Gay for Pay

When Gilbert Baker, an artist and drag performer, created the rainbow flag in 1978, it was originally intended only for use in San Francisco’s annual pride parade. Now, the rainbow has become a symbol for the queer community, each color representing a different identity, and the overall scheme representing inclusivity.


Recently, more fashion brands are using the iconic rainbow to market to the queer community. Earlier this year, Burberry released “The Rainbow Legacy,” a new design that combines the brand’s distinctive check pattern with the colors of the rainbow in support of the LGBTQ+ community. This new branding comes on the heels of Gucci announcing it will outfit Elton John for his farewell tour, and Acne showcasing a gay influencer couple in an ad among other LGBT-oriented marketing.

But is this kind of marketing progressive, or simply a ploy to push queer consumers to spend more money?

According to national data recording company Nielsen, LGBTQ+ consumers spend approximately 7% more than heterosexual ones. While the percentage may seem small, the queer community is worth an estimated $835 billion according to Canada’s Center for Digital and Media Literacy. For fashion retailers, this is a huge demographic, and one that has been present in the industry for years. Although the market is worth a lot, the problem for companies is how to promote to the queer demographic, often leading to the use of the rainbow.

The use of this pride symbol is a form of “pinkwashing,” a term describing breast cancer campaigns that make items pink and raise their prices in support of the cause. For gay-targeted marketing, the practice is referred to as “rainbow-washing.” Most of this queer-inclusive advertising emerges in June, when the anniversary of the Stonewall riots is marked by pride parades around the world. Fashion companies use this month in an attempt to boost sales by using the rainbow image. Levi’s does it yearly, adding a rainbow background to its logo, accompanied by brands like Ralph Lauren that create large-scale window displays in rainbow hues.

Now, rainbow fashion marketing is popping up outside of Pride month. Nike, for example, released #BeTrue, a collection of rainbow-printed shirts, and Adidas introduced the “Pride Pack,” multi-color footwear targeted towards the queer community.

This kind of branding can sometimes feel out of place, making queer individuals feel targeted instead of welcomed. While the point of marketing is to appeal to a demographic, using an image of pride to sell products can make it seem like a company is showing artificial support for the queer community.

Katie Heaney, a queer writer, discusses how this type of marketing makes its audience feel in her memoir Would You Rather? Describing a PrideFest where she expected to find support and understanding of the queer community from all attendees and companies present, Heaney instead found artificial rainbow advertisements that left her feeling crassly commercialized.

“Up front, maybe, it was all marketing, but it was supposed to be more,” Heaney writes. “Who had told me that any of this would be queer?....Some companies fit in more successfully than others, and ultimately I’d rather buy from a brand that is at least willing to align itself with gay people than refuse them outright, but...I felt repulsed, not proud.”

Due to the rise in rainbow-washing, some individuals have learned to see through advertising tactics. Alex Sieklicki, a queer-identifying senior Marketing major, says that, for him, rainbow-focused ads are simple to see through.

“I think it’s easy to tell when it’s tokenish,” says Sieklicki. “You can tell when a company genuinely means it versus when they’re just putting out a ‘gay edition.’ Using a ton of rainbow is usually a first red flag, though, just because they’re overplayed.”

Of course, when companies use these tactics for a good cause, it’s often a different situation. Burberry, for example, takes a percentage of the sales from their Rainbow Legacy collection and donates it to three charities: the Albert Kennedy trust, the Trevor Project, and ILGA. This drastically changes the meaning behind the campaign, and allows for representation instead of tokenism.

There is a fine line between marketing for the queer community with the purpose of support and rainbow-washing advertisements as a way to target a financially large demographic. Elise Van Heuven, a senior Communication Studies major, agrees, insisting that queer-targeted marketing is only effective and non-exploitative when there is a greater cause behind it.

“[They] only rub me the wrong way when they don't contribute anything educational or charitable along with the campaign,” says Van Heuven. “If a company is marketing heavily...they better be donating to a relevant queer cause or be playing close attention to the responsibility to be intersectional and well informed.”

Photo by: Madison Douglas