Photo By: Margaux Bellott from Unsplash

Whether it’s flying from a flagpost, draped in a window, or on the packaging for breakfast cereal in the grocery store, the rainbow pride flag shows up everywhere come June.

Across Canada and other parts of the world, June is widely recognized as pride month. It’s a time of reflection and a chance to remember history, but it’s also a time of celebration, with parties, parades and festivals being organized in many cities. This atmosphere of celebration means that it’s inevitable that businesses and corporations are going to want to get in on the action. 

Corporate sponsorship of pride events is ubiquitous. Some might be present as vendors, some might be handing out free samples, others might sign on as a presenting sponsor, while others pay to have an entire float in a parade decked out with their branding. 

On the surface, the idea that corporations want to be involved in pride seems like a net positive. It can be taken as a sign that society is becoming more inclusive and tolerant. Putting a rainbow flag on a bag of Doritos might get some backlash from small groups of very loud bigots, but on the whole, people are either indifferent or supportive of the whole thing. 

Corporate sponsorship of pride comes with a whole host of issues though, as is the case when corporatization and commercialization infiltrate any important social movement.

The first, and most obvious problem is that brands aren’t people. They exist to make money, and at the end of the day, profit motivates most every decision that’s made by a corporation. A brand showing up at pride is less of an indication that they’re throwing their full support behind the 2SLGTQ+ community, and more an indication that someone crunched some numbers and realized that gay people have money too. 

Agencies have begun to refer to the collective spending power of the community as “the pink dollar,” and developed ways to target it. Estimates vary, but the value of the pink dollar is in the high hundreds of billions of dollars. This, again, may seem like the mark of a progressive society. The gays can finally be pandered and marketed to just like the straights! Equality has been achieved, good job everybody, we can all go home. 

What this shows though, is that corporations don’t care about the communities that they’re pandering to as much as they care about their money. If, for whatever reason, this collective spending power were to decrease, it’s pretty safe to say brands would pack up and leave just as quickly as they arrived. Sponsorship is a fact of life in the world we live in, and targeting specific demographics of people with specific tactics is certainly not a new concept. Expecting anything more than symbolic gestures from these kinds of partnerships though, is largely unrealistic. 

Often, these partnerships prove to be insincere. Amazon, for example, had been set to sponsor the Seattle Pride Parade this year. Seattle Pride, the nonprofit that has organised the parade since 1974, cut ties with the company citing “deep concerns” over Amazon’s donations to anti-LGBTQ politicians and fundraising efforts for anti-LGBTQ groups. Reportedly, Amazon had also been lobbying to call the parade the “Seattle Pride Parade Presented by Amazon.” What’s clear from this example is that corporate sponsorship is less about doing good, and more about leveraging social causes for financial gain. It’s about earning brownie points, and then cashing them in to get wider demographics of people to buy their products and use their services. 

When push comes to shove, it’s not corporations that were there fighting for marriage equality, fighting transphobic legislation, or standing up against police violence and brutality. It was collective action, advocacy and activism, and it wasn’t always polite and sponsor friendly.  

There’s long been a debate about whether pride ought to be a protest or a celebration. Different people will have different opinions and there’s no true right answer. If you ask me though, the celebratory aspects of pride have always gone hand in hand with the parts of it that have been a protest. For people who have been historically marginalised, and continue to be, celebrating this identity can be a form of protest. The idea that “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” is one that’s defined pride celebrations for decades. The very act of being visible has, historically, been an act of protest. 

What you see with corporate sponsorship however, is often a sanitization effect, a watering down of the celebration of identity. As more corporations have partnered with pride events, there has become increased expectation that all of these events must be completely family friendly. Of course, the definition of “family friendly” is one that’s always been decided by straight, cisgender society and often sexualizes relationships between 2SLGBTQ+ people. The presence of corporate sponsors means that pride events begin to rely upon their financing, which gives corporations a lot of power over what is and is not “acceptable” at pride. 

It’s worth asking whether or not the money from corporate sponsorships is in fact worth it. You might be able to hand out more pride flags at the parade, but if they’re adorned with the logo of a corporation that’s done active harm to the 2SLGBTQ+ community, are they really symbols of unity anymore? I’d argue no; corporate sponsorships are best kept separate from pride.