Analysis by Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN
New York (CNN) — During every Pride Month in June for the past decade, Target has sold merchandise for 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 its business practices.
Hurting brands’ sales and reputations was the stated goal of the campaign: “The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands,” said right-wing commentator Matt Walsh on Twitter. “If they decide to shove this garbage in our face, they should know that they’ll pay a price. It won’t be worth whatever they think they’ll gain.”
The campaign became hostile, with threats levied against Target employees and instances of damaged products and displays in stores.
That effectively held Target hostage: The company was forced to make an impossible choice to either safeguard its employees and stores or continue to support customers who wanted to buy the products it was selling.
In the end, Target opted 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 caving to extreme elements of American society.
“Target should put the products back on the shelves and ensure their Pride displays are visible on the floors, not pushed into the proverbial closet. That’s what the bullies want,” said Kelley Robinson, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group. “Target must be better.”
Like Bud Light before it, Target ended up alienating just about 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 largest retailers in the country, was selling Pride-themed merchandise to customers who wanted to buy them. It’s capitalism and ultimately a business decision in the interest of enriching Target’s shareholders.
Yoram Wind, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said Target was trying to reach a growing LGBTQ market of customers and employees. Around 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 guests, and those are just the right things for our business today,” Target CEO Brian Cornell told Fortune last month of the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The campaign made other false claims, including that Target was marketing one product for transgender adults to children. Target sold a women’s swimsuit that was described as “tuck friendly” for its ability to conceal male genitalia. The bathing suit was available for adults only, according to screenshots of the items taken when they were available online.
Opponents also highlighted Target’s products made by trans designer Erik Carnell, who has designed merchandise with images of horned skulls and symbols of Satan. Target did not sell any of these products. For Target, the UK designer said on Instagram he created a bag, tote and sweatshirt for adults with messages such as “We Belong Everywhere,” “Too Queer for Here,” and “Cure Transphobia.” Misinformation spread that his Target collection was for children.
Those products were just a handful of the approximately 2,000 in Target’s Pride Month collection, such as shirts, coffee mugs and stationery.
Target on Wednesday said in a statement it was removing “items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.” The company said it experienced threats that impacted employees’ sense of safety and well-being.
The company told The Wall Street Journalthat people have confronted workers in stores, knocked down Pride merchandise displays and put threatening posts on social media with video from inside stores.
“Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year,” Target said in its statement.
But Target’s response has frustrated supporters of gay and transgender rights, who argued the company caved to bigoted pressure.
“CEO of Target Brian Cornell selling out the LGBTQ+ community to extremists is a real profile in courage,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday.
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of advocacy group GLAAD, said that corporate leaders must step up for their LGBTQ employees and consumers and “not cave to fringe activists calling for censorship.”
Pressure on brands
More brands are being caught in cultural issues in part because of social media.
“It’s always been best practice in my view for brands to stay away from super controversial issues that are not directly related to their business,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor 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 in statehouses this year and escalating political attacks on transgender people by leading Republican candidates for president.
Companies such as Bud Light and Nike have also been targeted over promotional campaigns featuring transgender people.
Disney has also been caught in a protracted fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stemming from legislation he signed that prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in class, known by 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 earlier disinviting them from the team’s upcoming Pride Night at Dodger Stadium.
Although Target was acting to protect employees, some corporate marketing experts say the company’s response could embolden gay and transgender rights opponents to target other brands.
They questioned why Target couldn’t attempt other solutions, such as beefing up store security or trying to educate customers and employees, before pulling the products altogether.
“It does seem like you’re caving into a bully,” said Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business. “It sets a dangerous precedent.”
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