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What is Rainbow Washing on Social Media?

June is Pride month—celebrating love, understanding, and all things LGBTQ+. Especially over the past decade, you’ve probably noticed 4 of out 5 of your favorite brands show their support through same-sex advertisements, “Love is Love” posters, Pride-themed merch, and rainbow social media avatars. These are all great IF the brand has genuine intentions. Too often a brand coopts cause marketing without backing it up with any real support. We see this in greenwashing (environmentalism), pinkwashing (female empowerment), and rainbow washing (LGBTQ+).

Before we break down how to spot rainbow washing, let’s talk about Pride! Pride month (June) commemorates the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Stonewall was a key event in galvanizing the queer community to demand equal rights and protection by the law. Though our country still has a long way to go in terms of progress and equality, today’s Pride month is as much a celebration of identity, community, and love as it is a call to action. Parades, merch, concerts, advertisements, and parties take place in major cities all across the United States.

Brands strive to reflect and affect their target audiences. So, whether celebrating a holiday, responding to news events, or hopping on a cultural trend, brands are enmeshed in our lives. 77% of people buy from brands that share their values. And ⅔ of conconsumers admit they’d boycott a brand based on its political and social stances. Brands are not a siloed part of our lives; they express identity and have much more meaning than a simple financial transaction. Brands mirror who we are, what matters to us, and how we wish to see the world.

In 2017 MarketingMag noted that almost 70% of LGBTQ+ consumers are influenced to buy from brands that appear to support Pride. And in 2019, LGBTQ+ adults accounted for a buying power of $3.7 trillion. Allies and more liberal-leaning cis consumers may also choose LGBTQ+-aligned businesses over their anti- or silent/neutral competitors. In short, there’s a lot of pressure for brands to ‘show their Pride’ (...key word: show).

You see, while a brand may appear to support LGBTQ+ rights, it’s important for consumers to look out for these red flags:

  • The brand doesn’t donate money to LGBTQ+ organizations (or they actually donate to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations and political campaigns. Shockingly, this is more common than you might think. Walmart, AT&T, and Amazon are just a few high-profile examples).

  • The brand doesn’t hire LGBTQ+ employees or fosters an unsafe work environment for queer staff.

  • The brand discriminates against LGBTQ+ customers.

  • The brand does not prioritize inclusive advertising, language, accommodations, etc.

  • The brand only supports LGBTQ+ efforts, organizations, and causes during the month of June (aka not year-round).

So, why is this harmful? Essentially, rainbow washing commercializes Pride and reduces it to a marketing ploy rather than promotion of the LGBTQ+ community. When you’re shopping, do a little digging into a brand’s authenticity. And if your brand needs to do better (and, we all can), here are a few great organizations to donate to:

Remember, allyship goes beyond donating a small percentage of sales or slapping a rainbow on your store window. It’s about fostering a safe and supportive work environment for LGBTQ+ employees, advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, and standing up against hate of any kind.

Rainbow washing, greenwashing, and pinkwashing have all begun to water down the incredible movements they are meant to embolden. It is up to both brands and consumers to do better. Our dollar really does make a difference, so make sure that your purchase aligns with your purpose.

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