Words | Gabby Edwards
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival returned with a bang once again in February, marking the 42nd year of this annual celebration. While it’s always important to step back and celebrate the progress that has been made, the popularisation of events such as Mardi Gras and Pride have unfortunately unleashed rainbow capitalism to its fullest extent.
Rainbow Capitalism, also referred to as Pink Capitalism, is the “incorporation of the LGBTQ+ movement and sexual diversity to capitalism and the market economy.” This mainly consists of companies and brands using LGBTQ+ iconography and themes throughout their promotions in an attempt to draw in this audience. Though, these promotions and support only exist for short periods of time and never seem to extend to the companies’ wider values.
A study conducted in 2015 in the US revealed that LGBTQ households make 10% more shopping trips in a year and spend 7% more on retail in comparison to non-LGBTQ consumers. In 2018, another study further discovered that 34% of LGBTQ respondents believed they had to improve their spending habits while 44% said they struggled to maintain their savings as opposed to the 28% and 38% of non-LGBTQ respondents respectively. This is amidst revealing that 62% experienced financial challenges because of their orientation or identity, usually in regard to experiencing workplace discrimination or bias related to marriage inequality laws and the lack of laws protecting their rights. This is all to say, queer communities have become a large segment in the consumer market that companies have become extremely eager to target.
Early this year ANZ Bank, launched the #lovespeech campaign in support of Mardi Gras that included the release of a Google Chrome plug-in extension called The Hurt Blocker. The extension replaced “hurtful language” across the internet with “celebratory emojis,” which was met with intense criticism. This included many calling it a superficial solution that had no real helpful impact for LGBTQ+ people. Furthermore, to advertise the extension, they released posters sharing upsetting phrases that were then edited to be more positive. This included the phrase “trans people are sick” changed to “trans people are sick of being sooooo fabulous.” The campaign also included a short film/advertisement that featured an array of queer Australians saying all the slurs and offensive names they had been called. Many found these to be distressing and confronting. Nic Holas, a LGBTQ+ rights activist, specifically shared his disappointment in the campaign saying, “The first rule of effective campaigning is you don’t repeat your opponent’s argument.” Despite ANZ Bank being an official Mardi Gras sponsor since 2007, they still donated $100,000 to the Coalition in the 2017 financial year, the political party infamously known for demanding a plebiscite before legalising marriage equality. Despite ANZ promising that they’ve donated $200,000 to over thirty LGBTQ+ community groups in past years, this latest campaign is undeniably tone-deaf, hence why it was received so terribly.
Internationally, similar examples are continuously emerging. The UK’s Marks and Spencer released a pride-themed “LGBT” sandwich last year which consisted of lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato. While the sale of these sandwiches went toward supporting the Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity for homeless queer youths, it still caused mixed reactions due to the gesture feeling quite demeaning, as though the community was being equated to a sandwich. Amongst the criticism, the company was called out for underpaying their workers and only donating a tiny fraction of the profits they make annually.
Gilead Pharmaceuticals is another strong supporter of San Francisco and New York pride that has faced a lot of criticism from members of the LGBTQ+ community. As the manufacturer of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), the only HIV preventative drug in the market patented by the US government, they charge up to $2000 a month for the product. This is despite manufacturing costs estimated to be only $6. With healthcare in the US being incredibly expensive, this makes it extremely difficult for many to access this important drug. This is especially the case for some queer communities who are already economically disadvantaged and for Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people who are at the highest risk of contacting HIV. The way this pharmaceutical is profiting so heavily off many underprivileged queer people is therefore quite concerning considering how supportive they try to appear at events.
Debates around the ethics of alcohol companies promoting to LGBTQ+ audiences have also been raised. Over the years, Mardi Gras has become associated more and more with partying and Australian drinking culture, making it a seemingly great event to increase promotion around. Though, studies from 2012 revealed that 20-30% of LGBTQ people were affected by substance abuse as opposed to 5-10% of the rest of the population. A more recent 2016 study also reported that 42% of people who identified as gay or bisexual drank at levels exceeding guidelines. Amongst other reasons, this is due to gay clubs becoming a key safe space for the queer community and the fact that discrimination and hardships can lead to excessive drinking as a form of escapism. This hasn’t stopped the large number of alcohol businesses sponsoring such events including Absolut Vodka being a key sponsor for Mardi Gras and Bud Light for Chicago Pride.
Within Mardi Gras itself, there are also complaints of using and misleading LGBTQ+ consumers. Alongside the usual discussions of why certain brands are featured in the parade, the organisers themselves were caught in a controversy. This year they received a large handful of complaints from the ticket holders of this year’s After Party, which was set to include performances at the Hordern Pavilion from international musicians including Sam Smith, Kesha, Dua Lipa and Pabllo Vittar. Tickets cost up to $300 and many eager attendees were shocked to discover that this didn’t guarantee a place at the main venue, with the Hordern Pavilion having a 5500-person capacity when 10,000 tickets were sold. Due to the sheer volume of complaints, saying that advertising and ticket information had been misleading, the NSW Commissioner for Fair Trading has launched a full investigation. For the meantime, disappointed ticket holders will be receiving complementary tickets for Mardi Gras 2021.
Some argue that any representation is still good representation, and walking around the streets of Sydney in February, there’s definitely a sense of empowerment at seeing all the rainbow memorabilia and support. This isn’t to say it’s impossible for brands to feature and uplift LGBTQ+ audiences without it being solely seen as exploitative. For example, Gillette has received quite a lot of praise from the community over the last few years for their inclusive commercials. Recently, one of their advertisements featured a black trans man being taught how to shave by his father for the first time. Many found this commercial uplifting and touching, especially following a number of other advertisements they have done regarding messages such as promoting positive masculinity. Lush cosmetics is another company continuously praised in regard to their LGBTQ+ inclusive advertisements. This is most likely due to all of their campaigns featuring this level of diversity constantly, as opposed to only once a year, allowing the representation to feel more authentic as opposed to gimmicky.
It remains important that before praising companies and campaigns for their representation to first analyse their potential motives and past actions. When calling out companies for exploitative behaviour, it sets a precedent that holds others up to a higher standard. Brands truly looking to support LGBTQ+ causes should make attempts to do so year-round and consider undertaking actual helpful actions such as donating to charities. Your rainbows are cute, but c’mon, we know you can do better.