As Pride Month, a time when the LGBTQIA+ community celebrates communal diversity, acceptance, and most importantly, equality for all, winds down, I’ve been reflecting on some of the recent news we’ve been hearing regarding the community. Like many of you, I sometimes take our ideals of pluralism, diversity and inclusion for granted, but what we’ve been recently witnessing firsthand has been truly an unsettling time for trans rights and queer visibility in product branding and advertising. From Bud Light to Target, companies are facing a wave of anti “woke” rhetoric that has been fueling toxic conversations about the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community to live safely without fear of hatred or violence.
I must be honest, as a cisgender, straight, white, male, I have no understanding or experience whatsoever of how it feels to have to hide who you are out of fear or concern that others will stare, make snide comments, verbally abuse you or worse. However, in listening and learning from our colleagues from the LGBTQIA+ community, you can clearly see the hate that’s been brewing towards that community - and it’s coming from multiple places. As marketers and communicators, we’re also readers and creators of public opinion. Our campaigns are depictions of how our societies are moving the needle on many social, economic and cultural issues, from climate change to social justice, and our work reflects the voices of our customers.
On the surface, it seems like our societies were becoming more accepting, and the LGBTQIA+ community was feeling increasingly comfortable and confident being publicly and fully themselves.
Yet, there’s been a very concerning groundswell of extremist rhetoric against LGBTQIA+ communities in both our societies and policies. In 2023 alone, more than 400 of pieces of anti-trans/anti-gay legislation filed in the US. Some weeks ago, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) officially declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the US for the first time in its more than 40-year history. In the UK, the conservative government blocked Scotland’s gender recognition legislation, which would allow people to change their legal gender without a medical diagnosis.
And in Canada, while the governments have so far been more liberal in nature regarding the LGBTQIA+ community from a legislative point of view, the level of comfort and safety for the community has become worse. There’s an active movement to spread hate and misinformation from anti-LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups. Further proof of the backlash comes from Statistics Canada, showing between 2019 and 2021, there was a 64 percent uptick in hate crimes targeting sexual orientation.
Any decent marketing strategist will tell you pandering to a minority for the sake of clout or ‘perceived’ sales without an authentic commitment to your company’s values, will always backfire.
However, when done with authenticity, value based campaigns that legitimately support the communities they’re targeting are fundamentally rhetoric-proof.
“The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands,” is what one commentator said on Twitter. In the case of Target and Bud Light, in my opinion, caving to bigoted pressure is what cost them the negative brand recognition. We all know social media can feed on and promote outrage and the acknowledgement, even from a vocal few, will continue to reinforce those bad behaviors and fuel the conversation to keep going.
The reality is that for every Target and Bud Light, there are many brands like Reebok, Nike, Calvin Klein, The North Face, and Disney and many more doing the right thing. They have all taken a stand to defend the values of their marketing campaigns; values of diversity, inclusion and equity.
Make no mistake, standing up for what you believe in, even as a multi-billion dollar corporation, is not for the faint of heart. But if we’re ever going to have a hope for equity, we have to make sure the ones who are causing the issue, the ones spreading the misinformation and the ones creating the coalition of hate realize they are the ones who need to change.
We all know the old adage misery loves company. Let’s not allow that to happen.
We need to do more to change the current narrative about the LGBTQIA+ community. Yes, we have to continue to make noise with our local representatives and elected officials, we should donate to advocacy groups and we can continue to educate ourselves and those around us. But, I believe the most important thing we can do is to be a proactive ally - and I do mean proactive. We need to keep talking to our customers, shareholders, and other brand constituents with value based campaigns. But we also have to push back - against any aggression, regardless of how small, so it doesn’t go unmatched and become something bigger.
In the same vein, I also believe we need more voices - more white, straight, cis-gender voices - to speak up more often. We cannot let the community that’s being targeted by hate be the only ones advocating for their rights. As Helen Keller said so famously, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” and progress towards equity is going to take everyone.