Unpacking the Target Boycott

Navigating the complex landscape of LGBTQ+ inclusivity and brand loyalty.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

October 19, 2023
Katya Skogen – Director, LGBTQ+ & Gender Insights

Target Boycott: What Is Going On With Target?

The Target boycott began in May 2023. That is, Target became embroiled in a significant controversy as consumers chose to sever their commercial and social connections with the retailer in protest.

What were consumers protesting?

The catalyst for this boycott was Target’s presentation of products related to Pride Month, an annual celebration honoring the LGBTQ+ community. This boycott movement was primarily spearheaded by a small-but-vocal contingent of conservative influencers, often using misinformation, but the knock-on effects endangered Target’s long-standing relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, plus liberal segments.

In response to the escalating pressures exerted through social media, boycott movements, and threats of violence, Target opted to downplay their Pride Month campaigns and in some cases remove or relocate its Pride merchandise from highly visible front displays to less conspicuous areas within their stores.

However, this seemingly innocuous adjustment had unintended consequences. It created the perception that Target was opportunistic, insincere, and lacking in conviction. Consequently, the brand found itself subject to criticism from both sides of the debate.

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How Much Has Target Lost as a Result of This Backlash?

During the second quarter of 2023, Target’s in-store sales dropped by 5.4%, with a more substantial decline of 10.9% for online sales. This downturn is likely a direct consequence of the boycott against Target.

The Story That Uncovers Distinctive Insights Around the Target Controversy

In 2022 Target Was a Top Brand for the LGBTQ+ Community

Research conducted by Collage Group has identified Target as an exceptionally resonant brand within the LGBTQ+ community, a distinction highlighted in our 2022 report, “The Top 10 Brands for LGBTQ+ Consumers.” 

Our research shows that Target’s support for LGBTQ+ merchants, creators, and community organizations has had a positive effect on how such consumers view the brand. As a result, in 2022, this positioning enhanced favorability and purchase intent with the LGBTQ+ demographic.

    • Brand Favorability: An impressive 69% of the LGBTQ+ community reports that they ‘like’ or ‘love’ the Target brand, surpassing Collage Group’s average of 50% for the LGBTQ+ segment.
    • Purchase Intent: A substantial 69% of the LGBTQ+ community indicates that they are ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ to purchase Target’s products or services in the future, compared to the average of 46% for the LGBTQ+ segment.

What Steps Has Target Taken to Garner Support From the LGBTQ+ Community?

Target consistently demonstrates its commitment to the LGBTQ+ consumer group by actively showcasing its support during Pride Month. For example, every June, Target prominently features a range of Pride-themed merchandise, including rainbow t-shirts, and greeting cards.

However, Target’s dedication extends well beyond these annual symbolic gestures. The retailer takes meaningful steps by offering affordable options for gender-affirming clothing all year round. The brand creates a safe and inclusive space for individuals to express their authentic selves. This aligns Target’s brand fit closely with the LGBTQ+ community and fosters a strong level of connection.

Moreover, Target has formed partnerships with TomboyX and Humankind, both queer-owned and woman-founded brands, to launch limited-edition lines of affordable, gender-affirming clothing.

Target has partnered with TomboyX and Humankind

Additionally, Target actively supports organizations and initiatives that provide life-saving services to LGBTQ+ youth, both online and in schools. Given that 60% of LGBTQ+ Americans express concerns about the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ+ ideas on social media (compared to 39% of non-LGBTQ+ individuals), Target’s efforts to combat this issue are particularly impactful. For instance, the retailer’s ongoing support for GLSEN aligns with its mission to establish welcoming, accessible, and anti-racist environments for LGBTQ+ students.

These findings underscore Target’s commendable efforts to create a welcoming and supportive environment for this consumer group, ultimately creating a strong consumer-brand bond.

Considering this context, what led to Target angering consumers within the LGBTQ+ community?

Understand the Factors Behind the Target Backlash

At Collage Group, we’ve developed a product that measures advertising effectiveness. An important metric for these measurements is ‘backlash.’ In essence, backlash measures the change in how consumers perceive a brand after watching an advertisement. That is, does the consumer’s perception of a brand shift from a positive to a negative view when they are exposed to an ad

For many brands like Target, a significant worry stems from their long-standing presence in the market. Their consumer base has originally been built around predominantly white, mid-western demographics, largely due to the size and cultural homogeneity of this population. This historical consumer base has become a tradition in itself, leading many companies and brands to ponder the potential risks of alienating one group when attempting to connect with another.

