By Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN
New York (CNN) — Companies have long embraced Pride Month in June as an uncomplicated way to market to members of the LGBTQ+ community while telegraphing progressive values. But this year won’t be nearly so straightforward.
In recent weeks, two major brands, Target (TGT) and Bud Light, were targeted by right-wing media and on social platforms for relatively small LGBTQ+ initiatives: Bud Light’s Instagram partnership with a trans influencer, and a subset of Target (TGT)’s line of goods marketed to trans customers and allies.
Right-wing commentators, politicians and others called for boycotts, and the brands’ employees were threatened with violence. In both cases, the companies seemed cowed: The CEO of Bud Light owner Anheuser-Busch (BUD) released a vague statement calling for unity and Target pulled items from shelves. Both brands say they continue to support the LGBTQ+ community: Bud Light on Tuesday announced a donation to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce in support of LGBTQ+ owned small businesses, and Target has continued selling much of its Pride merchandise in stores.
But the backtracking shows that backlash and threats could create a chilling effect for companies, and leave them without a clear path forward.
Executives “are becoming much more skittish about taking these stands and making strong statements,” said Daniel Korschun, associate professor of marketing at Drexel University. “The pendulum is swinging a bit back … toward a more conservative approach, where they’ll be less vocal.”
Although support for gay rights has increased over the years, gaining acceptance among most Americans, trans acceptance is a more contentious issue. About 43% of adults said society had “gone too far” when it comes to accepting people who are transgender, according to a March survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal and Norc. About 33% said society “has not gone far enough,” with 23% saying society has reacted “about right.” When it comes to accepting people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual, a smaller percentage -— 29% -— said society had “gone too far.”
Campaigns that may have been considered low-risk are now drawing ire from public figures who oppose trans rights along with their supporters, creating a PR mess that may hurt sales. Backing away — rather than quelling the negative reactions — has dismayed the very demographic the campaigns were supposed to reach and may close avenues for future inclusive marketing efforts.
“Allyship is sometimes uncomfortable,” and businesses are learning that, said Jared Todd, press secretary of the Foundation at the Human Rights Campaign, which maintains the Corporate Equality Index, a measure of companies’ LGBTQ+ practices. “I don’t think people realize that quite enough.”
They might realize it now. Anheuser-Busch lost its spot on the HRC Foundation’s Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality in 2022 list over its response, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom called out Target’s CEO for “selling out the LGBTQ+ community to extremists.”
The current landscape “is alarming,” Todd said. “It’s alarming to businesses, it’s alarming to executives — and it should be.”
Staying quiet may once have been an antidote to potential boycotts, but “there’s not as much of a neutral space anymore,” Korschun said. “That middle ground is going away.”
So this year, companies that want to participate in Pride have to be prepared to take a real stance.
A new phase
The conventional wisdom about boycotts was once simple, Korschun noted: Angry customers will likely lose interest or get distracted by another perceived corporate transgression.
But it “feels that we are moving into a new phase now, where politicians are getting much more involved,” Korschun said. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) tweeted that Target “decided to wage war on a large share of its customer base,” adding “I no longer shop at Target.”
That involvement from politicians is “mobilizing consumers in a way that they might not have mobilized otherwise,” Korschun said.
Some of those lashing out have described a campaign against Pride itself, rather than Bud Light or Target (TGT) specifically. “The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands,” right-wing commentator Matt Walsh said 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.”
It’s no coincidence that the anti-trans assault comes as trans rights are under legal attack across the nation. More than 200 bills have been introduced targeting transgender and non-binary people this year, HumanRights Campaigns reported in late May. Transgender people are more than four times as likely to be victims of violent crime than cisgender people, according to a study from the UCLA School of Law.
“This has been a well-funded and a coordinated effort to silence the LGBTQ community,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, which aims to build acceptance for the queer community through media. “It’s an all-out assault.”
Yet groups like GLAAD have seen this reaction before — and it ended up turning around.
Reviving an old playbook
Though Pride has been mainstream for years, there was a time not long ago when featuring gay and lesbian people in ads could spark negative response, noted Ellis.
“Ten years ago, we used to have war rooms behind when a company would have a new ad that included LGBTQ people,” she said. “There were a couple of years it was a little rough going.”
Eventually, sentiment turned toward mainstream acceptance. Now, “I think we’re at that inflection point again,” she said.
A 2022 poll conducted by Morning Consult for the Trevor Project found that about 29% of US adults personally know someone who is trans. The remaining population, said Ellis, is “being filled with misinformation … and hate and discrimination.”
Demystifying trans lives for more Americans will lead to greater acceptance, she said, noting that this is a “critical” moment for trans rights and acceptance. “We need corporate America and we need these powerful CEOs to help.”
GLAAD has organized a “corporate rapid response team for Pride,” Ellis explained, designed for brands to prepare for and address possible outrage. The goal is to prevent “quick decisions that end up hurting our community, ceding space to bullies and violent folks,” she noted, adding none of the companies that partner with GLAAD have backed away from LGBTQ+ initiatives.
The Human Rights Campaign is taking a similar approach, said Todd: “We are in the business of sitting down with these companies and making sure that they have a clear pathway for inclusion and supporting diversity.”
It’s not just about goodwill, advocates say. Companies that have remained committed to polarizing positions are often rewarded financially. Nike (NKE), for example, didn’t waver from its campaign with football player and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick. The ad was supported by the coveted young consumers demographic and won Nike (NKE) an Emmy. In the years since the campaign, Nike (NKE)’s share price has increased.
Most Americans “believe that representation matters,” Todd said. “When companies lean into that, and prove that through what they do and say, they come out on top.”
Plus, noted Drexel’s Korschun, customers tend to punish companies when they go back on their word.
The dangers of corporate hypocrisy
Shoppers are willing to overlook certain changes in stores, noted Korschun, like price increases or temporary shortages. But customers bristle at what they see as hypocrisy.
“Consumers react very poorly when companies say one thing and do another,” Korschun said. “Inconsistency is very disconcerting to many consumers.”
That’s partly because when companies walk back decisions, customers wonder whether they’ll do the same in business dealings — like return policies, for example.
As Korschun put it, “If I come to the store with a problem in the future, related to just a regular purchase … are they going to walk back promises there, too?”
These days, companies that want to benefit from marketing to marginalized groups have to be ready to back those decisions, agreed Jared Watson, assistant professor of marketing at New York University.
“When brands are deciding to participate in advocacy in any format, they need to think about what that long-term advocacy looks like,” Watson said. “Whether they’re willing to internalize that support as a value for their brand, or not. And if they aren’t, then it’s maybe not something that they should be championing.”
Ultimately, Watson suspects the higher stakes will have a polarizing impact on brands.
Some might decide to play it safe. But others, he said, will lean in. North Face this year moved forward with a Pride marketing campaign that features Pattie Gonia, a drag queen and environmentalist — and the company isn’t backing away despite calls for a boycott from some Republicans.
Some brands will think, “‘What’s happening to Target is an attack, not just on the LGBTQIA+ community, but all of us,’” Watson said. “’We need to show we’re not afraid.’”
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