become an excuse for corporations to push marketing agendas. A number of businesses who, in the past, have actively avoided endorsing LGBTQ+ equality, are now creating campaigns, products, and collections for the month of June to show their support for the community. Are corporations really supporting and uplifting the LQBTQ+ community, or just jumping on a bandwagon for the sake of profit?

First Stonewall Anniversary March, 1970, NY, New York. Image Copyright: Fred W. McDarrah.

First Stonewall Anniversary March, 1970, NY, New York. Image Copyright: Fred W. McDarrah.

As much as I would love to believe that companies are making an effort to join the cause for equality with their rainbow-colored products and LGBT-friendly advertisements, it’s imperative to look further into these marketing tactics and to recognize them for what they are. In an article for Vice written during Pride Month 2017, Spencer Macnaughton highlights that, for better or for worse, corporations view LGTBQ+ consumers as “central to the youthful audience,” and companies create these LGBT-themed ads in order to target a consumer base who is more likely to share the ad on social media with their friends, family, and follower base.

Where the greater trouble comes in, however, is the contradiction between a brand’s outward support for the queer community and the underlying intent of their business model. Adidas is an example of a brand that released a rainbow-themed collection in line with Pride Month. However, the brand was also one of the major sponsors for the 2018 Fifa World Cup held in Russia, a country with anti-LGBTQ+ laws that make it unsafe for LGBTQ+ identifying players and fans. In this case, the corporate gesture of support for the LGBTQ+ community is just that: a gesture with little substantial activism behind it.  

Contradicting motives delegitimize a brand’s supposedly pro-LGBTQ+ message. It can often send a contradictory message, showing the LGBTQ+ community that brands only choose to support us when it’s profitable for their company. As actor and model Indya Moore recently voiced on Twitter, LGBTQ+ oppression “isn’t seasonal.”        


Are corporations really supporting & uplifting LQBTQ+ communities?

It is true that Pride Month has perhaps moved further away from its commemorative origins. However, this has made it much easier for brands to commercialize the tradition, as it often feels more acceptable to commodify a celebration than a political event.

While on a fundamental level there is not an issue with brands raising awareness for LGBTQ+ oppression through their campaigns, other than their vague demonstrations of empowerment through product redesign or heartwarming commercials during the month of June, what are these brands doing to lend their support? What steps are companies taking to end workplace discrimination, assist the disproportionate amount of LGBTQ+ homeless youth, or donate to research for HIV/AIDS treatments and cures? Issues faced by LGBTQ+ people are not issues that only concern us during Pride Month, and brands shouldn’t use the celebration of pride and identity as an opportunity to profit off of a susceptible audience.

The commercialization of Pride Month echoes similar issues to that of the “pinkwashing” of Breast Cancer Awareness, as described in a 2018 article published by Vox. Medical sociologist Gayle Sulik explains that brands capitalizing off of Breast Cancer Awareness have created a social context where purchasing anything pink was thought of as a contribution to curing the disease. In reality, however, there is still no cure for women who suffer from breast cancer or whose cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Currently, we don’t have much to show for the billions of dollars spent on pink ribbon products. Most of the money for research itself, comes from the federal government.

While there’s nothing wrong with using marketing to spread awareness, Sulik details that over commercialization “trivializes breast cancer and limits our ability to comprehend what it’s really like to face the disease.” In similar ways, this modern form of “rainbow capitalism” trivializes the severity and necessity of Pride as an ongoing fight for queer liberation.  

What is often kept hidden from consumers is the actual portion of profit that is contributed to the cause it’s meant to support. As for pride campaigns, J.Crew donates 50 percent of the purchase price of its pride T-shirts, but H&M only donates 10 percent of the sales from its “Pride Out Loud” collection. In the cases of both breast cancer and LGBTQ+ oppression, awareness isn’t enough on it’s own.  

It’s important to be aware of the companies and brands that do actively show support for the LGBTQ+ population year round. Newsweek recently highlighted a selection of brands engaged in productive campaigns this year. TOMS, for example, has launched a Unity Collection that includes the classic loafer and sunglasses with designs and slogans such as “Human” and “Love,” and as a part of TOMS ongoing mission, they will provide free shoes and eye care to homeless youth, almost half of which identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Levi’s, a long-time supporter of LGBTQ+ equality, is donating 100% of the profits from their Pride capsule collection to OutRight Action International, a foundation that campaigns for LGBTQ+ rights internationally.

It is true that Pride Month has perhaps moved further away from its commemorative origins. However, this has made it much easier for brands to commercialize the tradition, as it often feels more acceptable to commodify a celebration than a political event. Brands started to realize that capitalizing off of a political movement such as LGBTQ+ equality was simply smart business. Marketing techniques evolve as the market does, and by targeting a millennial audience, businesses could ensure that their products would meet the standard of modern, conscious consumption. 

However, even among the extravagant parades and celebrations that are only possible because of the progress that has been made, the fiery political roots of the movement still hold true. More so now than in previous years, the focus of Pride is being redirected to where it began: commemorating those brave individuals who kick-started a gay liberation movement. These exploitative marketing techniques and superficial forms of support can’t pass for true pro-LGBTQ+ activism, and as consumers, it’s our responsibility to urge businesses to put their money, action, and support where their mouths are.   

Lauren ChamplinComment