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The colorful history — and precarious future — of rainbow washing

Dylan Miettinen Jun 28, 2021
A handful of companies started advertising to queer markets in the 1980s and '90s. Several decades later, hundreds redesign their logos and sell rainbow merchandise for the month of June. Leon Neal via Getty Images

The colorful history — and precarious future — of rainbow washing

Dylan Miettinen Jun 28, 2021
A handful of companies started advertising to queer markets in the 1980s and '90s. Several decades later, hundreds redesign their logos and sell rainbow merchandise for the month of June. Leon Neal via Getty Images

If you’re on any social media platform in June, it’s hard to miss the rainbow explosion. For the past several years, hundreds of brands have rainbow-ified their logos in celebration of Pride month. 

AT&T. CVS Health. BMW. The list goes on and on

While it may look like smart advertising, some LGBTQ people chalk up those logos — which always seem to change back on July 1 — to rainbow washing, the act of businesses advertising themselves as LGBTQ allies when their real support for rainbow causes is a bit more gray

Now, savvy, younger, and more queer-identifying consumers — who have grown up with greater acceptance and representation than previous generations  — are continuing to enter the market. That means that corporations may be forced to reevaluate the effectiveness of their pride celebrations, as their underlying values and actions are being looked at more critically.

In the ‘90s, a new market is identified

The proliferation of those rainbow logos and corporate marketing to LGBTQ people is a relatively recent phenomenon. 

Advertising to queer consumers has undergone a revolution of sorts in the past half-century, according to Blaine Branchik, a former professor at Quinnipiac University who has studied LGBTQ marketing.

Most marketing used to happen on a local scale, like advertising a local gay-friendly bar, restaurant, bookstore or bathhouse. 

As recognition of gay men and lesbians grew in the 1980s and ‘90s, marketing agencies that catered to those demographics began popping up, creating advertisements for regional and national audiences.

One of them, Mulryan/Nash, was co-founded in 1991 by Dave Mulryan. He said the move by companies to market to LGBTQ people was not a radical call for acceptance.

“[Companies] didn’t do this to be supportive …. They did it to get a return on investment for the advertising dollars,” Mulryan said.

But many of these early advertisers still cemented themselves in queer popular culture. 

For example, Absolut Vodka — a pride festival staple — began advertising to an LGBTQ customer base in 1981. The company often purchased full-page advertisements in gay publications like The Advocate.

And the stereotype about women who drive Subarus? It’s not a coincidence. The association of lesbians with Subaru cars is the result of smart marketing. 

Tim Bennett, Subaru’s former director of marketing, was one of the people behind the campaign. 

An advertisement shows three Subaru cars with queer-coded vanity license plates.
A 1999 Subaru advertisement features three cars, with vanity license plates including “CAMP OUT,” “XENA LVR” and “P TOWNIE.”

In the 1990s, Subaru identified five key consumer groups for their front-wheel drive vehicles: teachers and other educators, technical professionals, engineers, “rugged individualists” and female heads of households — many of whom identified as lesbian, according to focus groups. 

So, in a multi-year campaign, Subaru began marketing to a queer audience.

This was before LGBTQ culture entered the mainstream, Bennett said. Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997. “Will and Grace” first aired in 1998. Shows like “The L Word” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” were still years away.

The ads featured subtle nods to queer identities. In one, Subarus bear custom license plates that say “P TOWNIE,” a reference to the historically gay Provincetown, and “XENA LVR,” a nod to “Xena, Warrior Princess.” Other advertisements were accompanied by copy that read, “It’s not a choice. It’s the way we’re built.”

Subaru wasn’t explicitly trying to change minds or encourage acceptance and support for LGBTQ people, Bennett said.

“We were never saying it was a gay car. It wasn’t a gay brand. But it was simply that we were admitting that we were selling cars to gay consumers,” Bennett said. “It was in the first person, it was in their voice. And it was in the open, and we were proud of it.” 

Successful ad campaigns that identified and catered to an LGBTQ market “convinced marketers that gay people were worth targeting,” Branchik said.

RuPaul and k.d. lang appear in a 1996 advertisement for MAC Cosmetics.
RuPaul and k.d. lang appear in a 1996 advertisement for MAC Cosmetics.

In the late ‘90s, queer people became more visible in the ads themselves. 

RuPaul and k.d. lang appeared in ads for MAC cosmetics between 1994 and 1996. A 1994 IKEA commercial featured a gay couple shopping for a dining table — television’s first ad featuring a same-sex couple.

Though queer advertisements by corporations grew in popularity, so did backlash. A bomb threat was called in for a New York IKEA, which later turned out to be unfounded. 

Bennett said he received dozens of hateful letters and multiple petitions, sometimes with 10,000 signatures, for the gay- and lesbian-friendly Subaru advertisements. The hate mail got so bad that Bennett said the mailroom stopped delivering his mail, just in case of any potential bomb threats.

The growth of rainbow washing — and pushback 

Though marketing to queer audiences grew in the early 2000s, it was around the start of the Obama administration when LGBTQ advertisements — and rainbow-washing — experienced a massive boom in the U.S., Branchik said.

This was a result of growing acceptance and recognition that companies could stand to make a buck, he said.

Essentially, when a majority of Americans began to support same-sex marriage, corporations realized that the backlash they would face for having queer advertisements or marketing was less than the profit they could reap, Branchik explained. Displaying rainbow pride became a safe bet from a business standpoint. 

It also wasn’t an accident. LGBTQ people tried to gain social legitimacy through the marketplace, said Gillian Oakenfull, a professor of marketing and director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Miami University, and the director of the Center for KICKGLASS Change.

“The older generation was fighting for was acceptance. They said, ‘We want to be part of the whole, we don’t want to be separated from everybody. We want to be part of the group,’” Bennett said. “And Pride is, you know, more of a festival and a corporate party in some regards. It’s no longer kind of the act of the activism that it used to be.”

Those corporate Pride floats or logos can often just be performative, sometimes they can also be hypocritical. Judd Legum with the newsletter Popular Information recently identified 25 corporations that donated a combined total of more than $10 million to politicians pushing anti-gay rights legislation. 

Legum said he sees similarities to last summer’s racial justice protests: Some corporations put out statements in support of anti-racist efforts while donating to politicians who supported voting rights restrictions.

That is likely to cause problems for corporations as younger customers question their advertising. Oakenfull sees a generational difference in how LGBTQ people view rainbow washing.

For some, there’s value in seeing your identities reflected in a brand, she said. But increasingly, younger generations like Gen Z are pushing back against corporations who are only performative allies — or actively cause harm — to queer communities. 

“From the research I’ve done, the corporate policy and corporate actions are actually far more important to LGBTQ people than advertising. You can’t say one thing in advertising and behave differently in the political arena because that’s where the real fight is,” Oakenfull said. 

The directions that Gen Z pushes companies and corporations remain to be seen.

Bennett said he hopes queer people will support smaller businesses that directly support local LGBTQ communities — a sort of return to queer marketing’s roots.

Oakenfull said that corporations need LGBTQ people in senior leadership positions and must not lump all queer people into one market segment; there is an incredible amount of diversity that a single ad marketed to all queer people simply fails to capture.

And if corporations are going to encourage their customers to embrace who they are, then they should reassess their own values — or at least be transparent about them.

“You have a generation of people who are coming up now that see things very differently and are also far more willing to call out companies who don’t do it right,” Oakenfull said. “In my generation, we accepted a lot, right? I mean, because we had no choice. When those people get more and more rights, they’re going to accept less and less. So I think this shifts the goalposts, again, to say what’s acceptable from companies and what is not.”

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