With Equal Rights Under Attack, Pride Gets Political (Again)

Which brands have the courage of their convictions?

With the corporate world's nearly complete embrace of Pride over the past several years, it's easy to forget that what's increasingly become just another date on the marketing calendar is actually rooted in the very real struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. As events of the past year have shown, not everyone is committed to recognizing such rights.

For members of the queer community, the passage of the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill in Florida and the recent eruption of antipathy toward trans influencers like Dylan Mulvaney powerfully demonstrate that our work isn't done.

This may be the first time (or the first time in recent memory) that many marketing execs have had to truly confront the political nature of Pride. They've discovered that beneath the rainbows, drag queens and fun is a political mission of equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

In a sense, seeing Pride through this earlier lens is a reflection of how far we've come. And a reminder that for brands with the courage of their convictions, there's opportunity today to do heroic work that can actually make a difference. Think Ikea's landmark 1994 ad featuring a gay couple shopping for furniture, or Levi's 2009 "White Knot" supporting marriage equality.

When I began my career 20 years ago, Pride wasn't a major event for most mainstream brands. There were exceptions, but in general it was just too political a topic for marketers to touch. This was a time when most of the political establishment was opposed to marriage equality, and employment protections for LGBTQ+ people were minimal or non-existent in many states. Being out in the office and with clients was also a potential minefield and a part of my identity I kept under wraps at early jobs.

For the brands that were doing Pride campaigns, the simple fact of acknowledging the community was a political statement. So it's no surprise that most of the companies doing so were supporters behind the scenes as well. Subaru, which was one of the earliest companies to advertise specifically to LGBTQ audiences, extended benefits to its employees' same-sex partners starting in the 1990s. IBM established a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1984. Absolut Vodka's engagement with the community also goes back to the 1980s. Not only was it one of the first mainstream brands to advertise in gay publications like The Advocate, it was an early partner supporting the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's (GLAAD) advocacy efforts.

The point being, any Pride activities were an extension of the companies' existing support for the community, not something they activated for one month of the year.

As the cultural and political environment began to shift toward greater support for the LGBTQ+ community, more companies began incorporating Pride into their marketing calendars. They often paired these efforts with support for civil rights organizations (GLAAD, The Trevor Project, the It Gets Better Project) and moved beyond simple recognition to advocacy. In 2013, Expedia aired a TV ad featuring two women getting married. And Honey Maid prominently featured two dads and their children in its 2014 "This is Wholesome" campaign.

Following the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, the floodgates for Pride advertising really opened. With this greater mainstreaming came less of a need to commit on a deeper, more political level. Companies could flip the rainbow switch to celebrate in June and then go back to their regularly scheduled programming. Essentially, Pride the political movement and Pride as a month of marketing fun began to disengage.

This year, the politics came rushing back. The fact that even experienced Pride marketers like Bud Light and Target seemed completely unprepared for backlash shows just how comfortable many had gotten. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. While we can argue about the corporatization of Pride, we ultimately do want to live in a world where LGBTQ+ rights are acknowledged, as a matter of course, by everybody.

Clearly, we are not there yet. This year's controversies are a reminder that Pride does matter and what brands do can have an impact. Marketers can and should continue to celebrate Pride. But with a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment—according to GLAAD, over 500 bills have been proposed this year with the intention of limiting LGBTQ+ rights—they should remember that even if Pride means rainbows to them, it means basic rights for others.

Not every brand needs to be a crusader, but if they are going to do Pride, they should be prepared to stand up for their convictions.

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Hannah Fishman
Hannah Fishman is CCO, North America, of The&Partnership.

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