We’ve seen it before – every Pride month, brands change the social media profile pictures to a rainbow version of their logo. They put out a message about how much they support the LGBTQ+ community. They use the same key phrases such as “love is love” and “celebrating equality”. In one sense, it’s a lovely sentiment and increases Pride’s visibility online. Seeing this can make us feel like we’re moving towards a more tolerant society, one who openly wishes to celebrate us. Many companies use it as a way to celebrate the queer staff who work for them or highlight the work they do to support the community. Some of these campaigns will no doubt be run by LGBTQ+ people who are proud to work for their company.
At the same time, some people are becoming desensitised to corporate Pride. It becomes a tad predictable when a brand changes their logo at the start of the month and then changes it back when the next month arrives. They’ll post something supportive at the beginning of Pride (and perhaps at the end too), but in between is empty space. There’s a photo of the Pride flag, but nothing substantial about the LGBTQ+ community. Some will debate that a simple show of solidarity is fine, but some will suggest doing more to proudly support queer people.
Audiences are smarter than a lot of companies will give them credit for. Gen Z in particular are more aware of societal issues and inequality than the generations before them. They’re also more outspoken and more adept with digital technology, meaning they feel comfortable confronting the issues before them. Put these qualities together and you get an audience who know how they want to be treated and – more importantly – can see when someone is being inauthentic.
Considering the vast amount of people below 30 who use social media (especially 18 – 24), it’s safe to say most brands will primarily reach this demographic. In that case, companies can’t do the bare minimum to show they support a notable cause. Some of their audience will resonate will it, but some will see it as a desperate attempt at solidarity (or worse, an opportunity to flog products or services).
Black Lives Matter has demonstrated that performative activism is not the right thing to do. On Tuesday 2nd July, many people took part in #BlackOutTuesday by posting a black square on their social media feeds. The purpose was to stand in solidarity with black people and say no to racism and police brutality; these actions led to brands doing the same. While it seems like a supportive thing to do, the action also had its downsides. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, previously used to share information and resources, was becoming clogged with black squares. Black celebrities such as Lizzo and Lil Nas X criticised this form of activism, the latter saying “we need to spread info and be as loud as ever”.
Dr Jolynna Sinanan from the University of Sydney described #BlackOutTuesday as “an ideal form of activism for non-activists”, further stating that “the black square allowed millions of people to engage with a politically charged issue without having to seem too political themselves”. In a world where companies want to seem on top of current events, taking part in #BlackOutTuesday makes sense. However, the difference between the average person doing this and brands doing this is that brands wield far more power. The average person can sign petitions, take part in protests and reflect on their own behaviour, but they may not be able to donate to causes or enact huge change alone. On the other hands, many companies (especially large-scale companies) are in a position to do something notable. They can dig into their pockets and donate something towards the cause, or fund initiatives within their own organisation. They can reflect on their own behaviour and ensure black staff and black audiences they work with are treated fairly. Posting a black square means nothing if a company isn’t actively working to fix inequality it has the power to change.
Brands can post a photo of the Pride flag or share a black square, but what are they doing to support queer and black audiences throughout the rest of the year? Are brands showing solidarity solely because it’s part of a wider conversation (or because it’s currently trending on social media)? How do you stand by your audience and stand by these causes, and how do you demonstrate that your support is more than an attempt to look good?
The Post Office’s Twitter account recently hit headlines after their social media team countered homophobic comments stemming from their Pride campaign. They could have simply ignored these comments or blocked the individuals responsible; instead, they stood their ground and explained why they support the LGBTQ+ community. As any social media manager will tell you, hitting back at angry people online can be a double-edged sword. For the Post Office, they risked criticism for their behaviour to stand with the LGBTQ+ community, and these actions show a willingness to go above and beyond for part of their audience.
Solidarity is not a trend. It’s something that needs to be done every single day, no matter how big or small the actions. It’s time to ensure the values companies speak of representing are embedded into everything they do. Organisations cannot claim to support Black Lives Matter whilst their black staff face discrimination in the workplace. Organisations cannot claim to support those with disabilities without tearing down barriers to make their business more disability-friendly, whether that disability is visible or not. Organisations cannot claim to support Pride if they do not support every sexuality and gender identity within the community.
Whether you’re a large business or an individual, speaking up to support others means reflecting on your own privileges and mistakes. Uncomfortable conversations need to be had; they cannot be ignored, otherwise your stance is meaningless. Your messages of solidarity cannot be hollow because the world needs actions and dedication, and audiences have progressed past of the point of empty platitudes.