As any gay worth their rainbow knows, June is pride month. For the next few weeks our newsfeeds will be flooded with endless iterations of ROY G. BIV inspired products and LGBTQ inclusive advertisements. While it’s extremely tempting to lose ourselves in the rainbows, glitter and flamboyant unicorns, it’s important to consider why companies are marketing to the LGBTQ community.
Do they really care about the interests of queer people or are they simply capitalizing on pride to turn a profit?
It’s no secret that attitudes toward LGBTQ people have changed drastically in recent years. In fact, support for gay marriage among U.S. citizens has risen from 32% in 2002 to 67% in 2018 and 92% of LGBTQ adults say society has become more accepting of them in the past decade. This acceptance of the LGBTQ community has become increasingly reflective in advertisements and companies are now publicly supporting gay rights.
But it’s easy to just slap a rainbow on shoes, shirts or bottles of alcohol for pride. The real question is: where were these companies before supporting queer people benefited their bottom line?
The truth is, “these brands are now feeling like it’s safe and less risky to [support gay rights],” says Jenn T. Grace, an LGBTQ business strategist. “The message it sends is, ‘you weren’t important to us before when it was risky but now, only when it’s safe, we’re willing to put our neck out there and support this community. It could be that it’s the right thing to do…but if it’s not making them money, they wouldn’t do it.”
With the influx of rainbow themed logos and commercials with same-sex partners, it’s not always easy to determine which companies are genuinely supportive of gay rights. Luckily, the Human Rights Campaign developed a reliable way to assess a company’s actual attitude toward LGBTQ people: the Corporate Equality Index (CEI). This index rates American businesses (between -25-100) based on their treatment of LGBTQ employees, consumers and investors. It gives invaluable insight into a company’s true intention when using gay pride to market their products.
Below is an analysis of companies who have used LGBTQ themes to market their products. It’s up to you to decide if they’ve earned it or not!
1) Apple Inc.
In 2014, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, became the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Since then, Cook has capitalized on his position of power to become a prominent advocate for gay rights. He has publicly condemned the anti-LGBTQ “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (signed by then Indiana Governor Mike Pence), personally donated a substantial amount of money to gay rights efforts in the south, led about 8,000 Apple employees in San Francisco’s gay pride parade and used his platform, and buzz about the the iPhone X, to advocate for marriage equality in Australia.
Surprisingly, Cook’s support of the LGBTQ community has actually been good for business. His relentless corporate activism, or speaking out on controversial issues largely unrelated to a company’s bottom line, is increasing sales of Apple products. According to researchers at Harvard and Duke, this happens “when CEOs take public stands on controversial issues [because] they can galvanize support for their company from those who share the same viewpoint.”
While Cook has definitely propelled Apple’s fight for equality through his personal commitment to gay rights, the tech company has a long history of supporting the queer community. In fact, few companies have consistently supported the LGBTQ community quite like Apple Inc., formerly known as Apple Computers Inc. In 2002, the year the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index began, Apple was 1 of just 13 companies to earn the highest possible rating (100.) And, every year since, Apple has managed to maintain that perfect score.
Even when the majority of Americans did not support gay rights, Apple prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, provided diversity training in relation to sexuality and gender identity and offered transgender-inclusive insurance coverage.
In the early 1990’s, Apple even refused to build an $80 million office complex in Round Rock, Texas unless their tax-break, which was rescinded due to the company’s pro gay policies, was reinstated. Residents had accused the tech company of “bringing homosexuality into Williamson County” and even took to wearing pins that expressed their disproval of the company’s commitment to equality. In response, Apple said, “that as a matter of both principle and economics the company would not build on the 128-acre site” unless they were reimbursed for the tax-break. Ultimately, the county folded and Apple broke ground on the project in 1994.
In more recent years, Apple has continued to fight for LGBTQ rights by removing anti-gay apps from the iTunes store and supporting a Supreme Court decision, that declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional in 2013. After the DOMA decision, the company issued an unequivocal statement of support saying, “Apple strongly supports marriage equality and we consider it a civil rights issue. We applaud the Supreme Court for its decisions today.”
It looks like Apple has earned their right to market to the LGBTQ community! Here is Apple’s latest options for pride.
Target has had a somewhat complicated relationship with the LGBTQ community for the past several years. While their stores proudly display shirts promoting equality and pride, in 2010 Target gave $150,000 to a Republican-friendly political fund, MN Forward, who ran TV ads supporting state legislator Tom Emmer. At that time, Emmer was a vehement opponent of gay marriage who actively worked to support a “constitutional marriage amendment that protects traditional marriage.”
Target, who had earned a 100 from the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index in both 2009 and 2010, was harshly criticized for the donation. Patrons felt that it undermined the company’s commitment to promoting gay rights and hundreds of thousands of Target shoppers began calling for a nation-wide boycott. The controversy was so pervasive, that the company was eventually forced to issue an apology. However, their efforts to mediate the situation failed and Target’s HRC rating, which dropped substantially (to 85), wouldn’t recover for more than two years.
