The commercialisation of Pride Month: Are rainbow products the allyship brands believe them to be?

Kindred. investigates the contribution of commercial brands to the LGBTQ+ movement with the help of Nadia Ahmed (@nxdiamusic) and Jasmine Pravina.

As Pride month drew to a close, celebrations and parades were still teeming with members of the LGBTQ+ community uniting to show their gratitude to pioneers such as Stormé Delarverie, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in regard to the 1969 Stonewall uprising.

Throughout the 50 years that Pride has been celebrated, there have been many milestones such as the Same Sex Couples Act 2014 in England and Wales and the WHO declassifying transgender health issues as a mental illness in 2019. While these milestones, among many others, are vital for any discussion surrounding LGBTQ+ history, the short length of time that has passed since these acts were implemented is a major issue.

On the surface, Pride month is an incredibly positive way to recognise the growth of support for the community, but unfortunately, many LGBTQ+ people still experience bigotry simply due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Since the creation of the rainbow flag in 1978 and its establishment as the community’s symbol, brands have taken it upon themselves to plaster the flag on new product releases during the month of June. Although it is good to see brands showing recognition towards LGBTQ+ pride, the lack of acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ people’s desperation to be valued members of society seems to be disregarded.

Hidden deep beneath the symbolic use of the flag are many horrifying statistics regarding the treatment of LGBTQ+ people. It has been revealed that 83% of LGBTQIA+ individuals still conceal their sexual orientation while 69 countries, including Singapore and Tonga, still have laws that criminalise homosexuality.

Nadia Ahmed, a musician and social media influencer, believes that "what brands are doing is 100% a form of tokenism". However, this issue is not only prevalent when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation.

"A lot of the things we are seeing whether it is visibility for plus size people or people who are black or indigenous POC, it is clear that we do see a lot of tokenism where it’s like a 'one of each' mentality," says Ahmed.

However, the complexities of LGBTQ+ representation in the media do not always have a negative outcome. While using stereotypical representation to attempt to honour any marginalised group may feel lazy and is a major contributing factor to tokenism, the sense of recognition and relatability one can feel from it can encourage people struggling to understand LGBTQ+ culture to educate themselves and become more open-minded.

Therefore, Ahmed concludes that "there are some elements where I’m like visibility is important, tokenism isn’t great, but we live in a capitalist society so it’s all very difficult and complicated".

Brands such as Premier Inn and Nike have received scrutiny from some members of the community because they have used the positive changes we have seen to their own advantage to diversify their revenue.

In June 2021, Premier Inn released a statement regarding their intentions behind their #PremierOut campaign: "We aren’t just accepting of difference; we value it, and we welcome it with open arms, so everyone from our guests to our teams can rest easy… this mantra is something we wholeheartedly live, breathe and embrace, 365 days a year".

While the message they are touching upon is vital for our fight for equality, in this instance, action is so much more crucial than simply composing a couple of superficial posts during Pride month. Commitment to the fight for LGBTQ+ equality should be implemented in the yearly agenda of every brand that uses Pride month as a means to profit off the community. Brands could donate some of their profits to charities such as Stonewall to authenticate their Pride-related products. But while companies of this magnitude have the platform and resources to contribute more to the movement, they are massively failing to do so.

Our generation is undoubtedly witnessing a surge in social media activism and the reliance on technology in our daily lives extends much further than merely as a form of communication between friends. Mainstream brands now use social media platforms, such as Instagram, as a vital form of advertising. Unfortunately, due to the notion that popularity on these platforms is determined by the brand’s virality, posts must uphold a sense of relevancy and an appearance of being "woke".

In many instances, this approach has been criticised and labelled as performative activism.

"Although I love campaigns featuring two girls or two guys kissing because it is representation in its own right, I do think that the budget for advertisement needs to be split better," says Ahmed.

They say they would love to see a POC filmmaker given the budget to shoot in spaces where there are predominantly queer people of all kinds.

"I want big brands funding safe spaces for queer people which are underfunded or undervalued in areas which aren’t really seen all the time," says Ahmed. "It is vital for them to make more things available so that queer people feel truly safe."

Similarly, Jasmine Pravina, a first-year university student, voiced her frustration towards this approach to Pride month, describing it as entirely unacceptable. She believes that companies "inappropriately capitalise off our month" and instead, they should be working with people within the LGBTQ+ community to see what they can do to support.

Interestingly, from a student perspective, Pravina couldn’t identify any services that would offer both support and education for LGBTQ+ people and this uncomfortable reality goes hand in hand with her frustrations with brands doing the bare minimum.

"At my university, there isn’t much support or education for queer relationships in the same way there is for straight relationships," she says.

The horrifying statistics surrounding the treatment of LGBTQIA+ people is not something for companies to profit from. There is hope that in the future these companies will be able to incorporate more authentic ways of demonstrating their support for the community in a much more collaborative way. Alongside Pride being a celebration of progress, the month should also be a reflective time that encourages people to acknowledge what more needs to be done to ensure that nobody experiences oppression because of their identity. By brands only acknowledging the positive aspects of Pride month, they are essentially ignoring the fact that people are still suffering. People’s situations should never be viewed as a money-making strategy.

Moving forward, Kindred. urges you to divert your support to smaller LGBTQ+ owned brands, wherever possible. It is crucial for the community to see more success stories of LGBTQ+ creatives.

One of the spaces that Ahmed speaks highly of is the Feel Good Club in Manchester which is owned by a lesbian couple and promotes an incredibly exclusive atmosphere, through hosting events such as open mic nights and simply being a cohesive space to socialise, for both LGBTQ+ people and allies alike.

By supporting brands, such as the Feel Good Club, the support instantly becomes an example of effective allyship. Nadia adds though that there is a strong difference between allyship and activism.

"Don’t confuse allyship with activism because then what you are doing is comparing something very mild with actively fighting for equality," says Ahmed. "In comparison, it makes it look dramatized or more aggressive when in reality, it’s the real passion and activism rather than casual allyship that makes the difference."

What do you think brands could do to be true allies? Let us know in the comments!