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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Corporate America scrambles as Pride Month collides with boycotts

Minneapolis retailer Target pulled some of its products celebrating Pride Month in response to threats to store workers. Pictured is Pride merchandise offered in 2021.  (Courtesy of Target/TNS)
By Ella Ceron Bloomberg

Retailers rolling out themed merchandise and campaigns for June’s Pride month celebrations are increasingly finding themselves targeted by anti-LGBTQ groups threatening boycotts and violence. The attacks are forcing large U.S. companies to swiftly craft a corporate response while critics and advocacy groups watch closely.

Kohl’s is the latest company to face calls for a boycott over its Pride-themed collection, with online comments particularly focused on an infant onesie with a design that features the Progress Pride Flag. The swell of conservative criticism comes a week after Target moved some of its Pride displays to less prominent positions and pulled merchandise from its website, citing threats made against its employees and stores. A representative for Kohl’s didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Though much of the recent backlash is driven by a small group of right-wing commentators, with little evidence yet of any business impact, a campaign against Bud Light has been ongoing for weeks. After the brand sent a promotional can of beer to transgender actor and influencer Dylan Mulvaney for a March Madness partnership, prominent Republicans criticized the promotion and online organizers moved to boycott.

Bud Light’s dollar-market share in the U.S. has shrunk to 8% in the four weeks through May 21, compared to a 10.6% share last year, putting it in second place to Modelo, according to Nielsen data compiled by Citi. And a response by parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, which came two weeks after the outcry, was met with skepticism by both anti-trans and pro-LGBTQ critics. The statement did not mention trans or LGBTQ rights and said that the company was “in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”

Advocacy groups are now similarly frustrated that Target quickly removed products from independent designers and de-emphasized displays after threats were made. The brand is still a major sponsor for NYC Pride, as it has been for many years. The nonprofit that produces New York City’s Pride march last week called on the company to immediately reinstate the removed products in its stores.

Target didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Activists and marketing experts said the incident speaks to a broader culture in which companies are expected to take political stances on issues of the day.

“What we’re witnessing here with Target, is how do you retain your values and also create an environment where if those values create hostility, you can still be principled?” said Ian Schatzberg, the chief executive officer and co-founder of branding agency General Idea.

At stake for corporations who profess support for LGBTQ rights is a slice of the estimated $3.9 trillion of purchasing power that the community holds globally, according to LGBT Capital. A December 2022 survey by the communications firm Edelman and media watchdog group GLAAD found that Americans are twice as likely to buy or use a brand if it publicly supports LGBTQ rights, and more than half of Americans expect chief executives to inform policy debates and conversations about the issue. As younger generations publicly identify as LGBTQ in growing rates, the potential market is only getting bigger.

“I completely understand why all these corporations are trying to integrate with our community,” said Kylo Freeman, the founder and CEO of LGBTQ-owned brand For Them and a venture partner with the fund Resolute Ventures. “If they’re going to do that, they need to do it in a way that is safe for us.”

Pride campaigns have grown in ubiquity over the years – Target’s is at least 10 years old – and have historically attracted backlash from anti-LGBTQ groups, as well as from those who are skeptical of surface efforts to pander to the community. But the chorus has grown louder, and more violent, as state legislatures introduce and pass a record-setting number of anti-LGBTQ bills and as the number of reported hate crimes against the community grows.

“You can keep the merchandise on shelves and support your employees and keep them safe, it doesn’t need to be one or the other,” said Dan Dimant, the media director at NYC Pride. “These two things are not mutually exclusive.”

Brands are continuing to roll out Pride-related campaigns, and for some, the threat of a social-media led backlash hasn’t changed their approach.

When the outdoor apparel and gear brand The North Face unveiled its second-annual partnership with the drag queen Pattie Gonia last week, Instagram comments on two promotional posts quickly filled with outcry from opponents to the campaign, threatening to boycott the brand. Comments on both are currently disabled, though together the posts have amassed over 100,000 likes – far more than others on the brand’s feed.

“Creating community and belonging in the outdoors is a core part of our values and is needed now more than ever,” said a spokesperson for The North Face. “We stand with those who support our vision for a more inclusive outdoor industry.”

Other brands sticking with their Pride campaigns include the fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, which last month unveiled advertising building on a year-round commitment to the LGBTQ community. A spokesperson for Macy’s said the company was committed to its campaign, which will include a spotlight on products made by LGBTQ-owned businesses. A top Walmart executive this week said the retailer won’t pull its Pride merchandise, despite the Target incidents.

You have to “be clear on your values and stick to those,” Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette said in an interview. “We are committed to diversity and inclusion, we serve a wide tent of Americans and that’s represented by our colleagues and our customers and we’re not going to deviate from that.”

Olivia Rockeman contributed to this report.