Thursday, July 8, 2010

Corporate Pride

After talking about the G20 weekend in Toronto last week, we are happy to say that the last weekend was slightly different. And uplifting. Not only was THE Queen in town (the English, that is) but many more raunchy, outrageous and beautiful queens (and kings etc. for that matter).

It was the weekend of the Pride in Toronto and as always, it was a blast. And even the sky was laughing down – unlike the rainy G20 weekend – scorching weather and a lot of fun.

One thing that was striking this time was the dominant presence of big brands and corporations. Many of the wagons in the parade but also a large number of stands along the pedestrian areas represented private businesses. This did not only include the usual suspects, such as brands like Trojan (a condom manufacturer) or the Body Shop, but in fact the main sponsor of the event was one of the major four Canadian banks, TD Bank. And if one looks at the list of sponsors of the Pride you get the picture.

Now this can be looked at in two different ways. One could easily go up in arms and lament the fact that one of the few core events of counterculture, especially in North America, has now finally succumbed to corporate supremacy. Another example of 'Rebel Sell', as Jo Heath has attempted at stigmatizing the consumer patterns coming out of the hippie/alternative milieu of the late 1960s. 'Revolution' and 'Liberation' turning into just another consumption style.

I tend to disagree with this view. By and large, it is my impression that beyond islands of multiculturalism and liberal culture in North America, such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle and, yes, Toronto, North America is still largely a rather conservative place, governed by mostly religiously informed bigotry and, in this case, homophobia. So living up to your identity, if you are of the GLBT community, is often a risky thing. And that is why I find the corporate involvement so interesting.

By associating their brand with these communities corporations provide some crucial legitimacy to the causes of these minorities. And for me it gave a very palpable experience of how companies become a civic player. The Pride is no longer a loony lefty crazy communist side show, if major brands are publicly supporting it. Most impressive, I have to admit, I found the engagement of TD Bank. The banking industry is probably the most conservative and homophobic industry on the planet. I never forget when I was still in consulting in German in 1999, we had an assignment at a major German bank. Our team leader was gay, and open about it. And by being as he was, he found out that the department of some 30 employees we were working with consisted of 4 gay/lesbian colleagues, who prior to that did not even know of each other. Some of them in long term relationships – but too afraid of coming out.

Now, don't get me wrong. I acknowledge that these companies associate their brand and 'invest' in the Pride not without self interest. The GLBT community increasingly is important as consumers and investors. But the motivation is not really the point here. It is just the fact, that private corporations provide legitimacy to certain minorities in society. It is here where we see the 'political role' of private corporations. They are becoming, by dint of their financial power and dependency on public (and be it only: consumer's) consent key actors in shifting the priorities on how society should be run.

In that sense, I had my very private moment of enjoying the Pride.

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