Corporations and Pride Month
Damned if they do and damned if they don't. Sometimes both.
Axios (” Corporate America’s commitment to Pride Month under scrutiny“):
Corporate America’s commitment to LGBTQ+ causes, messages and products is under an intense spotlight during Pride Month this year.
Why it matters: Companies like Target and Bud Light — which both caved after right-wing backlashes to LGBTQ-themed products and promotions — suddenly face extreme pressure after years of supporting Pride events without issue.
- They’re trying to delicately two-step their way through the vitriol, but consumers increasingly want them to take a stand with conviction.
The big picture: In the past, companies have been accused of “rainbow washing” — using Pride imagery and promotions to signal an otherwise half-hearted commitment to LGBTQ+ issues.
- “From a corporate point of view, it was basically costless,” University of Michigan marketing professor Erik Gordon tells Axios. “They spend more money on donuts.”
- But this year is different.
- “Now it’s becoming more costly,” Gordon says. “Now we’re going to see who is actually committed to Pride causes.”
Zoom in: Recent events have illustrated the gravity of the moment.
- Anheuser-Busch InBev drew right-wing hate for sponsoring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney — and then a backlash from LGBTQ+ rights proponents for the way it handled the fallout.
- Target angered certain right-wing customers for selling a Pride Month collection that included a transgender-friendly swimsuit — and then faced a backlash from the LGBTQ+ community when it pulled some of the items from the shelves, citing the need to keep its workers safe from violent customers.
- Republican presidential candidate and Gov. Ron DeSantis is warring with Disney over its commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion, attempting to strip the company of its tax district rights in the Orlando area.
What they’re saying: “What we’re seeing entering Pride Month is that companies have to make a decision whether they’re going to keep to their corporate values of LGBTQ inclusion or cave to a fringe but loud, anti-LGBTQ organized effort to silence us,” GLAAD chief communications officer Rich Ferraro tells Axios.
- “We need them to double down on their values,” RaShawn “Shawnie” Hawkins, the Human Rights Campaign’s director of workplace equality, tells Axios in an email. “It does not make good business sense to back away and let bullies run their business for them.”
Context: Conservative opponents have introduced more than 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills throughout the country so far this year, aiming at everything from transgender rights to book bans and health care restrictions, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
- Pride organizers are canceling events in Florida and civil rights groups have issued travel warnings after several anti-LGBTQ bills were signed into law by DeSantis. were signed into law by DeSantis.
Yes, but: GLAAD hasn’t noticed a downtick in corporate commitments to Pride Month, Ferraro says.
- “It’s a different Pride Month,” he says. “The visibility that we normally celebrate during Pride Month has now been met with threats of violence — and real corporate allies are going to stand with us.”
Target and AB InBev have said they’re still committed to celebrating Pride.
- “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,” a Target spokesperson says.
- Starbucks unveiled an advertisement in India featuring a father and his transgender daughter as part of its #ItStartsWithYourName campaign.
- Other brands — from The North Face to Jack Daniels — have enlisted well-known drag queens in marketing campaigns.
Worth noting: Americans want companies to go all in or do nothing at all when it comes to social issues, according to a recent Axios Harris Poll survey.
- 68% of Americans say companies and brands should only speak out when it pertains to their business interests or clearly stated values. This is a bipartisan belief, with 8 in 10 Republicans and 6 in 10 Democrats agreeing.
The problem for companies is that in some cases, they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
- “A lot of companies just want to stay out of the spotlight,” the University of Michigan’s Gordon says. “They don’t want to be forced to take a stand because no matter which stand they take, people who oppose that stand will attack them.”
Bloomberg (“Companies Forced to Plan Differently for Pride This Year“):
Pride month is often a time of celebration. Yet this time around, US brands are mindful of a backlash that has already begun.
Kohl’s, Target and The North Face have faced calls for boycotts from anti-LGBTQ groups after they unveiled their Pride campaigns. Of those retailers, Target removed some LBGTQ-themed merchandise from its store shelves, saying it wanted to protect employees after “confrontational behavior” by customers that included displays being destroyed.
The Los Angeles Dodgers meanwhile disinvited a LGBTQ advocacy group from its upcoming Pride night celebration after a bishop accused it of mocking Catholicism — but then re-invited them once other organizations dropped out in solidarity. And Anheuser Busch InBev is still weathering calls from conservatives to boycott its Bud Light brand after it partnered with TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney for an unrelated March Madness promotion in April.
