Wash me with your rainbows, I’m here for it. But…

—Scott Knox is happy to see brands put up rainbow flags, but that alone doesn’t prove you’re an ally—and LGBTQ+ people know it.—

I love seeing rainbows everywhere; wash me in rainbows all you want, I’m here for it. In the words of Gaga and Grande “Rain on me…”

When I was a kid in the ’80s, seeing a pro-LGBTQ+ symbol anywhere was almost impossible, especially in the English Cotswolds where I lived. Even into the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s it was the same, so seeing rainbows everywhere in the ‘20s is amazing. The fact that not having a rainbow is questioned is equally brilliant. It is almost compulsory for every brand, large or small, everywhere, to be awash in rainbows throughout June. I love it.

There are many in the LGBTQ+ community who don’t agree. Why should that surprise you? We’re not the Borg, living with a singular hive mind. We are as diverse and different in opinion as any other community.

All that said, while I’m happy to be washed over with rainbows, that does not make me think differently about your brand. I am not inclined to buy you more or switch my loyalties.

I certainly do not believe that your internal policies or practices are LGBTQ+ perfect, nor that you support true authenticity. I doubt that you never support political organizations or people who see my community as less than, or that we should be without equal rights. The best I can give you is that I feel you are obliged to join the rainbow noise during Pride month. It creates a positive energy of visibility around me. It’s better than the ’80s.

But if you want me to think differently about your brand or business, I—and many LGBTQ+ people—expect more. Expect there to be questions from us all.

It isn’t enough that you have a rainbow over your ATM, or at your store in the Toronto Village. Why don’t I see the same in Scarborough or Etobicoke? Why just in Toronto? Why not Winnipeg? Why in Canada, and not Russia?

Are you speaking out of both sides of your mouth? According to Data for Progress, the brands Toyota, Amazon, FedEx, GM and Budweiser — all of which are sponsoring Pride events across North America — have also donated over $1.1m to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians in the U.S. This is the information we share around the community, and as much as we look for your rainbows, we also delve deeper to interrogate your true motivations.

Why would you sponsor Toronto Pride and fund Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill? As someone who lived through the Thatcherite Clause 28 in the U.K., I know the harm this can cause.

Introduced in 1988, Section 28 prohibited the use of public funds being used for the “intentional promotion of homosexuality.”

Positive education in schools was ended, community centres closed, visibility and support for LGBTQ+ youth decimated…and this continued until its repeal in 2003. This is what we now see in Russia, and growing in the US. It is entirely hypocritical to fund Pride and politics like this. Are you just trying to keep your brand connected to as wide an audience as possible? Do you really care about LGBTQ+ people at all, or just our dollars?

In 2015, Burger King earned a Cannes Lion and a D&AD Pencil for a campaign that saw the company take its Whopper burger and cover it in a rainbow wrapper, calling it the Proud Whopper. When you opened the wrapper, inside you found the words: “We Are All the Same Inside.”

While our industry gave this a standing ovation, LGBTQ+ folks weren’t as impressed. A rainbow wrapper? Around a burger in San Francisco? During Pride weekend? Is that it? Was it a national TV spot? Was it across the country? Was it rolled out across the globe? Did any LGBTQ+ organizations benefit from the sales?

You get where I’m going with this. Again, we expect more.

There are, of course, amazing campaigns that deliver, like this year’s “True Name” campaign from Mastercard. We don’t have to be the centre of attention: LGBTQ+ also have mortgages, kids, go shopping, and all the other daily experiences of everyone else. We should just be part of the narrative. Loblaw’s 2017 #EatTogether, or Cadbury’s Goobilee from 2021 are great examples.

The key to great and authentic LGBTQ+ communications must start with us being at the table from the start. In the marketing department, in the agency creative department, and the media agency planning team. We need to create and review the work; we need to be in leadership positions to commission and pay for the work. If this isn’t the case, you risk performative work that tokenizes at best.

With Roe v Wade being struck down in the U.S., it will be interesting to see where all the brand rainbows go. After all we know that marriage equality is next on their agenda.

Scott Knox is president and CEO of the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA) and founder of PrideAM.