With this mind, for Target there have been two dynamics at play which led to the backlash against Target’s Pride Month marketing campaign:

    • Over the years, by connecting with the LGBTQ+ community – which is itself a hugely diverse consumer segment – Target has worked to reposition its brand. This repositioning diversified Target’s appeal so that it is not associated with just one demographic, but appealing to the general market.
    • However, in doing so, Target received backlash from some of its traditional consumer segments. Most notably, right-wing conservatives, as we explain below.

Social Media Mobilizes Conservative Consumers Who Call Upon Brands to Address Specific Issues

By segmenting our data, we were able to look into the political forces at play that led to the significant backlash against Target. It was clear that conservatives were deeply dismayed by Target’s transgender-inclusive merchandise, perceiving the brand to be ‘too woke’. But why now, when Target has previously offered other products tailored to the needs of transgender and non-binary people?

As a general rule, conservative consumer groups in the past felt brands should steer clear of politics. In contrast, liberal consumers wanted brands to take a stand. However, Collage Group has picked up on an emerging trend. The more conservative portion of the population increasingly desires brands to address certain issues rather than remaining uninvolved. In addition, we’re seeing an increasing sensitivity to the LGBTQ+ movement from the older white population. While these views and cultural dynamics aren’t new, today social media is amplifying them, turning brand criticism into a vocal and public affair.

What seems to have particularly upset this consumer segment was Target’s inclusion of children’s products in their Pride Month merchandise. Some critics went as far as making false claims, alleging that tuck-friendly swimsuits were being marketed to children. These actions only further inflamed conservative opposition to the brand.

Our research highlights heightened consumer sensitivity when it comes to the broader issues concerning children and LGBTQ+ issues and themes, specifically transgender minors’ access to gender-affirming medical care.

In this context, one might wonder if Target ventured too far into a highly polarized issue this time. According to Collage Group’s recent America Now survey, 37% of conservative consumers said brands should steer clear of addressing the issue of transgender discrimination, while 70% of liberal consumers said it was an issue they wanted to see brands include in messaging.

Nevertheless, Target’s customer base is exceptionally diverse, encompassing individuals of different age groups, ethnicities, and backgrounds. It appears that stepping back from their support for LGBTQ+ pride was a riskier maneuver than potentially upsetting those who hold anti-LGBTQ+ views, a topic we delve into further below.

Target Losses: Beyond the Financial Implications

In reaction to the backlash, Target chose to scale back its LGBTQ+ merchandise and displays. The brand shifted its Pride-related products from highly visible front displays to less conspicuous locations within their stores. This move displayed a striking incongruence with Target’s long standing support for the LGBTQ+ community, which had detrimental effects on the brand.

Anti-LGBTQ violence and hate should not be winning in America, but it will continue to until corporate leaders step up as heroes for their LGBTQ employees and consumers and do not cave to fringe activists calling for censorship. The fact that a small group of extremists are threatening disgusting and harsh violence in response to Target continuing its long-standing tradition of offering products for everyone should be a wake-up call for consumers and is a reminder that LGBTQ people, venues, and events are being attacked with threats and violence like never before. An avalanche of research shows that Americans are comfortable seeing LGBTQ people in ads and marketing and that consumers, especially younger ones, prefer companies that include LGBTQ people internally and externally.

Sarah Kate Ellis, President & CEO of GLAAD

The perception that Target was opportunistic and insincere in supporting the LGBTQ+ community extended beyond just this demographic. Left-leaning consumers, too, viewed Target’s actions unfavorably and expressed disapproval.

Research conducted by Collage Group has uncovered that, in contrast to the vocal backlash against LGBTQ+ merchandise, the majority of Americans express solidarity with and endorse such initiatives. Our findings reveal that 88% of non-LGBTQ+ individuals hold positive or neutral views regarding Pride Month marketing. As a result, Target came across as aligning itself with an extremist perspective. The brand failed to uphold its commitment to a community with which it had diligently nurtured a strong and meaningful relationship.

