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If you’ve noticed an absolute deluge of rainbow or pride-themed advertising during Sydney World Pride, you’re not alone. During a pride event of international significance that is estimated to have brought over 78,000 tourists to Sydney, it’s understandable that corporations want to cash in. But how do these ads affect the queer community, and how do they shape politics at large?
“Rainbow capitalism” refers to advertising that attempts to make queer inclusion a selling point, and specifically panders to the LGBTQIA+ community. Any reference to the year 1978 in this article specifically pertains to the first Mardi Gras protest march in Sydney, which was notably followed by police violence and arrests.
Category 1: Advertising for World Pride events
This category specifically encompasses advertising for concerts, parades, marches, galleries, and other official World Pride ticketed events. Official advertising for World Pride events themselves will not form a significant portion of this article, as they are generally less controversial than other categories of marketing at this time.
Category 2: Advertising for companies that are paid partners with World Pride
Picture: An Absolut vodka ad for World Pride 2023
This category contains multiple companies, including but not limited to Procter and Gamble, Canva, American Express, Coles, Google, W Hotels and Meta. A number of these corporate sponsors had dedicated floats during the Sydney World Pride Mardi Gras parade, some of whom have a fraught or complex relationship with the queer community that has been a source of debate. However, it is important to note that according to Albert Kruger, the CEO of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, corporate floats made up less than 14% of the parade.
The presence of corporations at Mardi Gras, similarly to the presence of police at pride, is incredibly polarising. The nature of 1978 as a protest for increased queer rights starkly contrasts with the more sanitised, commercial nature of 2023’s World Pride, though this isn’t unanimously regarded as a negative. Some members of the queer community believe this to be a step in the right direction- and that rainbow capitalism shows that LGBT people are now viewed as human enough to be advertised to. Others would rightfully regard that statement as a dystopian reflection of late-stage capitalism, and denounce companies who engage in a show of support only at the time of Mardi Gras, whilst taking no meaningful steps towards queer inclusivity during the rest of the year, or while actively funding campaigns to strip back queer rights.
One such complex relationship can be seen between Meta, the social media giant behind Instagram and Facebook, and the queer community. The history of social media companies and queerness is one that is complicated, as though many of us understand the drawbacks of these sites, they have also been a place to find community and self-expression for some.
Facebook’s “real name” policy was known to be difficult for trans people to navigate, as well as both Facebook and Instagram profiting off of right-wing content while suppressing educational LGBT+ accounts, photos and videos. It should come as no surprise, then, when many community members and allies spoke out against Meta having a Mardi Gras float. According to the Guardian, it is believed that Meta has accepted upwards of $3000 in advertising money to promote anti-trans and anti-drag queen ads directed towards Australian businesses.
When I sat down to watch the parade with family, I even had straight family members questioning why corporations needed a spot in the parade, or if it was doing any tangible good for the community. Though it’s a queer issue first and foremost, it’s something that has become more and more visible, even to people who aren’t directly affected by it.
Another hot-button corporate sponsorship issue is that of alcohol companies. Lion’s Little Creatures beer, Absolut vodka, Treasury Wine Estates and Archie Rose Distillery Co. are all officially partnered with Sydney World Pride and Mardi Gras, which raises ethical questions surrounding advertising alcohol in public, especially when La Trobe university studies have found that non-heterosexual community members are more likely to drink at risky levels. The increased reliance on alcohol seen among LGBTQ Australians raises into question if this advertising is even necessary or profitable, especially at an event such as Mardi Gras which is already known for having a large drinking culture.
Category 3: Advertising for companies that are not partnered with World Pride but still attempt to make use of queer slogans and symbols
Pictured: A rainbow Hayu-branded bus stop in Bondi Junction
This group includes all companies who are not officially partnered with World Pride, yet are using this time to target the queer community using common LGBT symbols and slogans such as the rainbow and concepts of pride. As this category is also concerned with corporations making an effort to visibly appear inclusive, it can also be viewed as potentially controversial.
Especially in the case of rainbow storefronts and shopping centres, it can feel counterproductive to see rainbows absolutely everywhere. Many times I’ve found myself wondering why I need to know that Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma are inclusive (which in this case, just means allowing queer people to browse and purchase expensive home items). To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think anyone in the LGBT community is doubting their ability to browse for overpriced cookware- to the contrary, I think a larger portion of the community would be doubting their ability to afford it. It’s also fascinating that Williams-Sonoma has a 3.6 equity rating on Glassdoor, with employees stating that inclusion is viewed as a to-do, and most staff are still overwhelmingly white men.