Rainbow Capitalism

Words by Ellie Dawson
Art by Zoe Zori
Film by Mary earolan

The process of commercialisation: a normal object becomes a symbol for a minority group, then gains attention from marketers. Marketers incorporate the symbol, along with other cultural capital, from the subculture into the mainstream. Take the safety pin: a household item mums used to mend daughter’s tops with plunging necklines became iconic to punk subcultures. It was commercialised along with other punk cultural capital in the 1980s, and now we see the Gigi Hadids of the world running about with safety-pinned necklaces, earrings, tops and leather jackets as a fashion statement. Today, marketers have seen momentum in social justice movements, which they’ve interpreted as a trend and have started to capitalise on it by developing ad campaigns that include, but don’t serve minority groups. This shortcut misaligns with the current definition of a marketer’s role: to create meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with their consumers. The brains behind ads like the now-infamous Pepsi protest aren’t concerned with creating deep meaning for minority groups, and the advertisements don’t help black communities, so the organisation’s attempt to commandeer the subcultural capital of Black Lives Matter comes across as wooden and off-key.

Despite this, every June we see droves of companies follow this marketing technique, using pride month to align themselves with messages of love and acceptance through advertising: rainbow starbucks signs, white-packaged skittles, and collectible Smirnoff bottles with ladies kissing on the bottles. All of these things are exciting on the surface, as LGBTQ+ representations are few and far between, which is a part of why pride month is so important. But there’s always a tugging feeling holding back my excitement when I see these ads, one that I didn’t have a term for until recently. It was the feeling that while these campaigns are a step in the right direction, they’re not complete: they don’t have any meaning, they don’t help LGBTQ+ communities, which makes them feel exploitative. The words I needed were “Rainbow Capitalism”, where companies recognise the power of the LGBTQ+ community’s purchasing power, influence on pop culture, and wealth of good PR, and begin wielding Pride as a marketing tool.

Many marketers justify commercialisation of pride with a line of thinking eerily similar to that of companies offering unpaid jobs to young people in exchange for experience. Organisations argue that they give back to the subcultures they take from by normalising the subculture, giving them visibility and bringing them into the mainstream. This assumes that mainstream exposure helps the members of the subculture, which isn’t always true (for example, many drag queen’s careers are suffering after the mainstream commercial success of RuPaul’s Drag Race). When organisations offer only exposure to minority groups they leverage power of the press at little to no cost to them, in exchange for labour and cultural capital from minority subcultures. They win because they get free marketing ideas and content, and they win because they get free PR by allying with a “trending” movement, but surely true allies shouldn’t win unless the groups they support win as well.  

Another problem with this thinking that exposure is enough is that marketers limit the scope of visibility, only normalising certain parts. When you watch pride advertisements, you’re most likely to see someone who looks like Neil Patrick Harris, and struggle to find non-white/disabled/trans/working class/aging/non-binary/fat representation, because when organisations use minority groups as marketing tools, they toe the line between aligning themselves with a movement without alienating their closed-minded consumer type. It means that the message of pride is dulled: it’s not just about acceptance, but a history of repression and struggle, of Marsha P. Johnson, among other primarily non-white activists, launching bricks and bottles at the police during a 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn to demonstrate their power and fight for their rights. I think when we forget these moments in history, we make protest seem excessive and shocking. Initially, I was blown away over the last few weeks by the republican response to the events in Charlottesville: that while far-right ideology Nazism is deplorable, the left should never respond with violence, that minority rights were never won that way and that marginalised groups have to be graceful at all times to win public support. After my initial shock, I realised this is the product of one version of “history”: that the civil war broke out over state’s rights, not the right to own black people; that Pride is a party celebrating rights given to us by the supreme court, not a thank-you to the struggle of every LGBTQ+ person who isn’t/wasn’t safe enough to be proud; and that a few Nazis being punched at a racist protest and confederate sculptures erected during the Jim Crow era being yanked down equates to a history of institutionalised racism.


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