Beware of Rainbow Washing!

    • By,
      Anjali Sreeram- Student, Kautilya

Pride Month just got over, and brands couldn’t get enough of it with the beautiful rainbow colours and scores of artistic creativity; starting from Burger King’s Pride Whopper with ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ buns and lusciously chopped vegetables to a variety of limited edition tie-dye rainbow prints and other rainbow-coloured garments. I, too, wanted to flaunt such merchandise as a proud ally and own it. However, it struck me, am I being rainbow washed?

But first, why is Pride Month celebrated throughout June? Pride Month is celebrated to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in USA, which began in the last week of June 1969 and paved the way for the Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender Communities’ fight for equal rights. The police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, a common gathering place for the young and old members of the LGBT community. These protests went on for five long days. On November 2nd, 1969, the idea of a march in response to the riots was proposed at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations in Philadelphia. On June 28th, 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots, they marched through Christopher Street which became the epicentre of the riots and June 28th came to be known as the Liberation Day. The theme was ‘gay pride,’ and the slogan “Say it clear, say it loud. Gay is good, gay is proud” could be heard everywhere. Later, the month of June was officially recognized by Bill Clinton in 1999, followed by Barack Obama declaring June as the ‘LGBT Pride Month.’ it is the current President Joe Biden, who went a notch ahead and declared it as the ‘LGBTQ+ Pride Month’ to include everyone from the vast community. Many countries have followed suit and today June is celebrated as Pride Month globally with Kolkata’s 1999 Pride March being India’s first.

With a painful yet rich history to this celebration, brands have been seen to misuse it to their benefit. Rainbow washing, as the act is named, is where brands use Pride Month and take incidental advantage of the various colours it represents, by benefitting from the false inclusive marketing of its products. These companies are merely marketing this month for their own profits while in reality they may not believe in diversity or inclusion or worse still, indulge and support anti-LGBT practices. This is similar to Greenwashing (companies lying/falsely marketing their products to be sustainable and environmentally friendly by changing logos/banners etc. to shades of green, brown or yellow) or Pinkwashing (brands that misleadingly use the pink ribbon logo that symbolizes support for breast cancer charities). Not only is it wrong in the sense that it conveys a false message and outrightly lies to its customers, but also that it dilutes the underlying message and intention of Pride month.

Let’s examine the two examples given above. Burger King had to issue an apology for its widely criticized advertisement of the ‘Pride Whopper’ as it spoke about having two ‘tops’ and two ‘bottoms’ and hence completely misrepresented sex in the LGBT community. People called it an entirely tone-deaf campaign while marketing the ‘matching top buns.’ came out with a wide range of quirky rainbow-coloured products during the month. However, a deep dive into their history showed a grossly homophobic meme in 2015, which was taken down after an uproar by blogger Divya Roop. “Save the girl children or else 25 years later your son will come home and say Asha to mili nahi so Ashish le aya”. For a campaign meant to spread the message of ‘Save the Girl Child’, a homophobic route was taken. While the company had apologized for this marketing tactic, it gives an insight into the double standards. These brands latch on to this exclusive opportunity yearly and then forget about it for the rest of the 11 months. What we must ask is, do we really want to spend extra money on such ‘limited edition products?

Mansi Shanbag, a Lead Copywriter at WATConsult, very clearly says, “BRANDS ALWAYS WANT TO BREAK CLUTTER. BUT WHEN IT COMES TO PRIDE MONTH, THEY ARE ALL ABOUT SPAMMING. It is so very easy to stick a rainbow on your product, your logo, your name for a month and do absolutely nothing to actually contribute to the movement”. Companies should consult queering personalities and listen to their opinions before they can prove their allyship to the LGBT community.

Acko released an advertisement starring Neeraj Kabi in 2021 to promote its pride campaign. The ad showed him changing his social media profile picture to the colours of the pride and then proudly showing that off to his friends. His friends pat him on his back, assuming he had accepted his son’s sexual identity. This leaves him speechless as he tries to accept and digest this reality. “Post pride, Support pride, but more importantly, be ready to accept Pride” was Acko’s slogan. To ally with the community is not to merely flaunt its colours but also to readily accept and empathize with the soul of the idea. Are we ready to do that in the non-pride months?

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.