June is a tricky month for marketers. Rainbow-colored campaigns to recognize LGBTQ+ Pride month drop in hordes, seemingly categorized by the masses as complete failures or merely tolerable in an instant. But what does this year’s celebration, colored by an uptick in American anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, reveal about the state of Pride marketing? LGBTQ+ advertisers discuss the challenges of June campaigns today—and how to do Pride right going forward.
Is Pride marketing still relevant? LGBTQ+ marketers weigh in
As Pride has become more of a mainstream celebration, the marketing around it has evolved as well. In years past, rainbow merchandise was a meaningful show of allyship; then it became paramount for marketers to put action behind the messages with donations or other forms of support. Now, as legislation such as Texas’s blocks on gender-affirming treatment for youth, Florida’s ban on discussions of gender identity in school or any of the 200 bills introduced over 40 states in the past year further threaten to oppress queer youth, the transgender community and marriage equality, brands have been held to an even higher standard.
That is, if they decide to celebrate Pride at all this year. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade may be a bellwether of forthcoming threats to LGBTQ+ freedoms such as marriage equality and has created a climate that makes some marketers skittish around Pride.
When Ad Age approached one agency to inquire about client demand for Pride work, it responded that each client opted out of participating this year as posting content without action would be performative. “They all individually made the determination that brands didn't have a right to insert themselves into the conversation unless they were taking a larger action to raise awareness or support for cause-related issues,” stated the agency over email.
“With all of the horrible legislation coming out against especially trans people like myself,” said Lucas Crigler, creative director at agency SS+K, “there is a lot of scrutiny that us as advertisers are up against to actually create systemic change and make a difference.” Crigler had previously worked at McCann New York, where his personal experience led to the creation of Mastercard’s True Name card, which allows transgender individuals to put their chosen names on their credit cards.
Small actions—big statements
For brands without the resources to launch lofty, comprehensive Pride campaigns, smart and creative thinking can lead to meaningful and impactful displays of allyship. When Florida passed a bill, dubbed by dissenters “Don’t Say Gay,” to restrict discussion of orientation or identity in elementary schools, the City of New York posted a series of billboards in partnership with agency VMLY&R to subvert its iconic “I❤NYC” logo into “NYC❤U.”
Moreover, brands that are consistent with their support all year round lay the groundwork for creating authentic connections when Pride comes around. Jose Serra, senior strategist at LGBTQ+-founded social agency Movers+Shakers, said consistent relationship-building is crucial, so that “when it comes to those celebratory moments like Pride month…it doesn't come as a surprise, and it doesn't come as an, ‘Oh, now you talk to me,’ type of approach.”'
This is already the way in which brands and agencies responded to this month’s overturning of Roe v. Wade with statements, updates to health benefits and, in the case of dating app OkCupid, ways to filter matches by stance on reproductive rights. Throughout the pandemic, marketers reacted to the killing of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement by launching programs to support Black-owned businesses and show support for diverse communities, such as Google’s Black-owned Friday campaign.
But between all of these issues, the advertising space may seem at capacity, which is why a brand’s voice and staying genuine are key to connecting with the LGBTQ+ community during Pride, or any other group during their devoted month or day. Authenticity builds a positive rapport with audiences that makes work stand out for the sake of the good it does, rather than flashy attempts to climb to the top.
“We always want to find the balance of being super creative, but also making something that makes a difference in the world,” said Crigler. “All these issues happening in the world—gun control and Roe v. Wade, and Pride Month and Juneteenth and nothing should be overshadowing anything else because all of these are working towards the same thing: basic human rights, so there's a bunch of crossover.”
Brands like Ukraine Pride, for example, were forced to integrate the ongoing war with its message this year. The brand debuted a moving campaign about the alternative ways LGTBQ+ people in the country were forced to celebrate this year.
The heaviness of the current socio-political climate might also provide an opportunity for other brands to add a bit of fun and levity to Pride. Whipshots, Cardi B’s vodka-infused whipped cream, for example, seized the opportunity to activate within the LGBTQ+ community in what it described as “party with purpose.” The brand launched “Whip It Out” in LGBTQ+ clubs during L.A. Pride with games and activities that would get the alcoholic treat in players’ mouths, among other body parts. To participate, though, each player had to donate $5 to the Transgender Law Center, which the brand identified as a resource for the LGBTQ+ community’s most vulnerable group.
“As a member of the community, too, it's a mix anyway in real life—you have your seriousness and you have your fun,” said Patrick O’Neill, creative director at Whipshots owner Starco Brands. “Cardi is actually very outspoken and unapologetic about her opinion and the brand, therefore, is as well. But, we have fun along the way. There's no wrong with that. So bringing [party and purpose] together made a lot of sense.”
Some brands mess up more than others and end up Twitter punching bags, such as a social post by the U.S. Marines featuring rainbow-colored bullets or the now infamous Burger King “Pride Whopper” with either two top or two bottom buns. Others, meanwhile, become one in a long list of recolored logos.
For starters, “you can't make everybody happy,” advised Evan Horowitz, co-founder and CEO of Movers+Shakers. “And everybody wants different things. And as a brand, if you're going to get involved in these things, which we think you should, then you have to be willing to accept some amount of backlash.”
Horowitz’s fundamental advice echoes that of other LGBTQ+ advertisers: support of the LGBTQ+ community is not just a June issue and can be in smaller ways than a full creative process; back up those statements of support through action of some sort, such as a charitable donation or service-oriented partnership with an activist organization; and seek to engage and build community with LGBTQ+ people as people rather than as a box on an outreach checklist.
Genie Gurnani, formerly a creative for Netflix, Vice Media, Dentsu International and Publicis Groupe, but now a full time drag queen after competing on season 2 of “Drag Race Thailand,” sees Pride month becoming closer to holidays like Christmas, Easter or Halloween for brands rather than a purely activism-oriented month.
“What that signifies is that it's inextricably part of mainstream culture,” said Gurnani. “Commercially, that to me signifies LGBTQ life, whether people celebrate on a surface level and just want to dress up in rainbows and go dance in the street…or if they want to celebrate in a more meaningful way because they care about the issue—they care about us.”
Overall, in a year that seems a turning point for Pride marketing, brands should consider their authenticity and community above all else, including fear of political vitriol or negative Twitter comments, and communicating support for the LGBTQ+ community when that support is needed, not just in June.
“To be a marketer in 2022, you have to be okay with the polarized climate that we have, not just with the LGBTQ community, but on so many social issues,” said Horowitz. “You have to be okay knowing that you're not going to be perfect. And sometimes it's appropriate for brands to sit on the sidelines because they're not ready. But, I would hate for brands to sit on the sidelines just because they think they have to be perfect.”