Breaking the Cycle of Rainbow-Washing and Performative Company Activism

Members of the LGBTQIA+ community still face discrimination and bias, making Pride Month an important time of year for championing queer voices.  However, some companies have participated in sharing rainbow logos without working  to foster inclusion or promote LGBTQIA+ causes. To be good allies, companies must do the work all year. We spoke with Phil Schraeder, CEO of GumGum, for ideas on how to achieve this.

Every June, we see the same phenomenon take over corporate social media accounts – logos changed to accommodate rainbow designs and messaging that celebrates members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Sometimes, those rainbow messages are authentic, but sometimes, they are a marketing tactic.

This shift in June marketing presents a conundrum for those of us who are LGBTQIA+; while support of our marginalized community is important, so too is making sure not to fall for rainbow propaganda from corporations who don’t show any care for queer folks the other 11 months of the year. This tactic is rainbow-washing, which has become more prevalent in recent years. 

It is a crucial time for LGBTQIA+ rights, particularly for transgender rights, as laws are being put in place around the country to restrict the way trans people use public spaces, such as restrooms. It’s incredibly important for companies who believe in LGBTQIA+ rights to speak up. Yet, many are shying away from expressing support either from fear of conservative backlash (remember what happened with Target’s Pride collections last year?) or of accusations of rainbow-washing.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Phil Schraeder, the openly gay CEO of GumGum, about the challenges facing our LGBTQIA+ peers and how companies and individual leaders can be better allies. 

Rainbow-Washing: What is it and Why is it Bad?

When a brand only lends its voice to queer causes in June as a marketing tactic, that’s rainbow-washing. While LGBTQIA+ people are glad to see their causes triumphed, they are more likely to spend money with companies who are supporting them all year round. Gen Z, almost a third of whom identify as LGBTQIA+, are particularly interested in accountability and will not hesitate to call out what they see as performative activism. 

“LGBTQIA+ people understand Pride is an important time for businesses to say they support, show some love, and drive sales. And we love that because we agree we need these larger activations to get picked up and shared. Pride Month offers an opportunity to do that and we appreciate the brands who are there for us in that month,” Schraeder says. 

The problem is when companies are targeting queer folks simply for their wallets without any other evidence that they care about LGBTQIA+ causes. Schraeder notes that a large part of our community has spending power because they are DINKs (that is, Double Income, No Kids). 

Queer people are also known trendsetters and influencers, which is beneficial for brands, yet LGBTQIA+ publishers still face ad spend inequality. LGBTQIA+ people are paying attention to what corporations are doing with their money and messaging outside of Pride Month. If a company’s activism feels performative, it may actually make their marketing backfire. 

Avoiding Performative Activism: How Can You Make a Real Difference?

Some companies have pulled back from Pride Month advertising because of fear of backlash from conservative consumers, and some have pulled back because of accusations of performative activism and rainbow-washing. Many of these latter brands are trying to hold themselves accountable and be better allies. 

Schraeder notes that deepening your awareness of how you show up for LGBTQIA+ individuals all year long can not only help with queer allyship; it can also spark larger marketing strategies that are inclusive of other non-majority groups. “I want to approach the conversation with a sense of thoughtfulness, education, and learning. For GumGum, I will talk about why I love our technology so much. Ask questions like, ‘Who are you partnering with to bring solutions to life, and  are they inclusive in the tech that they do?’” Schraeder shares. 

Queer people are not a monolith, and we don’t all have the same hopes for what ideal marketing looks like. People will inevitably criticize corporations for not doing enough to help marginalized communities, regardless of the reality. However, if you’re doing the foundational work to uplift diverse voices and work with folks who champion diversity when developing their solutions, that matters more than a snap judgment from outside. “Don’t give up if that’s really what you believe you stand for,” Schraeder insists. 

It’s also not realistic to think as a brand you can be everything for everyone, and even brands that care a lot about a variety of causes must sometimes pick and choose which causes to give more time and energy to. GumGum, for example, takes the approach of equity versus equality, spending time to support each cause it cares about when the need is greatest, which leads to incremental advances for many non-majority groups over time. 

Supporting LGBTQIA+ Employees All Year Long

We all want to be seen and accepted for who we truly are, especially folks who identify as members of non-majority groups. Schraeder advises leaders, LGBTQIA+ or not, to show up authentically for all team members and lead with intention. 

“The number one thing is to show up. You’re probably organizing events for Pride, and seeing that you’re there and wanting to learn is a big deal for your employees,” says Schraeder. It’s also important to advocate for programming and diversity initiatives that support members of non-majority groups throughout the year. 

Another thing Schraeder personally does is “consciously influence confidence.” He makes sure to acknowledge non-majority voices and offer positive feedback when those employees share ideas. He also keeps himself as accessible as possible and encourages employees to speak their mind to him, even if they are bringing hard truths to his attention.

“I think, especially now, as leaders in advertising technology, where one-third of Gen Zers  identify in the LGBTQIA+ community, not only are they consumers buying your products, but they’re your future leaders. They’re the drivers going forward. They understand the importance of authenticity and are looking for that visibility. They are looking for that value. They want to see your vulnerability. They need that, and they’re looking at places within work to provide that for them,” Schraeder shares. 

In our industry in particular, being cognizant of these issues is going to help not just your employees but also your sales. We all want to be marketed to as individuals with unique tastes and experiences, and connecting to people is a critical component of ad tech. Schraeder explains, “If you don’t understand how to work through your own fears and biases to connect with others, that’s not going to be sustainable, particularly with Gen Z and future generations. It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to be a leader and be uncomfortable.”

We are all human, and we will make mistakes as we navigate uncomfortable situations. Treating employees with kindness and respect and opening ourselves up to new ideas and perspectives is the key to making everyone feel valued at work and beyond.