Pride-Themed Advertising Is Everywhere, but Hold Your Applause

Spencer Macnaughton

Spencer Macnaughton

In the dance of risk versus reward, corporations finally believe they can make more money capturing market share than they can lose in potential blow back.

For decades, June has been associated with rainbow flags, Pride parades, and LGBTQ rights. But in the last few years, it's also come to be known as the month where companies push their LGBTQ-themed marketing campaigns.

This year has been no exception. Instagram has rolled out a special set of pride-flavored features, including a rainbow brush. Equinox produced a five-minute video that explores the LGBTQ-alphabet (literally from A-Z). And Just Salad, a New York City Pride sponsor, released their LGBTQ-themed "Big Gay Garden Salad."

While LGBTQ-targeted ads have been around for decades, "the big shift has happened in the last five years," says David Paisley, the Senior Research Director at Community Marketing & Insights (CMI), an LGBTQ market research firm. "It feels like every consumer product is outreaching," he says. From rainbow french fry boxes at McDonalds, to Coca-Cola's "Pool Boy" commercial, major companies have ramped up their LGBTQ-advertising just in time for Pride 2017.

So what about the current social and political climate has created a greater incentive for mainstream companies to target the LGBTQ community, and what are the moral implications of this?

"With the Obama administration introducing trans-friendly policies, and with same-sex marriage becoming legal, society is moving forward and people on the other side of the fence realize it's not an issue," says Matt Skallerud, president of Pink Banana Media, a company that specializes in LGBTQ online marketing.

In addition to progressive policy change, statistics suggest that society has become more accepting of LGBTQ people. According to Pew Research Center, 92 percent of America's LGBTQ adults say society has become more accepting of them in the past decade and an equal number expect this acceptance to grow in the coming decade.

This progressive policy change is enticing for brands who are ostensibly joining the fights for LGBTQ rights. "But I think the underlying message is that these brands are now feeling like it's safe and less risky to do this," says Jenn T. Grace, an LGBTQ business strategist. "The message it sends is 'You weren't important to us before when it was risky but now, only when it's safe, we're willing to put our neck out there and support this community. It could be that it's the right thing to do all day long, but if it's not making them money, they wouldn't do it. Businesses are in business to make a profit," she says.

American Airlines (AA) saw the LGBT market as profitable earlier than most companies, and is considered a major pioneer of LGBT advertising. In the late 1990s, AA created a team that focused on LGBT marketing, according to Mike Waldron, managing director of diversity and talent at AA. "The community is one that travels more than others and we wanted to make sure we had a slice of that market share," he says.

As LGBTQ acceptance increased, more companies were incentivized to target LGBTQ consumers, who in 2015 represented an estimated buying power of $917 billion, or 6.8% of total US buying power.

"There's no CFO that would justify a little homophobia at the expense of one of the most influential markets," says Jonathan Lovitz, Senior Vice President of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

In spite the money-making potential, it's only profitable to disseminate these ads in certain areas of the United States. "There is an element of cherry picking," says Skallerud. "When a company comes to us, they may say 'I want to target New Orleans and Dallas' because they know it has a strong LGBT audience. Companies typically look at statistics and then push their ads to feeder targets where their market lives. It's all business," he says.

To some, this is problematic. "If you're going forward with an initiative of being pro-LGBT but then you back down in places like the Deep South where it's controversial, it sends the bad message to the LGBT customers you're trying to attract to begin with," says Grace. "I think it's demoralizing to some degree to a lot of LGBT people."

Another common issue with the companies who push these ads is the contradiction between their external messaging and the internal ideology of the company. "The first thing I tell companies is 'don't even think about externally communicating to a community that you want to be a leader for LGBT rights without first making sure that your message backs up what's happening internally," says Grace.

Examples of this, according to Grace, include when companies don't provide adequate health benefits to transgender people, or when they don't provide training that highlights LGBTQ sensitivities.

A primary way companies are held accountable for this is through the Human Right's Campaign's Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which rates American businesses on a score of 100 based on their treatment of LGBTQ employees, consumers and investors. The goal of the CEI, which has been released annually since 2002, is to catalyze change by appealing to businesses competitive nature.

"I think the CEI is a good indicator of which brands truly care and want to send an authentic message," says Grace.

"Some companies, such as American Airlines and Marriott Hotels, have worked hard for years to maintain or improve a very high score," she says.

But other companies who start with a horrible score and then quickly improve are only engaging in these campaigns because they don't want to look bad from a competitive standpoint, says Grace. "To me, that's the epitome of pinkwashing," she says.

One example of this is Exxonn Mobile, who went from a score of negative 25 in 2015 to a score of 85 in 2017.

In spite of these issues, some believe these ads can help make change. "We have a share of cynicism for LGBT-marketing, but what I'm impressed by is the number of brands who put their mouth where their marketing is," says Bob Witeck, President of Witeck Communications, the company that conducts analyses of LGBTQ buying power. "Look at the companies that moved out of North Carolina," he says, referring to the companies that left the state when it passed the bathroom bill that disallowed transgender people from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity.

Regardless of moral agenda, LGBTQ-advertising is most visible in the month of June, which was chosen for Pride month to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Over the years, Pride Month has exploded and there are now hundreds of parades across the globe each year.

Pride 2017's expected attendance suggests this explosion isn't cooling off anytime soon. A survey by CMI found that 63 percent of respondents plan on attending their hometown pride this year, compared to only 47 percent of respondents in 2016. "With more eyeballs at pride, it's an even better investment for corporations," says Paisley.

Paisley believes one reason for this increase is because pride is more emotional this year due to the Trump administration's poor track record when it comes to LGBTQ rights.

"We're not really clear what's happening with the Trump administration in terms of how far they're going to want to push back on our civil rights," says Paisley. "In times of anxiety or emotional unrest, people are more impressionable and it's an opportunity for corporations to show that they're completely backing LGBTQ equality. That will have an impact on members of the community," he says.

While LGBTQ-themed ads can lure in LGBTQ consumers, they may have an even wider reach. "LGBTQ audiences are central to the youthful audience," says Witeck. "The idea of a millennial today is someone who has LGBT friends and family," he says.

"The younger person doesn't want to work with a company that doesn't get it. LGBT-themed ads remind people they're not set in 1950s, 1960s, 1980s," says Witeck. "When millennials see an LGBT-themed ad campaign, it can change their perception of that brand," he says.

Another domino effect of these targeted ads is that LGBTQ people are disproportionately strong in word of mouth and social media use, according to Witeck. "We're more inclined to share imagery of an ad on Instagram or Facebook, which means the company's ad ends up getting seen by more people," he says.

"Over time, Pride month has become very profitable from a company's perspective," adds Witeck. Whether these ads are really with the LGBTQ community is up for debate. But based on the numbers, it's clear this group is a profitable market. And profits are one thing corporations have always expressed pride in.

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