When millions of people unite to rally against injustice, brands are never far behind waving a flag of solidarity. But things aren’t always as altruistic as they might seem. We take a closer look at the business benefits of people power.

In 2013, the struggle for marriage equality across the United States was beginning to narrow down to a single battle in the Supreme Court, which would rule on whether the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) was constitutionally valid. Enacted in 1996 under federal law, DOMA essentially enabled the right for states to refuse to recognise same-sex marriage and barred same-sex couples from being afforded the same benefits and rights as heterosexual couples.

DOMA protesters on the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington

Marriage equality and discrimination towards the LGBT community have always been highly emotional and controversial issues — two words which typically send brands running to the hills in fear of upsetting the apple cart and, let’s face it, their revenue. As a result, corporations have typically sat on the fence during times of political upheaval, waiting to see where the pieces fall.

So it was surprising to see so many brands come out publicly in support of marriage equality in 2013. Apple, Google, McDonalds, Nike, Microsoft, Mastercard, Starbucks, Ernst & Young and countless other international conglomerates were staunchly vocal in their support of marriage equality and the demolition of DOMA. Why then, after decades of fence-sitting on issues of social importance, did so many corporations fly rainbow flags of solidarity? Well, Facebook summed it up perfectly with their statement of support:

Facebook updates its wall, 26 June 2013

That percentage of Facebook’s US community — a whopping 70% — translates into a lot of money. According to the vast majority of polls in the US, more than half of all Americans support marriage equality. This number is even higher in Australia. And given that support for marriage equality is typically higher amongst the young, it’s vital that brands wanting to connect with millennials show that they share the same values.

20 years ago, Ikea released the first ever TVC to US audiences showcasing a gay couple. But, as is the way for many trail blazers, instead of being celebrated they were attacked. Not only were they swamped with hundreds of phone calls, they even received a bomb threat to one of their stores (in a town named ‘Hicksville’ of all places!). Kudos to Ikea though, they refused to pull the ad and continued on their path to world domination of do-it-yourself furniture.

While they may have been one of the first, Ikea certainly haven’t been the only brand to publicly support LGBT rights before it was in vogue. Brands such as Absolut and Benetton, both infamous for supporting global social issues, have for years publicly campaigned for the progression of gay rights. 10 years after Ikea threw down the gauntlet, well known car rental company Avis launched the ‘You’re A-list to us’ campaign.

And yet, coming into 2010 the vast majority of major corporations were still mute on the issue. While careful to avoid doing anything to directly upset their LGBT customers, many were unwilling to publicly express their support in order to avoid getting drawn into the fray. Then all of sudden the sway of public opinion began to shift radically thanks to the likes of the NoH8 and Anti-Prop 8 campaigns, among many other anti-homophobia movements. Marriage equality was no longer a fringe issue.

Graffiti on a Chick-fil-A shop following controvery

The pendulum had swung so far the other way that brands who were ‘outed’ as being opposed to gay rights (Chick-fil-A for example) faced huge backlash and boycotting.

So, despite the fact that most brands typically only give public support to social issues once their polling teams give them the okay, surely it’s still a good thing when they do finally get off the bench? After all, corporations are powerful when it comes to giving issues a voice and persuading governments to act.

But as we know, corporate behaviour is typically more self-serving than selfless. For example, in 2010 it was estimated that for every congressman there were 26 lobbyists being paid to tail him or her around Washington.

When business takes an interest in politics, it’s commonly driven by their bottom line. Tax cuts, removal of trade restrictions and watering down of environmental protections are some of the trade-offs that we’ve come to expect in the relationship between big business and government.

Tiffany & Co. are the latest brand to use LGBT markeitng tactics.

Google, whose company mantra is ‘do no evil’, has come under fire for its questionable tax dodging practices, with chairman Eric Schmidt saying he is proud of the way Google avoids paying its fair share of tax. In fact, Schmidt went further by saying, rather honestly: “It’s called capitalism”. As if we’d all been misinformed.

At the end of the day, if a brand is willing to stand up and vocalise their support to an issue of social importance — this is a great thing. And as many of these brands become publishers in their own right, hopefully we will see more courageous examples like Ikea, Absolut and Benetton. But it’s always worthwhile to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism as a consumer as well, because while with one hand they might be typing a hashtag of solidarity for your cause, they’re possibly doing something less noble with the other.

A brief history of gay advertising brought to you by Deepend. We had fun researching this.

When she isn’t wasting her time watching live surfing streams from all corners of the globe, Jen Tucker is busy being Deepend’s Strategy Director. She’s terrible at Twitter, so connect with her on LinkedIn instead.

Design by Deepend’s Digital Designer Elliot Midson. Hit him up on Dribbble or his website for more of his stuff.