Pride collections in stores as accessible as Target can serve as an entry point for representation, and shoppers often seek out merchandise and rainbow-hued clothing to wear to Pride events across the world. Yet the tensions this year have reflected growing anti-LGBTQ resistance; in the political sphere, US Republican lawmakers have introduced at least 491 anti-LGBTQ bills and passed 62 of them into law.
Even something as innocuous as a Pride-themed coffee mug can be a lightning rod for conservative outcry — and LGBTQ groups are paying attention to the response.
“Companies need to walk the walk with this community,” said Dan Dimant, the media director at NYC Pride, the nonprofit that produces the annual Pride march in New York City. “The public will find out and the public will hold them accountable. It’s no longer a free cash grab.”
Brands with Pride campaigns have mobilized in different ways. The North Face turned comments off the Instagram posts announcing their second-annual Summer of Pride partnership with the drag queen Pattie Gonia, and in a statement said it stands by the effort to build “a more inclusive outdoor community.”
The retailer Abercrombie & Fitch unveiled a campaign that says that Pride is year-round, and Macy’s said it is committed to its Pride campaigns. Both also made donations to The Trevor Project, a mental-health nonprofit that focuses on LGBTQ youth. For its part, Target is still listed as a “platinum” sponsor for NYC Pride, whose marquee events occur June 22-25 in New York City. (Some nonprofits observe their official Pride in October, given that National Coming Out Day is Oct. 11)
Sticking by the campaigns and their LGBTQ consumers may also help companies prove that their efforts are more than corporate pinkwashing.
“These corporations are really, really powerful,” said Motti, a social media and communications lead at the LGBTQ-owned clothing company For Them. “They have a lot of sway, and they need to be able to put their hand up and say, ‘This is what we believe in. This is what we want to do.’”
CNN Business (“Pride Month was once an easy win for brands. Now, the stakes are much higher“):
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.”
The controversy isn’t new, of course. Pride marches have been a thing for decades and President Clinton first proclaimed Pride Month back in 1999. Boycotts have been going on since pretty much the beginning.* And companies have been accused of cashing in on the celebration without a true commitment to the cause for years.** But, rather clearly, the heat has been turned up this year, with the level of outrage over corporations doing what they’ve been doing for quite some time ratcheted up significantly.
That’s clearly not an organic phenomenon. It’s part and parcel of the stoking of outage in the culture wars by the right-wing infotainment complex and, increasingly, the politicians themselves. Not shockingly, outrage has led to violence, or at least threats of the same. It should go without saying that this has no place in a democratic society.
At the same time, corporations and other non-political entities taking sides in politicized controversies is also rather odd. Do InBev (a global behemoth headquartered in Belgium) and Target Corporation really care about LGBTQ+ issues, aside from its impact on their bottom line? For that matter, so long as their actions aren’t harmful to people, why should we care? They make beer and sell dry goods; they’re not political parties.
I suppose one could argue that Pride celebrations aren’t political at all. But of course they are. The first Pride march was held a year after the Stonewall riots and the movement slowly grew to something much bigger and more amorphous. It is and always has been about affecting political and social change. Indeed, were LGBTQ+ rights not in controversy, the whole thing would be rather silly: there’s a reason we don’t have Straight Pride Month, White History Month, or International Men’s Day.
When InBev subsidiary Aneheiser Busch goes out of its way to take sides in the culture wars, it really shouldn’t be shocked that there’s a backlash from those one the other side. They have, of course, picked the winning side. But it strikes me that, if they actually care about LBTBQ+ rights, surely a company with operations in Russia, the UAE, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Eswatini, Namibia, Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe could do something more meaningful than putting rainbows on beer cans.
*See, for example, “U.S. corporations bolstering gay pride” (NBC News, 2005); “Big Business Increasingly Supports Gay Rights” (HBR, 2012); “Rainbow-colored Oreo a harbinger of more gay advertising” (WaPo, 2012)
**See, for example, “Target Corporation Message to LGBT Community: We Won’t Make it Right” (Human Rights Campaign, 2010); “How Corporations are Profiting from Gay Pride” (US News, 2012); “These Corporations Have All Been Accused Of Hating Gays” (Business Insider, 2012); “Dear Corporate America, leave our LGBTQ Pride celebrations alone” (Mashable, 2017); “Pride for Sale” (WaPo, 2019); “Corporate America gets on the Pride parade, and it’s appreciated, but also complicated” (USA Today, 2019); “What Big Business’s Embrace of Pride Month Really Means” (WSJ, 2021);