Throughout Pride Month in June for the last decade, Target has sold merchandise to LGBTQ customers, employees and allies. But this year, Target faced an anti-LGBTQ campaign that went viral on social media.
Fueled 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.
Harming brands’ sales and reputations was the stated aim of the campaign: “The aim is to make ‘pride’ toxic to brands,” right-wing commentator Matt Walsh said in twitter. “If you decide to throw this garbage in our face, know that you will pay a price. It won’t be worth what they think they’re going to get.
The campaign turned hostile, with threats against Target employees and instances of damaged products and in-store displays.
This effectively held Target hostage: the company was forced to make an impossible choice to protect its employees and stores or continue to support customers who wanted to buy the products it was selling.
In the end, Target chose to protect employee safety by removing certain items that it said caused the most “volatile” reaction from opponents.
But Target’s response angered LGBTQ advocates and led to criticism that it was pandering to extreme elements of American society.
“Target should put products back on the shelves and ensure their display cases are visible on the floor, not shoved into the proverbial closet. This is what bullies want,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group. “The target must be better.”
Like Bud Light before it, Target ended up alienating almost everyone in the process with its response.
Target became the focus of the anti-LGBTQ campaign’s ire for its Pride Month merchandise, but the campaign misrepresented Target’s ambitions.
Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, was selling LGBTQ+ Pride-themed merchandise to shoppers who wanted to buy it. It’s capitalism and ultimately a business decision in the interest of enriching Target’s shareholders.
Yoram Wind, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said Target was trying to reach a growing LGBTQ market of 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 our teams and our guests, and these are the right things for our business today,” Target CEO Brian Cornell told Fortune last month about the initiatives. of diversity and inclusion of the company.
The campaign made other false claims, including that Target was marketing a transgender adult product to children. Target sold a women’s swimsuit that was described as “friendly” for its ability to hide male genitalia. The swimsuit was only available to adults, according to screenshots of the items taken when they were available online.
Opponents also highlighted Target products made by transgender designer Erik Carnell, who created merchandise with images of horned skulls and symbols of Satan. Target didn’t sell any of those products. For Target, the UK-based designer said on Instagram that he created a purse, tote bag and sweatshirt for adults with messages like “We Belong Everywhere”, “Too Queer for Here” and “Cure Transphobia”. Misinformation spread that its Target collection was for children.
Those products were just a few of about 2,000 in Target’s Pride Month collection, including T-shirts, coffee mugs and stationery.
Target said Wednesday in a statement that it was removing “items that were at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.” The company said it had experienced threats that affected employees’ sense of safety and well-being.
The company told the Wall Street Journal that people confronted workers in stores, knocked over displays of Pride merchandise and posted threatening social media posts with videos from inside stores.
“Our focus now is on moving forward with our continued commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and supporting them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year,” Target said in its statement.
But Target’s response frustrated gay and transgender rights advocates, who argued that the company caved in to bigoted pressure.
“Target CEO Brian Cornell selling out the LGBTQ+ community to extremists is a true portrait of courage,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom. he said on Tuesday.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy group GLAAD, said corporate leaders must defend their LGBTQ employees and consumers and “not give in to fringe activists calling for censorship.”
More brands are getting caught up in cultural issues in part because of social media.
“It’s always been best practice for brands to stay away from super-controversial issues 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 subjects that are controversial.”
The campaign against Target comes amid a record number of anti-LGBT bills introduced in parliaments this year and mounting political attacks on transgender people by leading Republican presidential candidates.
Companies such as Bud Light and Nike have also been targeted with promotional campaigns featuring transgender people.
Disney has also been caught in a protracted row with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over legislation he signed that prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom, known to critics as “Don’t Say Gay”.
And the Los Angeles Dodgers this week also reversed course and extended a new invitation to a drag group after disinviting them from the team’s upcoming Pride Night at Dodger Stadium.
While Target was acting to protect employees, some corporate marketing experts say the company’s response could encourage opponents of gay and transgender rights to target other brands.
They questioned why Target couldn’t try other solutions, like beefing up store security or trying to educate customers and employees, before pulling products out completely.
“It sounds like you’re giving in to a bully,” said Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business. “This sets a dangerous precedent.”