It’s that time of the year where brands slap rainbow flags all over their ads and pay for floats to boost their presence at Pride parades. But Pride season isn’t just about cashing in on the ‘rainbow pound’ - there’s a deeper meaning.
Today M&C Saatchi London kicked off a two-week programme of events at the agency called Capturing the Rainbow, looking back at the 50 years of LGBTQ+ struggle for rights since the Stonewall riots and also looking forward to where queer life and queer representation is going.
Put together by M&C Saatchi Proud - the agency’s employee LGBTQ+ network - in association with Queer Britain, Capturing the Rainbow will also include an exhibition of key moments in LGBTQ+ history, curated by Queer Britain and Getty, which opens tomorrow.
The first event in the programme was a Queer Representation Breakfast Panel, chaired by Joseph Galliano, founder and CEO of Queer Britain, former editor of the Gay Times. Joseph’s experience of brands trying to capitalise on the ‘rainbow pound’ goes back decades, to when he was editing the Gay Times. He remembers how far off the mark brands would often get it when advertising in the magazine. “As we’d remove the copy from the envelope our hearts would sink as we’d see another white, muscly man standing by a car with his top off and a rainbow flag draped around his shoulders. You just knew that they weren’t getting who we were as a market.”
So a key question of the debate, fast forwarding to 2019, was: Are brands just chasing the rainbow pound or do they have a legitimate part to play in LGBTQ+ life?
Tanya Compas, who you may know from gal-dem, a youth activist and the youth engagement officer at UK Black Pride who dabbles in the creative sector, began the discussion by stressing how important it is to appreciate the struggles of previous generations, looking back at 50 years since Stonewall. Although sometimes it feels like you’re the first generation to face the problems the queer community has, she said, it’s important to realise that people have gone before you.
Kate Rourke, senior manager, creative insights at Getty Images, added that Pride is a positive protest that needs to continue its struggle.
“There’s still a long way to go,” noted transgender awareness specialist Joanne Lockwood, while Adeline Servais, marketing manager for Levi Strauss & Co., grounded the discussion ahead by reminding people that if you look at the treatment of LGBTQ+ communities in Russia, for example, to say there’s a lot of progress to be made is an understatement.
Levi’s has long history of inclusive marketing and LGBTQ+ markets that other brands could do well to learn from. Adeline ventured that Levi’s message of inclusivity and support for queer communities goes back decades and continues to be a key brand value. 2019’s Pride collection from the clothing brand is built around a message that “comes from the heart”, she said. It’s not trying to capitalise on a community, like many brands are accused of. 100% of net proceeds from the Pride collection go to OutRight Action International, working to advance human rights for LGBTQ+ people all over the world.
Tanya applauded this, noting that a brand she worked with on a campaign that was less keyed in to LGBTQ+ issues only donated 10% of its proceeds and, at that, to a charity that wasn’t directly adjacent to these communities and their struggles. By her reckoning, 25% is the minimum brands should be donating in order to prove they’re not simply profiting off a community. By way of an example of what not to do, she recounts that there were no other women of colour on the shoot and that while she was told there would be LGBTQ+ people represented both in front of and behind the camera, she found herself in a conversation with someone backstage who expressed some problematic views.
“They benefit from our network, from our time, our labour, even speaking of brands is emotional labour,” said Tanya. “We still see brands that don’t see it, don’t take time to get to know the community outside of putting a rainbow on something.”
But Tanya’s never surprised by this behaviour. “We’re getting so used to brands compartmentalising parts of our identity to profit off,” she said. What does surprise her is when big brands like Absolut get it right, like it did in its ‘A Drop of Love
’ campaign. She applauded them for hiring gal-dem founder Liv Little to ensure casting is inclusive, they invested in the community and actually listened to their opinions.
When asked about other brands that are getting it right, Kate gave a shoutout to Pantene for its Pride revamp of ‘Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful’ campaign update, tackling conventional stereotypes with 'Don’t Hate Me Because I’m BeautifuLGBTQ
Joanna’s take on how advertising is doing was that generally, there is a lack of trans representation in advertising, but also that it’s not only in advertising that brands can be helping queer communities. “They need to get the basics right,” she said. For example, brands making shoes that fit trans women.
Getty Images is one brand working beyond the way it markets itself to help with queer representation. Kate spoke about the efforts the company is making to try and represent a whole spectrum of the queer community in its image library.
As with so much of brand purpose, Adeline advised that to engage with LGBTQ+ issues legitimately, brands need to go back to their checklist of values and their core messages, to realise why they’re doing it. And they should do it all year round, rather than just during Pride season. “It doesn’t stop at August,” she said.
Joanna agreed that brands need to consider their #Pride communications more deeply. “I’m not a big fan of doing something just because a hashtag says so.” It should be a permanent engagement with these issues, she said.
When asked for final messages to wrap up the panel, each member left us with a pithy and applicable piece of advice for brands keen to help with queer representation.
“Do your research,” said Tanya. Make sure your messaging is as informed by the community you’re representing as possible. Kate’s message was simple: Diversity needs to be behind the camera as well as in front of it. Joanna suggested that general pushing back on gender stereotypes will help with trans representation. She also added that including trans people incidentally in brand communications, rather than to make some sort of point about inclusivity, is something she’d like to see more. Adeline said brands need to engage with these issues for the right reasons. Connect with people who will give you the tough answers, she suggested - building on Tanya’s point about involving the community.