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Pride Marketing Isn’t Perfect, but Is It Progress?

To fans of VH1’s drag queen reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race, Vanessa “Vanjie” Mateo is a household name. With her deep, scratchy voice and bombastic sense of humor, she’s been called the “DMX of drag.” She was also one of the biggest memes of 2018 but still wasn’t recognizable to a mainstream audience.

That changed when Vanjie landed an endorsement deal with Chips Ahoy in 2019. The video spot, distributed across social media on Mother’s Day, exposed her to the cookie brand’s huge international audience—and it was immediately obvious that not every cookie fan has evolved with the times.

This is where we’re at on queer representation and consumerism in 2019. It’s complicated. When Marsha P. Johnson dropped a brick on the windshield of a cop car outside Stonewall in 1969, she probably wasn’t fighting to get drag queens sponsorship deals with cookie companies. She was fighting back against a violent police state that targeted queer Americans, dragging them into the street and physically assaulting them because of their sexualities and gender identities.

As Vanjie’s run-in with homophobic commenters proves, our world has changed a great deal in some ways. There’s been a push for increased queer representation in popular media, including films, TV shows, video games, and advertising. As a result, brands are jumping into conversations they used to avoid at all costs.

In New York City’s Pride parade alone, queer demonstrators march alongside floats from T-Mobile, Mastercard, Macy’s, Delta Airlines, and Diet Coke. Reports of queer activists hating this development might be overstated: a recent study from Whitman Insight Strategies and BuzzFeed News found that 76 percent of Americans think corporate brands should be welcomed at Pride events, specifically to sponsor floats in parades. At this point, brands that don’t support LGBT employees and customers with outward marketing initiatives start to look a little suspect.

Overall, the world is asking brands to take a stand, but they should still proceed with caution.

Visibility builds empathy

Representation of underrepresented groups in media may not be the most important part of social equality, but we know that when different kinds of people are visible in commercials and social media campaigns, their cultures and values slowly become part of the mainstream. As frivolous as it can seem to those who have always seen themselves in media—branded or otherwise—simple recognition of a group’s existence can have a ripple effect.

In a country where transgender black women are routinely murdered, it matters a great deal when transgender people of color land modeling campaigns and cookie commercials. (Of course, this should come alongside protective legislation and basic human compassion.) It makes it harder to dehumanize someone if people have multiple examples of their culture at the forefront of their minds.

Queer people need products and services too

I often feel suspicious if I’m on the receiving end of a sales pitch. Companies, after all, are vying for my money, and the ultimate conceit of a lot of content marketing is that I need to purchase a product or service to solve a problem. As Jeff Rosenstock once sang about brands, “They wouldn’t be your friend if you weren’t worth something.”

That’s kind of the point, though. In 2015, a study reported that queer Americans represented an estimated buying power of $917 billion. The fact that more and more brands are targeting their marketing campaigns at queer people confirms that the population has become appealing.

LGBTQIA people, as American Airlines declared when it hired a whole marketing team devoted to queer messaging, are consumers like anybody else. In fact, when it comes to an industry like travel, queer people have very specific needs. You could argue that American Airlines ultimately wants to make money off their travel habits, but by employing queer marketers to cater to these folks, the company is just doing what it needs to do in order to secure that business.

Not every place is New York or Los Angeles

Queer-friendly content from travel brands actually brings me to my next point, which is that brands are, in some places, the first (and loudest) pro-LGBT voices on the scene. In many communities across the United States, seeing a rainbow flag in a fast food joint or watching a same-sex couples isn’t pandering or hollow. It’s actually a small revolution.

This year, the New York Times interviewed queer Americans in the midwest on the subject of Pride, and most of them expressed concern that big cities that host the largest parades have pretty much forgotten about everyone else between the coasts. “In our popular culture,” one man said, “we’ve heard about these stories from Fire Island and San Francisco, but we just haven’t heard about them in the heartland.” There are queer members of many religions and cultures, Native queer folk, and queer immigrants in the country who are still searching for the freedom and safety that Americans in “blue” cities can sometimes take for granted.

To change this perception, it’s a great move for companies located in areas without laws protecting LGBT people to issue supportive statements and provide helpful resources. As long as a company’s professed values are reflected in its leaders’ actions, there’s nothing wrong with, say, Starbucks offering full medical benefits to its employees’ domestic partners, or Disney finally throwing a Pride celebration after decades of quietly encouraging “gay days” in the park.

Companies display their values through action

Corporations are not people, but companies do demonstrate their organizational values the way individual humans do: by putting their money where their mouth is. Therefore, Pride gives brands a reason to publicize the social giving campaigns they should be running all year round.

We can always assess the internal and outbound actions of every company regardless of whether it’s June or not. The Human Rights Campaign publishes an index of queer-friendly companies each year, and it’s a pretty good sign that 13 of the top 20 Fortune-ranked companies in 2019 received a 100 percent rating. The only two companies on that top 20 list to score below 90 were Berkshire Hathaway (CEO Warren Buffet) and Exxon Mobil Corp. (whose former CEO Rex Tillerson served briefly as Secretary of State under President Trump).

The way a brand interacts with Pride, whether that’s through a sponsored parade float or a month-long public donation campaign, is one indicator of its values related to the queer community. We also have to consider the way a company treats its employees, provides value for queer audience members, and continues its activism throughout the year. The environment we have now may not be perfect, hopefully it keeps heading in the right direction.

Image by Mercedes Mehling / Unsplash
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