Target Is Accused of Rainbow Capitalism

Rainbow capitalism refers to the commercialization and exploitation of LGBTQ+ symbols and themes by businesses for profit, without necessarily championing substantive LGBTQ+ rights or causes. It involves companies using LGBTQ+ imagery and branding to appear inclusive and supportive, while potentially neglecting the broader social and political issues facing this community. Critics argue that rainbow capitalism can be seen as a form of ‘pinkwashing’, where companies prioritize profit over genuine social progress.

CEO of Target Brian Cornell selling out the LGBTQ+ community to extremists is a real profile in courage. This isn’t just a couple of stores in the south. There is a systematic attack on the gay community happening across the country.”

–  California Governor, Gavin Newsom

Target has faced prior instances of backlash due to its support for the LGBTQ+ community. In 2016, a boycott emerged over its bathroom/fitting room policies that support LGBTQ+ rights. However, in this case, the brand chose not to yield; instead, Target redoubled its commitment and effectively managed the backlash, remaining steadfast in its support for LGBTQ+.

Yet, in this most recent instance, by withdrawing LGBTQ+ related merchandise, Target created the impression that their support was selective and opportunistic. When the moment arrived for them to firmly demonstrate solidarity, the brand appeared to waver in the face of opposition.This was especially disheartening for the LGBTQ+ population, who are working diligently to overcome societal resistance and achieve broader acceptance and understanding. Through these actions, Target is accused of rainbow capitalism.

Exploring the Complex and Evolving Landscape of the Target Controversy

At Collage Group, we recognize the landscape of LGBTQ+ rights and support is intricate and continuously evolving. As such, we unpacked our data to reveal several noteworthy points that challenge conventional assumptions and emphasize the nuanced nature of this issue.

    1. Non-White Conservatives Show Less Antipathy: One notable finding is that the support or opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and brands does not create the same divisive lines among non-white conservatives as it does among their white counterparts. This suggests that LGBTQ+ issues may not be as polarizing within multicultural communities, highlighting a more diverse range of perspectives and attitudes.
    2. The Majority of Younger Consumers Support the LGBTQ+ Community: Younger consumers, notably Generation Z, exhibit greater acceptance to LGBTQ+ rights as older white consumers do. For Generation Z it is more the norm to accept and champion people of different identities even when those identities are not their own. This generational shift reflects changing attitudes and a growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights.
    3. Diversity Within the LGBTQ+ Community: The LGBTQ+ community itself is incredibly diverse, encompassing individuals with a wide range of identities and perspectives. This diversity extends to political beliefs, as there are conservative individuals within the LGBTQ+ community. Some gay individuals, for example, may have different views on LGBTQ+ rights compared to those advocating for transgender rights. We discuss this further below.
    4. Different Perspectives on Gay Rights vs. Transgender Rights: Within the LGBTQ+ community, distinctions exist between advocacy for gay rights and trans rights. While gay rights have seen significant progress and acceptance over the years, the issues surrounding transgender rights, especially concerning transgender children, present a more complex and contentious landscape. These nuances require careful consideration when addressing LGBTQ+ concerns.
    5. Changing Perceptions of Gay Relationships: It is evident that the world’s perception of gay relationships has evolved over time. What was once a subject of objection in many societies has become more widely accepted. This shift reflects changing social attitudes and greater inclusivity.

Target, and many other brands, are having to grapple with the multifaceted and evolving matter of LGBTQ+ support and rights. However, one key insight here is that brands must acknowledge the view of younger individuals, who represent their future and growth. Notably Gen Z are embracing diversity in ways that significantly differ from older generations. Marketers must respond by connecting with Gen Z on their own terms and understanding their unique perspectives.

Our research findings emphasize the need to consider the diversity of perspectives within both minority communities and the LGBTQ+ community itself. As the world continues to evolve, it is important to recognize the complexities of this landscape and engage in meaningful dialogue to foster understanding and inclusivity.

Learning From the Target Boycott: How Can Your Brand Support the LGBTQ+ Community?

