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The Trouble with “Gaywashing”

CCA LiveE | Thursday January 3rd, 2013 | 2 Comments

This is part of a series of articles by MBA students at California College of the Arts dMBA program. Follow along here.

RainbowBy Ciaran “Luke” Wallace

Support for queer issues can pay off for savvy companies. But, gay-themed marketing isn’t always a golden ticket and poorly thought-out spending can quickly damage reputations. For companies that don’t want to drown in the wake of more progressive competitors, moving past gaywashing towards real systemic change is the real key to winning the hearts (and wallets) of the queer community.

When it’s a wash

Business has a mandate to stay profitable so it’s only reasonable that companies present messages in alignment with their business strategy. However, tentative toe-dipping in the form of gaywashing does little for the community. Some notable examples:

  • Oreo’s rainbow-colored cookie ad stirred a conservative backlash after being launched in celebration of Pride month. Also, they never even produced the cookie, leaving many feeing a bit “hangry.”
  • Absolut vodka has a 30-year history of marketing to LGBT consumers, which essentially amounts to a portfolio of gay-themed ads and sponsorship of gay-themed media – like RuPaul’s Drag Race.  Could that money have been used more strategically to support the cause of the queer community? Probably.

When it’s a political kerfuffle

Supporting the anti-gay means consumers will see you as anti-gay. Even small donations can have big ripple effects. Just ask Target.

In 2010, Target gave funds to MN Forward, a political action committee that paid for ads that supported conservative Republican Tom Emmer.

Target meant to buddy up to kindred Minnesotans. The problem: Emmer supported a state constitutional amendment banning civil recognition of same-sex marriages. Shortly after, Lady Gaga nixed a deal with Target for an exclusive special edition of her “Born This Way” album. Target has since attempted to atone amidst skepticism as to where they really stand.

Tips for getting it right

While there are no clear-cut rules, there are things companies can do to start off on the right foot– no rainbows required. First and foremost, practice what you preach and don’t be schizophrenic with your values or your messages. If you claim to ally with the queer community, do so authentically and demonstrate it unwaveringly. A few more ideas:

  • Use the right words: Speak to your audience. This is best illustrated by comparing Ben and Jerry’s “Hubby Hubby” ice cream to Urban Outfitter’s offensive greeting card – they used the word tranny. The former, a whimsical way to support a fundamental right. The latter, a derogatory term on a card that supports nothing.
  • Fight the “glass closet”: Having openly gay employees is better for business because people perform best when they are in an environment of inclusion. Make it easier for queer people to join your organization and succeed within it. Creating a culture of inclusion also creates opportunity to competitively attract top talent from this segment of the workforce.
  • Offer benefits programs that support queer populations: Score high on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index and advertise that victory. IBM has worked hard to be inclusive, offering health benefits to employees’ same sex partners. They’ve rated 100% on the HRC index since 2003 and have won numerous LGBT awards.
  • Donate revenue to other orgs and policy that support equality. Put your money where your mouth is. Apple and Google won brownie points by donating to the effort to defeat California’s Prop 8 campaign. Phone company CREDO mobile contributes revenue to support liberal activism and invests in progressive non-profits, specifically those that support equal access to rights – like marriage. And, make sure the portfolio of your contributions is aligned – remember Target?

Above all, be legit

Whatever route a company takes, it’s got to be authentic and genuine. Inconsistencies between message and action are a pretty serious red flag. The queer community will sniff out posers and second chances are never as easy as the first. Whether a company stands behind their words with tangible action is key to determining who is actually an ally and who is just throwing rainbows around as a trendy form of advertising.

There’s certainly potential here. The greatest spoils will likely go to those who share back the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in meaningful ways.

[Image credit: rramirez125, iStockphoto]


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  • Equal

    Quit using a hate term to describe your audience. While popular among some, mostly young, the Q word remains a favorite amont the haters as well.

    • Yvonne Tran

      As you say that it remains a favorite amongst “haters”, it is also widely popular in the LGBTQIA community as a catch all term. As someone who identifies politically and personally with the term “queer”, I find it funny that that this is the first comment you wrote about an article that brings up so many other points between “gaywashing” and business.