Coming out in support of Pride marketing

It’s Pride and it’s a biggie – 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. Unsurprisingly there are a fair few cause-related campaigns around; some will be praised while others condemned for pink-washing. It can turn the banal into headline news; take M&S launching their LGBT sandwich (Lettuce, Guacamole, Bacon and Tomato). Pride marketing is increasingly prevalent and prominent; take a stroll down Oxford St and look at how many retailers have rainbow livery on their stores and products.

Is it really about genuinely supporting the LGBT+ community? A common accusation is that it’s simply an avaricious grab for a share of the pink pound. Maybe it’s virtue signalling to LBGT+ allies or the increasingly “woke” mass consumer market. Perhaps we are reading too much into it and it’s just organisations reflecting an increasingly liberal society.

First a disclaimer: there’s too much to comprehensively tackle in an opinion piece like this. There is, however, some context that can add useful perspective.

For those who read the marketing press there is an ever-increasing number of articles debating whether marketing communications with LGBT+ representations, or devices like rainbows, constitute cynical pink washing. Does the explosion of articles reflect a recent tidal wave of representation in advertising? I wish. Channel 4 and YouGov recently commissioned the “world’s biggest study into inclusivity of TV Advertising” and it didn’t show a plenitude of LGBT representation. It found that only 3% of commercials included LGBT representations, rarely in the lead role, often tokenistic and with some using negative stereotypes.

Rainbows may seem very visible, especially around Pride, but that’s largely because of the lack of visibility of the LGBT+ community, especially outside of Pride season. There is not an excess of representation. Advertisers have not got over-excited about Pride.

To complicate this, it seems to me that more often than not LGBT+ representation is an attractive lesbian couple; the most “acceptable” gay archetype. If that casting is motivated by using “acceptability” to broaden the target audience then it acquiesces to some homophobia within that audience. Hardly the full throttle support of the LGBT+ community companies are trying to suggest.

If representations are being compromised by deference to a homophobic section of the audience, does that mean there is a cynical cost benefit analysis being carried out? Are advertisers trying to have their cake and eat it?

The Office for National Statistics (2017) estimated 1.1 million over-16s identify as LGB, which is 2% of the adult population. In the same year the 34th edition of the British Social Attitudes Survey found that only 64% of people said that same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”. That suggests 36% of people do find same-sex relationships “wrong” to some degree. I could say that advertisers are weighing up that 2% vs 36%, coming out clad in rainbows and accepting they risk ire from within the 36%. That’s probably too simplistic a calculation though.

The 64% of people who said that same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all” will contain LGBT+ people and their straight allies. While I hugely appreciate straight allies, I’m sceptical how many would demand affirmative support from advertisers. The result of that would be advertisers remaining silent on LGBT+ representation to avoid alienating both passive straight allies and those who do find same-sex relationships wrong.

Of course, many advertisers do stay silent, perhaps as a result of the cost benefit analysis I’ve just described. Consequently, I’m happy to give kudos to those advertisers that have broken their silence. Equally, I’m hesitant to criticise their bravery when some communications were a little clumsy. Nuance and sophistication across marketing communications will grow as wider understanding of LGBT+ equality improves through society.

Consumers are not necessarily the only audience for Pride marketing and gestures such as rainbow livery. Almost all stakeholder groups will include LGBT+ people. Some of the primary stakeholder groups such as employees and suppliers are key audiences. I would argue that employees are probably most influential in stimulating and then affirming cause marketing. I’m convinced that LGBT+ employees and their allies are the driving force behind pro-LGBT+ corporate positioning. They’re the ones putting in the hours, making the arguments and garnering support. Authenticity intersects at this point. Any company wrapping itself in rainbows or using LGBT+ representation in adverts must genuinely support LGBT+ equality. That is best manifested in its policies and treatment of its workforce. Consumers are pretty good at identifying inauthentic brand positioning and there are metrics such as Stonewall’s annual Top 100 Employers list to help.

As with any good quality CSR, marketing communications should form part of a positive feedback loop that reinforces and amplifies the good being done. In this case, as society liberalises, LGBT+ people and their allies can speak more vociferously to their employers and others. That should stimulate positive action being taken by those organisations to support LGBT+ equality and when communicated well that increases LGBT+ visibility, further liberalising society. None of this happens in isolation, it’s a desirable mechanism but does require some agitation and energy to build momentum. It also means that companies shouldn’t be embarrassed when this improves their bottom line – doing good is good business and that’s just as true for LGBT+ equality as it for any other cause.

By Lloyd Harding, Associate Director