“If you want to secure your future as a brand and grow and not become extinct, you’re going to have to connect to the younger generations. And brands are grappling with that, some better than others. Some brands are struggling between the borderlands of one very different older demographic they have, to totally changing direction and having to deal with the counterattack of this. From Target’s perspective, they have been doing the same old, but this year, LGBTQ+ backlash was worse. This wasn’t necessarily anything to do with Target, but it was to do with the context.”

David Evans, Chief Insights Officer at Collage Group

At Collage Group, we understand the complex terrain that brands must navigate in today’s polarized cultural landscape, where supporting one group can potentially lead to backlash from others.

Yet, by leveraging our in-depth insights into the values, interests, and affiliations of consumers across various dimensions such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, you can express your brand’s support for causes that align with your core consumer base while minimizing the risk of negative reactions.

Collage Group offers strategic guidance to enhance your marketing efforts within the LGBTQ+ community. Through our expertise, you can:

    1. Use data to capture the values, attributes, and preferred terminology of the LGBTQ+ community. Using the right terminology is a matter of respect, demonstrating your dignity and empathy, and showing your consumers that you see them and affirm their identity.
    2. Embrace the LGBTQ+ community year-round. Demonstrate your understanding of the complexity of their life experiences and commitment to meeting their unique needs during and beyond Pride Month. Lean into culturally specific, intersectional storytelling to create and leverage cascading Halo Effect.
    3. Be Proud, but walk the walk. Pride Month is a cultural movement that celebrates the rich history and invaluable contributions of the LGBTQ+ community. Make sure you participate to connect with these diverse consumers and their allies. Earn permission to celebrate Pride, by supporting the community and the issues they care about in marketing, philanthropy, and internal company initiatives.
    4. Amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ employees and their “allies.” Create an Employee Resource Group (ERG) to engage with and support diverse employees throughout the year. Empower these groups to work to create an inclusive workplace aligned with your organization’s values.
    5. Acknowledge the significant size and cultural influence of both supportive and “ally” populations, and engage with these groups. LGBTQ+ segments skew younger, and are more racially and ethnically diverse.
    6. Be prepared for potential backlash. Develop and implement a crisis mitigation plan that coordinates the cross-functional response and allows your organization to communicate effectively and efficiently with stakeholders, including media, customers, employees, suppliers, your partners within LGBTQ+ organizations, and the public at large.

By following these strategies, your brand can authentically and respectfully support and engage with the LGBTQ+ community while simultaneously resonating with a wider consumer base. That is, our insights will allow you to drive brand growth through the Halo Effect. That is, the Halo effect refers to the positive impact a marketing campaign has on consumers not included in the original ‘target’ segment.

As demonstrated, the majority of non-LGBTQ+ American consumers stand in support of the LGBTQ+ community. Therefore, brands shouldn’t be discouraged by the perspectives of a loud, yet small minority. In doing so, brands will align with the broader sentiment of the American population.

Looking to the Future: Our Closing Thoughts on the Target Backlash

To secure its future and remain relevant, Target (and any other brand ) needs to recognize the importance of diversity, not only in terms of racial and cultural backgrounds but also in gender identity and sexual expression.

Younger generations, particularly Gen Z, are more diverse and socially conscious than their predecessors. Brands that want to thrive must align themselves with the values and expectations of these younger consumers. This includes being genuinely inclusive and supportive of LGBTQ+ communities, as well as understanding and respecting the complex issues surrounding gender identity and sexual expression.

The transgender segment of the LGBTQ+ community is an essential part of this equation. While it may not be the largest market, the inclusion of transgender individuals in brand messaging is vital not only to serve this minority group but also to create a positive Halo Effect among consumers who value diversity and inclusivity.

However, Target and other brands need to navigate this terrain carefully, as the inclusion of transgender individuals in advertisements, particularly those aimed at children, can be a source of controversy. Brands must find a balance between representing diverse perspectives and addressing potential concerns.

What is clear though is the long-term benefits of securing the loyalty and support of younger, socially conscious consumers. While there may not be a clear dollar sign attached to such efforts, they are invaluable for any brand’s future success.

Other Recent LGBTQ+ Research Articles & Insights from Collage Group

Katya Skogen

Katya Skogen

Katya leads Collage Group’s LGBTQ+ and Gender research. Her other interests include multicultural segments as well as consumer behaviors and attitudes in the context of media, technology, food and beverage, and retail industries.

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