Unfortunately, in 2012 the company once again found themselves at the center of a PR nightmare. Despite encouraging LGBTQ people to build wedding registries at Target by running ads featuring two grooms, the Minneapolis-based chain refused to take an overt stance on marriage equality. When asked what was Target’s official position on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage between a man and a woman, a target spokesperson said: “we recognize that there is a broad range of strongly held views on the MN Marriage amendment. Consistent with our longstanding support of civic engagement, we strongly encourage our team members to exercise their right to vote in November.” Target’s refusal to publicly support gay rights while simultaneously marketing to LGBTQ people, is the definition of “LGBTQ pinkwashing.”
By 2014, Target finally figured out that supporting queer people (both publicly and privately) was imperative to progress. In conjunction with several other large companies, the corporation officially proclaimed their support for gay marriage by signing an amicus, or “friend of the court” brief that took a stand for marriage equality. This time, their head of HR released a statement saying: “that now is the right time to more directly share our views on this issue.” Hmmm, could the time finally be right because society was beginning to become more accepting of gay rights?
In Target’s defense, it has maintained a perfect rating on the HRC’s index since 2013 and the company has become a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights. In 2017, the company launched the #TakePride campaign where, for each gay-affirming merchandise sold, Target promised to “donate 50 percent of the purchase price to GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network).”Shortly before announcing their #TakePride line, Target made headlines for establishing a policy that allowed “transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity.” This came on the heels of a 2015 decision that abolished all gender references in Target’s toy and bedding department to be inclusive of gender fluidity.
Years after LGBTQ people boycotted the company for being too conservative, Target’s massive, progressive changes now caused conservatives to boycott the company instead. Some even believe that implementing so many LGBTQ positive policies actually caused Target to sustain a $15 billion loss in the stock market. However, Target remains unfazed and claims, “we’re making our message loud and clear: Target proudly stands with the LGBT community.”
I think that’s something we all can support! This is Target’s most recent Pride collection.
In the late 2000s, YouTube was the ideal platform for LGBTQ viewers and content creators to form a community of likeminded individuals. In fact, I remember discovering YouTube for the first time and getting lost in an endless spiral of “Spashley” (or Spencer and Ashley from South of Nowhere) and “Breyton” (or Brooke and Peyton from One Tree Hill) fan videos. I don’t think I resurfaced for weeks.
With such little queer representation on TV, I couldn’t believe that were so many videos of lesbian romances, whether they were real or fabricated, just waiting to be consumed. It was overwhelming and thrilling to a young, gay me. YouTube seemed to be a place that accepted and celebrated queer people.
Google, YouTube’s parent company, also seemed to echo this theme of acceptance and inclusion. In fact, Google has received a perfect score on the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index since the first time the company was rated in 2006. In 2008, Google’s commitment to equality was put to the test when a fierce battle over Proposition 8, or an initiative to define marriage as existing exclusively between a man and woman, raged in California. The company’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, donated $140,000 to the fight for equality and said, “we hope that California voters will vote no on Proposition 8 – we should not eliminate anyone’s fundamental rights, whatever their sexuality, to marry the person they love.”
Google solidified its support for the LGBTQ community in 2012 by launching the #LegalizeLove campaign that sought to ease tension in “homophobic cultures, where anti-gay laws exist.” However, the company was careful to mention that this wasn’t a push for worldwide legalization of gay marriage. In addition to these efforts, Google also joined Apple in signing the amicus, or “friend of the court” brief that sought to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.
While it’s clear that Google has supported LGBTQ rights for over a decade, recent changes to YouTube’s platform has incurred harsh criticism from the LGBTQ community. In 2017, YouTube implemented a controversial restricted mode, intended to “screen out potentially mature content” [or videos that aren’t family friendly]. Unfortunately, this mode ended up blocking access to a wide range of LGBTQ videos, “including age-appropriate resources aimed at LGBT youth.” YouTube claimed that these videos were restricted because the discussed “sensitive issues” like “health, politics and sexuality.”
Naturally, YouTube’s admission that queer people aren’t “family friendly” provoked a massive outcry from LGBTQ content creators. Many argued that YouTube seemed to filter all content even slightly relating to the LGBTQ community, even if the content was perfectly wholesome. In fact, videos about Black LGBTQ+ trailblazers, lesbian weddings, queer theory and even a video of a cat sitting next to a rainbow flag were all deemed inappropriate in YouTube’s restricted mode. Since virtually all queer videos were made invisible on restricted mode, countless LGBTQ content creators began to report a reduction in viewership and, as a result, ad revenue.
As someone who has had a YouTube channel for four years, this is personal for me. I have filed several complaints to YouTube for flagging my content as “age-restricted” and of the 33 videos I have posted only 2 have been deemed acceptable for families. This is what my channel looks like on restricted mode. Everything with the word Lesbian has been filtered out.
