As we approach Pride Month, companies on the long and still-growing list of marketers celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride each June have been releasing their plans for this year. As always, these include a variety of typically rainbow-hued lifestyle collections for adults, with a focus on accessories, beauty, footwear, and especially apparel.
One new wrinkle that has taken place in recent years, especially this year and last, is the growing presence of marketers in the children’s product and property space as public allies of the movement and as purveyors of Pride collections. All have a large adult fan base, whether through their collector following, their nostalgic appeal to millennials and other generations, and/or their multigenerational fandom developed over a long history. And most of their Pride initiatives are geared toward adults. But the brands’ core audience is children. Just a couple of years ago, Pride would have been considered taboo as a marketing hook for many such properties and products.
Some of the initiatives announced for 2021 to date:
- WildBrain launched a limited-edition Teletubbies apparel collection for adults in partnership with GLAAD, with proceeds going back to the LGBTQ+ media advocacy group. The 1990s streetwear-style muscle t-shirt, tube socks, sling bag, and bucket hat, along with a limited number of bespoke suits, feature the colors and silhouettes of the Teletubbies characters and phrases including “Big Hugs, Big Love” and “Teletubbies Love Pride.” The products are sold at TeletubbiesPride.com.
- Lego introduced a rainbow set called Lego Everyone is Awesome, representing the first official Pride product in its history. The set includes 11 uniquely featured, single-color minifigures in the hues of the classic LGBTQ Pride flag, along with the black and brown stripes that have been added to some versions of the flag since 2017 and the pink, baby blue, and white of the Transgender Pride flag. The set also includes bricks in the same colors.
- British licensee Truffle Shuffle, known for retro-style apparel, accessories, and gifts, released a Pride collection of four t-shirts featuring Elmer the Elephant (with a “Love Your Colours” message), Rainbow Brite (“Love is Love”), Moomins (“Always Be Yourself”), and SpongeBob SquarePants (“Choose Love”). Proceeds from the 100 units of each t-shirt will go to two organizations, Stonewall, which offers grants and other funding to LGBTQ+ organizations, and Just Like Us, a U.K.-based organization focused on LGBTQ+ youth.
- Disney has been releasing annual Rainbow Disney Collections for several years now. The twist for 2021 is that the company’s other brands, beyond the classic characters—all of which have strong appeal to children as well as adults—will be part of the collection for the first time. Products range from apparel (t-shirts, hats, tracksuits, and more) to plush toys; collectible figures, including Funko Pop! vinyls (which also exist for other initiatives on this list); accessories; and pins of a variety of the flags associated with the LGBTQ+ community. Property families represented include Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar, as well as those under the Disney brand.
- Mattel’s UNO launched a Play With Pride card deck for the classic game, in collaboration with the It Gets Better Project, whose mission is to uplift, empower, and connect the global LGBTQ+ community. In addition to the UNO Play With Pride deck, Mattel donated $50,000 to the organization and will be part of its digital Pride festival late in June. At that event, the public and LGBTQ+ leaders can discuss relevant topics over a game of UNO Play With Pride. The deck is available exclusively at Target’s ecommerce site and bricks-and-mortar stores.
- For the second year in a row, the official online SpongeBob SquarePants shop is featuring a Pride collection. This year’s Love is Love assortment comprises 10 items, including seven tops (tank tops and t-shirts), a device cover, a water bottle, and a pair of socks. The graphics primarily focus on SpongeBob, including a rainbow-colored silhouette, and the character’s friend Patrick appears in two of the designs as well.
- Target.com carries a child’s blue t-shirt with the phrase “L is for Love”—the name of a Sesame Street compilation album released in 2019—and six Sesame Street characters in the colors of the rainbow. The item’s description positions the shirt as a gender-inclusive Pride item and notes Target’s support for GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), which promotes students’ right to a safe, supportive, LGBTQ-inclusive K-12 education. Target.com also carries another toddler shirt with a rainbow and the Sesame Street characters, with the message “One Big Family,” that is not identified as a Pride item but comes up along with a variety of Pride shirts as suggested add-ons to the purchase of the “L is Love” product.
Several of the characters involved in these initiatives have been the topic of discussions over the years about whether they are meant to be gay, including Teletubbies character Tinky Winky, Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street, and SpongeBob.
SpongeBob “came out” in 2020, when Nickelodeon tweeted its support of Pride and attached photos of SpongeBob and two other characters that have been associated with the gay community (Schwoz Schwartz from Henry Danger and Korra from Avatar: Legend of Korra, whose sexual preference had been addressed on the show) on a rainbow background. In the past, Nickelodeon and SpongeBob’s creators have said that SpongeBob was not gay.
Sesame Workshop used social media to disseminate its first Pride messaging last year, using a graphic recreating the colors and stripes of the Pride flag with its characters’ arms along with a message of inclusivity. More significantly, in conjunction with the property’s 50th anniversary, Sesame Workshop executives stressed that viewers can accept Ernie and Bert as gay, or not, depending on their own perspective. They added that they felt they had not handled previous discussions of this topic optimally when they had said that the two characters were “just friends.”
As for Tinky Winky, he is purple with a triangular antenna and carries a red handbag, which caused televangelist Jerry Falwell to write an article in the National Liberty Journal 22 years ago called “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet.” This caused a widespread stir at the time and also cemented the character’s position as a gay icon. Many observers have considered this year’s Pride Collection as a coming out of sorts for that character.
While none of these licensors have said outright that their characters are gay, they are clearly becoming more comfortable with the fact that their characters are associated with the LGBTQ+ community. This acceptance, along with the growing embrace of Pride Month by marketers involved in toys, games, children’s apparel, and other traditional kids’ categories, shows how far the emphasis on diversity and inclusion has permeated the licensing and consumer products business in a relatively short time.