For years, Pride Month, the annual celebration for LGBTQ Americans, has afforded companies a marketing opportunity to tap into the buying power of a group with growing financial, political and social clout.
Yet, while these efforts have always faced some opposition, brands and marketers say the country's current political environment – especially around transgender issues – has made this year's campaigns more complicated. This week, Target became the latest company to rethink its approach after facing criticism for its Pride collection, which included clothes and books for children that drew outrage from some on the right.
The retailer moved its Pride displays – including rainbow striped collared shirts, yellow hoodies reading "Not a Phase" and baby clothing and accessories – from the entrances of some Target stores around the country and placed them in the back.
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Target said it was concerned "about threats impacting our team members' sense of safety and well-being while at work" after some customers had screamed at employees and thrown the Pride-themed merchandise on the floor.
Among the items angering some customers was a one piece, tuck-friendly swimsuit – a bathing suit that has extra material for the crotch area for individuals who want to conceal their genitalia. Some critics erroneously claimed that the swimsuit was being sold to children; Target said it was available only in adult sizes. The collection also includes children's books about transgender issues and gender fluidity.
One woman recorded a TikTok video in a Target store Monday in which she became angry at seeing a greeting card that read "So Glad You Came Out" and a yellow onesie that said "!Bien Proud!"
"If that doesn't give you a reason to boycott Target, I don't know what does," she said.
In a statement, a company spokesperson said, "Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior." She added that the company, which has been selling Pride Month merchandise for a decade, remained committed to the LGBTQ community "and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year."
While Target said its decision had been made in the interest of employee safety, many said its actions – along with a conservative backlash against Bud Light after it worked with a transgender influencer – might alienate the community it was seeking to support. And those who criticized Target and Bud Light in the first place may now feel further emboldened to attack inclusive initiatives by other companies.
"We're in a new space here with safety and employee safety being threatened by policy and purpose," said Vanitha Swaminathan, professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh. "I can't say that you can disregard employee safety. That's very core to what a company has to do. At the same time, Target can still, from a policy standpoint, be supportive of their initial stance. It's sad to see that we've reached this point in our culture wars." Marketing campaigns around Pride Month in June have become routine for many companies, with opposition cropping up at times. Last year, for instance, Pizza Hut faced calls for a boycott after it recommended "Big Wig," a book featuring drag performers, as part of its children's summer reading program.
Yet companies and marketers say the political climate makes this year different – primarily because a number of Republican-led states have introduced and passed legislation restricting transition care for transgender minors and adults, and transgender rights has become a galvanizing issue for many conservatives. GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group that works with more than 160 companies, is considering having communications professionals in its GLAAD Media Institute work with brands that are planning Pride Month celebrations so they can better respond to criticism.
"We do feel like we're at a moment where, with the politicization of trans and gender non conforming folks, that we probably need to assemble a Pride war room for brands so that we can push back," Sarah Kate Ellis, the group's CEO, said in an interview.
On Thursday, GLAAD and six other advocacy groups called on Target to return to its stores and its website any Pride merchandise it had removed and to release a statement "in the next 24 hours reaffirming their commitment" to the LGBTQ community.
When faced with criticism and social media calls for boycotts in the past, most companies learned that the declarations of outrage soon faded away.
Then Bud Light happened. Owned by the beer giant Anheuser-Busch, Bud Light continues to struggle with the fallout from a social media campaign in mid-March with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. After calls for a boycott of the beer, sales in the four weeks ending in mid-May dropped more than 23% from a year earlier, according to data from the research firm NIQ and Bump Williams Consulting, which works with the alcoholic beverage industry.
In some markets in the South, such as Jacksonville, Fla., and New Orleans, Bud Light's sales were down 40% in those four weeks.
Anheuser-Busch, which in recent years has released rainbow-hued bottles and cans of Bud Light for Pride Month, did not respond to a question about its plans for this year.