Now, some of my videos are mature and I can understand them being restricted. That being said, videos such as “Lesbians Who Deserved Better,” “Karolina and Nico’s Lesbian Love Story” and “Best Coming Out Stories on TV,” that contain absolutely no inappropriate content, were also considered to be too deviant for families. As someone dedicated to promoting LGBTQ content, this deeply upsets me. The main goal of my YouTube channel is to make queer content accessible to LGBTQ youth who are struggling with their sexuality. I want LGBTQ youth to see themselves positively reflected in media so they realize that being queer is something to be celebrated not hidden.
To add insult to injury, anti-LGBTQ ads have begun playing before countless videos, including those produced by LGBTQ creators. Admittedly, Google did announce that it would reject ads that contain discriminatory views. However, I can’t help but feel like YouTube has strayed very far from its original days of being a queer mecca.
What do you think?
Starbucks has had a relatively high score on the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index since 2002. In fact, once it began offering offering transgender-inclusive health insurance in 2015, the company has consistently received a perfect score.
However, Starbucks seems to have always respected the LGBTQ community.
In 2011, Starbucks then CEO (Howard Schultz) cancelled an appearance at the Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois after becoming aware of the church’s association with gay conversion therapy. In 2013, that same former CEO famously vocalized the company’s support for same-sex marriage by telling a homophobic shareholder he was free to “sell [his] shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company.” This shareholder, Tom Strobhar, had been complaining about “disappointing” sales numbers and claimed they were a result of Starbuck’s pro-LGBTQ policies.
Schultz, who didn’t entertain Strobhar’s homophobia for a second, replied that Starbucks’ endorsement of marriage equality “wasn’t about making money, but about the principal of diversity.” As long as the company upheld its moral commitment to inclusion, he didn’t care if they lost money.
One year after this proclamation, Starbucks’ reiterated its solidarity with the LGBTQ community by raising a pride flag over its headquarters in Seattle. The company has continued to raise this flag every year in honor of the Seattle pride parade. “Given our public stance on diversity and inclusion of all people, particularly on this issue, it makes sense to raise the flag in celebration,” said the Executive Vice President Lucy Helm of their 2014 decision.
Later that same year, Starbucks released its first LGBTQ themed commercial that featured drag queens Bianca Del Rio and Adore Delano. The pair are shown fighting over who will order coffee first but, noticing the issue escalating, the barista saves the day by speedily preparing two drinks for the customers. The tagline: “Saving Friendships since 1971.”
In order to combat hate crimes against the LGBTQ community, Starbucks turned 97 of its Seattle locations into “Safe Spaces” in 2015. Through a partnership with the Seattle Police Department’s Safe Place program, Starbucks employees in these locations were trained on how to engage with LGBTQ victims of violence and effectively report hate crimes to police.
My personal favorite endorsement of the LGBTQ community by Starbucks, came in November of 2017. Each year, the company releases their “holiday cup”, to cries of heathenism from fanatical Christians all over the US, and this year it was especially controversial.
Apparently, the two hands featured prominently on the cup belonged to a *gasp* lesbian couple! This prompted a ridiculous outcry from conservatives who demanded customers start boycotting Starbucks. The company, completely unperturbed by the backlash, released a statement saying, “Each year during the holidays we aim to bring our customers an experience that inspires the spirit of the season, and we will continue to embrace and welcome customers from all backgrounds and religions in our stores around the world.”
I have to say, Starbucks seems to really live it’s mission of diversity, acceptance, inclusion and equality.
Who knows, maybe I’ll start drinking coffee now.
This pride month lets support companies that have been supporting our community before it benefited their sales.
Companies’ CEI rating in 2002 vs. 2018:
(I’ve crossed out the companies who have had their CEI score worsen over the years because nobody has time for that nonsense.)
American Airlines: 100 to 100
American Express: 86 to 100
AOL: 86 to 85
AT&T: 86 to 100
Bank of America: 86 to 75Campbell Soup: 43 to 100
Citigroup: 86 to 100
Coca-Cola: 71 to 100
Costco: 43 to 70
Colgate-Palmolive: 57 to 100
Dell Computer: 71 to 100
Delta Airlines: 71 to 100
Domino’s Pizza: 14 to 80
E*Trade: 86 to 80
Gap: 57 to 100
General Mills: 86 to 100
Hallmark: 29 to 100
Hasboro: 29 to 100
IBM: 86 to 100
Johnson & Johnson: 43 to 100
Kellog: 71 to 100
L.L. Bean: 57 to 60
Marriot International: 43 to 100
McDonald’s: 43 to 100
Nike: 100 to 100
Pepsi Co.: 29 to 100
Rite Aid Corp.: 29 to 65
Shell Co.: 86 to 100
Staples: 29 to 100
Toyota: 71 to 100
United Airlines: 86 to 100
Walgreens: 86 to 100
Walt Disney: 86 to 100
Whole Foods: 57 to 75
Happy pride <3