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Target's poor Pride Month decision proves companies can’t have it both ways

House Speaker Mike Johnson Target store logo rainbow LGBTQ pride merchandise tag Family Research Council Tony Perkins
Shutterstock; JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

As brands launch Pride initiatives, let Target be an example of what not to do.

This week, we will see brands begin to launch their Pride campaigns. Having been in those rooms and conferences gearing up for the rollout of the initiatives, I can assure you that this year, because of Target, there have been more than a few internal questions raised by brands and retailers about how far to go.

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Some background to cement some credibility. During my nearly 35-year PR and media relations career, I worked for retailers and brands, especially for Toys “R” Us, Sears, Kmart, and Macy’s. At agencies, I also worked with brands including Johnson & Johnson, Disney, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Carnival Cruise Line, to name a few.

I’ve handled everything: product recalls and launches, midnight openings, Black Fridays, in-store celebrity appearances, in-store crimes including robberies and murders, layoffs, new executive hires, #metoo, store closings, store openings, cause partners, and on and on and on. I’ve seen it all, and at the center of it all, my job was to always stand up for the brands’ reputations.

My career has spanned a time when brands used to run away from any association with anything that was “gay” to tripping over themselves to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. They still won’t call us queer. Some in our community call the latter “pinkwashing.” I have called it being grateful for all the support.

To say that I have seen it all would be an understatement. Until now. Target, being as obtuse as you can possibly be, announced recently that it has cut LGBTQ+ Pride Month merchandise from some of its stores this year. Target is saying the move is mainly about protecting the employees in those stores. Do you stop selling knives, hammers, or scissors because someone could use them as a weapon?

People who disrupt store operations and harm employees should be arrested. They need to spend time in jail, pay an exorbitant fine, and be made examples of within their communities. That’s the law. At the same time, why would you want people like them in your store? By saying it’s dropping some merchandise in stores in “red” areas, does that mean Target is caving to lowlife criminals and hateful Christian right zealots, and putting a red carpet out for them?

You’re damn right that’s what it means, and the retailer should be ashamed of itself. I used to be on the inside, and I know how these decisions are made. And I’m telling you, don’t believe for a second that the “main” reason Target isn’t stocking Pride merchandise in some of its stores is its concern about employee safety.

Meanwhile, Walmart started promoting its Pride merchandise with the theme "Not just a slogan. #PrideAlways is a reminder to lead with love." Which is exactly what Target did not do.

Target capitulated to hate because it was making bets with the bottom line. It’s always, always, always about the bottom line. It’s called the retail wars for a reason. The goal is not to be the nicest brand on the block but the most lucrative. Target lost its bottom-line bet and has now alienated our community, while still incurring the wrath of the far right.

We have proof these fringe groups are getting what they asked for in the form of a conversation disclosed this week that occurred in May 2023 between current House Speaker Mike Johnson and the king of hate, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, on the podcast Johnson does with his equally wicked wife, Kelly.

Johnson was venting to Perkins about queer and trans products Target was selling. I’m not going to quote his rabid and hateful stupidity. And Perkins agreed with what Johnson was foaming at the mouth about by saying, “And I’ll have to be very, very clear: I do not think being caught in a Target store is honoring God. I would not want to be in Target when the Rapture comes.” And Johnson replied, “Yeah, that’s an understatement.”

Also last year, and it will be the same this year, conservative writer Matt Walsh said, “The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands.”

This is all starting to spread, and it will nullify any goodwill Target thought it was creating by clearing its stores of “anti-family friendly stuff.” Conservative Christians won’t go anywhere near Target after last year and after the news of this recording spreads. And why should the LGBTQ+ community support a retailer that endorses hate, even slightly?

Let me be clear. There is no going halfway or trying to please both sides when it comes to dealing with the LGBTQ+ community and abominable conservative groups. Target’s half-hearted approach fails miserably. Why? Because by scaling back, it is excluding, and it is passing on the dangerous perception that there is something wrong with Pride merchandise. Which in turn means there is something wrong with being queer.

Presumably, Target is scaling back in red states or zones across the country, where detestation toward our community is rife and where misunderstanding about our community runs rampant. Pulling Pride stock from the shelves in these areas validates the hate and passes on an idea to susceptible queer youth that something is wrong with them. It also gives people like Johnson and Perkins the opportunity to say they were right and perpetuates negative attitudes toward our community.

The comparison between what happened with Bud Light last year and Target is correct, to a degree. I won’t rehash that fiasco here, but when Bud Light came under attack by the far right when it partnered with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, parent company Anheuser-Busch backpedaled. It left Mulvaney hanging and alone, enduring unimaginable hate. The beer maker apologized — yes, apologized — to extremists for its association with Mulvaney. Overtly and implicitly, Anheuser-Busch backed hate.

Now Target is doing the same thing.

With my 30 years of PR experience, I’m being asked frequently what Target should do. Its executives were nuts if they thought the religious right would shop their stores if they pulled some merchandise. Those haters are gone for good, and Target should have embraced that while embracing acceptance — and us.

They were also nuts if they thought our community would understand their decision and approve it. Their only hope now would be to bend over backward and try to win our support back, but that won’t be easy.

I’m certain, at this very moment, internal and external PR teams among myriad brands are debating how to handle Pride this year. I’m not a CFO, but I do know the buying power of an increasingly growing LGBTQ+ community and its allies. Bloomberg reported late last year that companies benefit more from a good relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, despite temporary backlash.

Moreover, the next generation of brand loyalists are firmly pro-LGBTQ+, and more of them identify as queer. That’s why the immediacy of making shareholders happy and keeping the stock price up fails in the long run when kowtowing to conservative groups’ temporary and feigned outrage. Boycotts don’t work anyway.

The answer should be crystal clear, and creative PR teams should have their way and surround brands with rainbows.

John Casey is a senior editor at The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.
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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.