Every year around Pride a recurring argument seems to break out, roughly splitting LGBTQ folks into two camps: those who think Pride should be less corporate, and those who welcome the corporatization of pride as a positive, incremental step.
Most people know that the majority of Pride-participating companies are primarily doing it for marketing reasons — whether to sell products, recruit employees or both. Whether it’s rainbow-themed tchotchkes in windows or corporate sponsorship of pride parades and afterparties, everyone knows corporate interests are somewhat insincere. Of course, this rubs many people the wrong way (even as they willingly accept the money that flows into our community).
But I think this whole argument misses a few key points that seem important to me:
They Are Not Mutually Exclusive
The idea that we can either have Pride celebrations that are totally sponsored by Absolut or completely without logos is a tautology. No matter where you land on the question of corporate sponsorship, both can co-exist in a reasonable and authentic way. For example, parade organizers could limit corporate branding to the celebratory pavilions that follow the main event, while keeping the parade free of sponsor overlays. You could allow employee groups to participate in the parade (which I support) providing their companies make a contribution to a key community charity.
There are models for this kind of limitation on sponsored spaces. A common pattern can be found at most major industry association conferences, which I’ve seen first hand as a regular conference organizer and keynote speaker. Typically, there are strict guidelines about how sponsorship can be displayed and referenced at the event. A frequent example is that keynotes usually cannot contain sponsored material. Organizers are careful to not co-mingle sponsored and editorial content, lest the event be seen as shilling for the companies. While they are happy to rake in major sponsorship dollars, they set limits on the sponsors to preserve the integrity of the event itself.
The main reasons for doing this are two-fold. One, it creates demand because sponsorship opportunities are limited. Second — and most importantly — it keeps people coming back because they feel like the event is authentic and they are gaining experience. When conferences lose sight of this balancing need, they tend to collapse from their own greed. This is a crucial lesson most Pride organizers have yet to learn.
Intellectual Property Rights and Royalties
Part of the issue with corporate overuse of Pride imagery and content is that when H&M sells a “Love Wins” t-shirt, there is no obligation to license this content and for a percentage of the revenue to flow back into our community. So companies are free to either donate money or not, and there is no one entrusted with the task of ensuring that those royalties are paid.
I think many of us would feel better about corporate pride if every rainbow colored object or advertisement came with a guaranteed contribution to our community. If we treated the core pride IP as something worth protecting and licensing, we could ensure some direct benefit from these actions.
I know we won’t be able to copyright the rainbow, but I do think there are a number of things that could happen to attach to this revenue stream. For example, we could create a nonprofit services agency that would develop a simple licensing system and ingredient branding (e.g. “Pridecertified”). Companies that wanted to display their bona fides would need to license from this organization and pay royalties. If enough people and organizations become aware of the program and this helps sell “official” merch, then I believe most companies will fall in line.
Most corporations would also prefer letting a trusted third party administer the distribution of revenue to non-profits, ensuring transparency and reducing overhead.
Your Level of Participation Should be Based on Your Ally Score, not only your Financial Contributions
There are a number of organizations that do an excellent job of reviewing, rating and identifying corporations that support LGBTQ rights and inclusivity. HRC and Out Leadership are two examples, and they have been doing it (albeit differently) for some time. The scores they produce are a source of pride for many of these companies, and are watched by HR professionals as a leading indicator of workplace satisfaction.
It is not unreasonable for Pride organizations to demand that sponsors who want to make money off our community have a minimum score before being able to participate. I do believe this score should include both direct actions (e.g. employment non-discrimination) and indirect actions (e.g. not doing business in Saudi), and we should leverage this investment to drive positive behavior change.
Again, in the conference world, there is an example worth noting. Companies compete fiercely for the most trafficked spots on the tradeshow floor. Typically, thriving events use a point system to decide who gets first dibs on booth locations. This point system is a combination of various factors, including spending, longevity and community participation. The same thing could be valuable for Pride.
Companies can be very influential in the political sphere. It’s happened a few times in recent US history, and will continue to be a factor in the foreseeable future. Given our economic impact, we can use the opportunity to market to us to systematize a push for greater change.
Pride Organizations Should Not Have to Prostrate for Funding
Part of the problem with the creeping corporatization of LGBTQ Pride is that organizers of pride events have found themselves frequently coming up short of revenue. Every cycle — just like other non-profits — they go on a “begging tour” to try and drum up enough money to support their events and communities. Yes, some Pride organizations are super badly run. But the basic economics of organizing pride are the same — scraping, begging, hoping, ups and downs.
And yet, Pride celebrations are huge sources of income — not just for the businesses who participate and those getting spillover, but also for cities, hotels and the entire tourism infrastructure. Of course, municipalities that oppose gay rights are not going to write checks and roll out the red carpets for Pride — and having events in those places is vitally important. But the rest of our biggest cities should sponsor the event with sufficient public resources to cover all the basic infrastructure costs (police, fire, health, toilets, clean up, public marketing).
Another way of doing this which would have more lasting effect would be to create a national Pride Fund: an endowed charity that would use donated capital to fund pride celebrations’ basic operating costs. Such a fund could leverage smart investments and annuity models to ensure that national (and even international) pride celebrations had a consistent source of funding.
Corporate “Speech” is Inherently Financial
Though I think we are all worse off for Citizens United (and the years of having Scalia’s manipulations on the Supreme Court) the idea of corporate “speech” — whether protected or not — is a real thing. When you look at how corporations wield their speech rights, it is almost exclusively with money. Expecting them to express themselves differently is not aligned to their internal processes and external pressures.
While some companies make decisions based on moral or ethical imperatives, more often than not this is the province of companies that oppose LGBTQ rights. Our allies are much more likely to “rainbow wash” their LGBT track record than Chick-Fil-A is to hide their disdain for our community.
Moreover, corporations generally expect to pay for promotional opportunities in vibrant communities. It is therefore not unreasonable to demand a premium for their participation.
My First Pride Tells a Story
Though I was very out and proud in my late teens, I would be 22 before attending my first pride parade. I had just moved to San Francisco, it was 1996, and I didn’t know many gay people. So, I rallied the troops at my company’s (Cisco) LGBT alliance, we got T-shirts and planned to march in the parade.
Despite already being a large company, Cisco was more gay friendly on paper than in practice. The vast majority of LGBTQ folks at the company didn’t want to be publicly seen at Pride, and we were only able to muster 3 (yes, 3) people to join the parade. Sandwiched between hundreds of Apple and HP employees, we were vastly outnumbered, but it was exhilarating.
At that time — even in San Francisco — it was an act of courage for individuals and corporations to join a pride parade. Professional people believed that it might hurt them to be seen publicly, and companies had to jump through major hoops (and suffer some consequences) for their participation. In short, “Corporate Pride” was an act of political defiance and a dangerous choice.
While this is no longer true in our biggest cities, it is still edgy in most of the country and the world. It’s important to remember that corporate pride is not without its risks, but it also should not come without rewards for our community.
When we are able to properly align the powerful forces of community and commerce, amazing things can happen. Recent history is our guide, and we need more — not less — of the strategies that fostered our progress.