“Acts Not Ads”: Unpacking The Real Problem With Rainbow Washing

“Acts Not Ads”: Unpacking The Real Problem With Rainbow Washing

The glitter has settled on another Mardi Gras, and Sydney is awash with abandoned rainbow flags. While the first year following World Pride was quieter than we usually expect, and heartbreaking current affairs overtook many celebrations, you still wouldn’t have had to look far to find a rainbow in the city over the weekend.

Supporting members of the LGBTQIA+ community has always been and will always be crucial to Mardi Gras weekend. Unfortunately, however, what has become too common practice is brands that show no support for this community at any other time of the year but slap a rainbow filter over the top of their logo for one weekend only.

This is referred to as “rainbow washing”, and it ultimately refers to the practice in which companies actively signal support for the LGBTQIA+ community without actually doing any work that supports these members both inside and outside of their organisation. “In the worst cases, organisations use the rainbow flag in their logo, marketing campaigns and work spaces, but then discriminate or actively lobby against LGBTAI+ rights at other times,” said Patrick Guerrera, chief executive officer at Re.

A prominent example of this kind of practice can be found in the United Parcel Service (UPS) in the United States. “The United Parcel UPS engaged in a rainbow-washing campaign using community assets and declaring statements of inclusion and support. It was later publicly called out in 2019 for donating nearly $2.4 million to anti-gay politicians,” Guerrera explained.

UPS responded to the complaints made against them by saying: “UPS has a longstanding record of supporting diversity and inclusion, and it is a core value of UPS culture”.

So what’s the problem? What harm actually comes from extra exposure to a prominent and important cause?

According to Guerrera, three significant issues need to be considered in relation to this topic:

  1. Creating Unsafe Workplaces: “For LGBTQIA+ individuals within this organisation, it creates a false and deeply harmful work environment. It is duplicitous and denies our community the right to bring their full selves to work, fearing discrimination and exclusion,” Guerrera said.
  2. Abuse of rights: “It is a commercial abuse of LGBTQIA+ rights and battle for equality – if you have no intention to lobby for our community’s rights, or at worst lobby against them, then you have no moral right to cash in our community’s events and celebrations. Period”.
  3. False sense of security: “It signals a false sense of acceptance of our LGBTQIA+ community. Our communities, especially the trans community, still suffer extraordinary and often violent discrimination and abuse. Until these injustices are recognised and the appropriate protection laws are in place, we cannot let drag-queen-infused vodka advertising blur or disguise the real challenges still being faced by the community,” said Guerrera.

According to Guerrera, the key is to invest in “acts, not ads”. He proposes that rather than investing in extensive campaigns surrounding Mardi Gras or similar events, brands use their reputation, budgets and people and culture teams to actively lobby and support legislation change that benefits the community and drives real change. “There were a number of organisations in Australia – Qantas, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ Bank and Apple (to name a few) – who actively supported and promoted a Yes Vote on Marriage Equality. Yes, this was good for their reputation, but it also put a stake in the ground for all Australians, and I like to think it had a positive impact on the outcome,” Guerrera said.

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