“Pink washing”: A Marketing Stunt or An Economic Revolution?

Pinkwashing is a portmanteau compound word of the words pink and whitewashing. In the context of LGBT rights, it is used to describe a variety of marketing and political strategies aimed at promoting products, countries, people or entities through an appeal to gay-friendliness, in order to be perceived as progressive, modern and tolerant. The phrase was originally coined in 1992 by Breast Cancer Action to identify companies that claimed to support people with breast cancer while actually profiting from their illness.

Ben and Jerry's contribution to the marriage equality debate.

It comes as a growing number of corporations are setting up internal “pride” groups to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) staff and customers.

Some say the focus on diversity is long overdue and the increased visibility will help challenge discrimination.

They argue that without major corporate backers such as ANZ and NAB, community events including Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival and Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras might go to the wall.

But others fear it is “pink washing” – an attempt to cash in on rising public support for equality by appearing gay friendly.

Ben and Jerry’s contribution to the marriage equality debate.

“We’re talking about multinational corporations who do big business with a lot of other countries around the world that are not LGBTI supportive, or more than that they’re actually openlydiscriminatory if not violent,” said Nic Holas, a queer activist and writer.

“It’s all very good to say ‘yes, we’re inclusive and yes we’re pro-marriage equality and we love the gays’ but if they’re directly profiting off work with other nations that are doing the exact opposite that’s pink washing. Marketing is effective when it comes to making corporates appear more human but the profit will always drive the decision-making process.”

While many of these campaigns have received widespread public support, the commodification of a civil rights movement has had pushback.

When a Burger King outlet in the United States last year released a “Pride Whopper” in a rainbow wrapper printed with the words “We are all the same inside”, it was condemned as a stunt.

This week, Pizza Hut UK was ridiculed for trying to gain brand recognition through a tweet to Caitlyn Jenner, saying that the former Olympian and reality TV star who came out as transgender was “Welcome in Pizza Hut any time.”

In New Zealand, a GAYTM was vandalised by “Queers Against Injustice” activists, who claimed the bank had “co-opted gay symbolism for commercial purposes.”

However, Andrew Purchas, president of the Bingham Cup – the gay rugby world cup, staged in Sydney last year, with sponsors including the Commonwealth Bank, Lendlease and Telstra – said most corporates recognised their support for equality had to be authentic and meaningful.

As part of its sponsorship, Lendlease invited Purchas with Wallabies star David Pocock and head of the Australian Rugby Union, Bill Pulver, to visit its building sites, educating workers on homophobia and encouraging LGBTI employees to be open in the workplace.

“Once upon a time it was corporates trying to buy the pink dollar whereas now it’s about them genuinely seeing that diversity is a positive in terms of supporting their employees and their customers and actually being good corporate citizens,” Purchas said.

“No longer can they just whack an ad up at an event or put a rainbow flag on a pamphlet. Our community is intelligent and will only respond to things that are genuine.”

Rise of the pink dollar

Although the world’s first gay magazine, Der Eigene, was published in Germany in 1892, it wasn’t until the late 1950s and beyond that more prominent gay media began to emerge as laws outlawing homosexual activities were softened.

However, in the early days, advertising in LGBT media was largely restricted to LGBT organisations, and LGBT-owned businesses directly targeting the community. Maybe because of the political (and sometimes sexual nature) of many publications, major advertisers were cautious to advertise in the gay press. Even widely discussed (and criticised) survey data kick started a narrative of the “pink dollar” and an affluent and untapped marketing demographic failed to spark a rush. The emergence of AIDS in the 1980s helped to rein in commercial attitudes towards the LGBT community and it wasn’t until the second half of the decade that the first few mainstream brands – Absolut Vodka’s campaign in The Advocate, for example – started cautiously appearing in gay magazines alongside the community organisations and businesses.

It was the 1990s which saw a genuine turnaround. Advertisers openly hailed the “Dream Market” of urban, well-educated, double-income gay and lesbian couples. Yet, there was still a palpable fear of broader public attitudes towards LGBT issues, with few advertisers trying to openly depict LGBT storylines in their advertising directed at mainstream customers.

Instead, advertisers relied on targeting LGBT-identifying individuals through increasingly sophisticated media channels aimed at the community, such as radio stations, television channels, and an increasing variety of glossy lifestyle magazines, each one educating their gay audiences where to spend their, supposedly, high disposable income in terms of fashion, travel, art and fine cuisine.

Should businesses and companies be able to get away with pinkwashing or should there be stricter regulations? What do you think?

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