(Trends Wide) — During every Pride Month – in June – for the past decade, Target has sold merchandise to LGBTQ customers, employees and allies. But this year, Target was faced with an anti-LGBTQ campaign that went viral on social media.
Led by far-right personalities and on social media platforms, the anti-trans campaign spread misleading information about the company’s Pride Month products and business practices.
The campaign’s stated goal was to damage sales and brand reputation: “The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic to brands,” stated on Twitter right-wing commentator Matt Walsh. “If they decide to shove this crap in our faces, they must know that they will pay a price. It will not be worth what they think they are going to gain.”
The campaign turned hostile, with threats against Target employees and cases of damaged products and displays in stores.
That made Target a hostage. The company was forced to make an impossible choice: protect its employees and its stores or continue to support customers who wanted to buy the products it sold.
Ultimately, Target chose to protect employee safety by removing certain items that it said generated the most “volatile” reaction from opponents.
But Target’s response angered LGBTQ advocates and drew criticism for caving in to extremist elements in American society.
“Target should get products back on the shelves and make sure their Pride exhibits are visible in stores, not shoved into the proverbial closet. That’s what the thugs want,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign , a civil rights advocacy group. “Target must be better.”
As Bud Light did before it, Target ended up alienating almost everyone in the process with its response.
Satisfy the demand
Target became the center of ire from the anti-LGBTQ campaign for its Pride Month merchandise, but the campaign misrepresented Target’s ambitions.
Target, one of the largest retailers in the country, sold Pride-themed merchandise to customers who wanted to buy them. It is capitalism and ultimately a corporate decision for the enrichment of Target shareholders.
Yoram Wind, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said Target was trying to reach a growing market of LGBTQ customers and employees. About 7% of Americans identified as LGBTQ in 2021, according to Gallup, up from 3.5% in 2012.
“It’s helping us drive sales, it’s building greater engagement with both our teams and our customers, and those are just the right things for our business today,” Target CEO Brian Cornell told Fortune. , last month, about the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The anti-LGBTQ campaign made false claims, such as that Target was marketing a transgender adult product aimed at children. Target was selling a women’s swimsuit that was described as “child-friendly” for its ability to hide male genitalia. The swimsuit was only available for adults, according to screenshots of the items taken when they were available online.
Opponents also singled out Target products made by trans designer Erik Carnell, who has designed items featuring images of horned skulls and symbols of Satan. Target did not sell any of these products. The British designer said on Instagram that he had created a bag for Target, a tote and an adult sweatshirt with messages like “We Belong Everywhere,” “Too Queer for Here,” and “Cure Transphobia.” Misinformation spread that her Target collection was for children.
Those products were just a handful of the roughly 2,000 in Target’s Pride Month collection, including T-shirts, coffee mugs and stationery.
Target said in a statement Wednesday that it was removing “items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.” The company said it suffered threats that affected employees’ sense of safety and well-being.
The company told The Wall Street Journal that people have confronted workers in stores, toppled displays of Pride Month merchandise and posted threatening messages on social media with video from inside stores.
Our focus now is on moving forward with our continued commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and being with them in celebration of Pride Month and throughout the year,” Target said in its statement.
But Target’s response has frustrated gay and transgender rights supporters, who argued the company caved in to bigoted pressure.
“For Target CEO Brian Cornell to sell out the LGBTQ+ community to extremists is a show of bravery,” declared this Tuesday the governor of California, Gavin Newsom.
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of the advocacy group GLAAD, said corporate leaders must step up for their LGBTQ employees and consumers and “not give in to fringe activists calling for censorship.”
Pressure on brands
More and more brands are embroiled in cultural issues, partly due to social networks.
“In my opinion, it’s always been good practice for brands to stay away from super-controversial topics that aren’t directly related to their business,” said Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “The problem is that today there are many issues that are controversial.”
The campaign against Target comes amid a record number of anti-LBGT bills introduced this year in state Legislatures and an escalation of political attacks against transgender people by leading Republican presidential hopefuls.
Companies like Bud Light and Nike have also come under fire for promotional campaigns featuring transgender people.
Disney has also been embroiled in a protracted fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over legislation he signed that prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in class, known to critics as “Don’ts.” Don’t Say Gay”.
And the Los Angeles Dodgers also backtracked this week and extended a new invite to a group of drags having previously disinvited them from the team’s upcoming Pride Night at Dodger Stadium.
Although Target acted to protect its employees, some corporate marketing experts say the company’s response could encourage critics of gay and transgender rights to attack other brands.
They wonder why Target didn’t try other solutions, such as tightening store security or trying to educate customers and employees, before recalling the products.
“It sounds like you’re giving in to a bully,” said Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business. “Set a dangerous precedent.”