Over the past decade or so, it’s been a casual sport among LGBTQ people (and allies) to mock brands for their cringe attempts at celebrating Pride Month. Although much of this marketing feels well-intentioned and harmless at worse, it’s ultimately self-serving: companies can look “progressive” by doing the bare minimum to acknowledge and honor a marginalized group — and sell directly to that demographic in the process. Often it’s as basic as switching to a rainbow logo.
You can see what rings a bit hollow about this: In what way can a cough medicine represent the values associated with Pride? Only though generic symbolism on social media. The practice, sometimes called “woke-washing,” has drawn not only mockery but criticism from those on the left who find it a cynical extension of the commercial impulses that drive capitalism itself.
Of course, it’s not like the rainbows ever sat too well with homophobic elements of the right, either. “Why does everything have to be political nowadays,” these haters might grumble, to no one in particular. But the brands could afford to ignore that dissent because of the profit to be made off LGBTQ consumers and liberals charmed by the appearance of inclusion and tolerance.
That’s changed over the past year. A militant “anti-woke” movement — turbocharged by the internet, amplified by politicians, and focused on the vicious demonization of queer and transgender individuals — has mobilized to openly threaten companies that show a whiff of solidarity with these groups. From Bud Light and Disney to North Face and Target, companies are finding that innocuous rainbow merch, ad campaigns featuring trans or gay celebrities, and donations to LGBTQ organizations can trigger online hate campaigns along with calls to boycott. Historically, these attacks haven’t done much damage to bottom lines, but they’ve gotten a whole lot louder of late — and the brands are clearly spooked by the noise.
Business have met the new challenge in different ways, usually aiming for a queasy compromise that satisfies no one. Target, for instance, promised to remove certain Pride-themed clothing from its stores, only for belligerent conservatives to film themselves throwing tantrums about the Pride displays that remained there. The Los Angeles Dodgers, after uninviting a charity drag group to their Pride Night due to pressure from right-wingers, then re-invited them and announced a “Christian Faith and Family Day.”
Other companies, however, appear to have caved entirely the the anti-LGBTQ mob (see the quick switcheroo of the Major League Baseball logo above). And some have stayed silent about Pride Month despite past promotions marking the occasion. Which means that the brands sticking it out with their “Love Is Love” marketing language — the kind of cheap, bland sentiment that could have once been dismissed as a calculated emotional play — now seem, well, brave? Principled? Willing to take on bigots, no matter the cost?
PetSmart was among the names to face “backlash” in the past week, thanks to a line of Pride-based clothes and toys that would presumably turn your dog woke. (They also donated $200,000 to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which works to end bullying and violence against LGBTQ youth in schools.) When June 1 rolled around, however, PetSmart didn’t back off, and instead pitched the collection as planned on Facebook, along with pictures of guinea pigs and lizards in rainbow gear.
Kohl’s, blasted along with Target for Pride clothing, nonetheless encouraged people to “inspire and embrace your authentic self” with a video featuring LGBTQ models wearing the items, and endured a barrage of nasty comments. Absolut Vodka, one of the first major alcohol brands to advertise in queer media and align itself with Pride, continues to sell its trademark rainbow bottles. And despite the capitulation of the MLB, the New York Mets held strong with their Pride logo on Twitter, unmoved by a chorus of indignation in their replies.
It’s almost embarrassing to be grateful that a handful of multibillion-dollar behemoths have ignored a disgusting moral panic, suggesting that they’d rather have gay and trans customers than extremists bent on erasing those identities from public life. After all, much of this support still boils down to, uh, colors. That certain brands merely avoided falling into the culture war trap is something of a meager, bittersweet victory.
They passed a crucial test of the moment, however, and in that sense… you maybe gotta hand it to them. The gestures that meant comparatively little in “normal” times take on new significance in an era of genocidal rhetoric about a vulnerable minority. By standing up to such orchestrated abuse, even if just online, you can send an implied message that no giant corporation would make explicit: “Fuck off, losers.”
And hasn’t this always been the flip side of the joy expressed in Pride? If you want to stay mad at people reveling in their sheer diversity, that’s too bad for you. Yeah, the companies haven’t quit trying to squeeze money out of this occasion, but when the alternative is to watch them suddenly stop — as though fearful of alienating fascists looking for the next brand to cancel — we know which outcome is better. I won’t say I’m compelled to buy a rainbow bow tie for my cat. It’s just nice that I can.