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Right-wing boycotts taught Target a lesson — but maybe not the intended one

Target acknowledged right-wing protests over LGBTQ-friendly products hurt the retailer’s bottom line. But conservatives shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate.


Some Republicans are taking a victory lap after Target executives revealed Wednesday that the retailer had a down quarter thanks, in part, to right-wing protests against the company over LGBTQ-friendly items for sale

As Jaclyn Peiser wrote for The Washington Post:

Target officials acknowledged during a call with investors that they would have to “adapt and learn” after landing in the culture war crossfire over LGBTQ+ rights — much like Bud Light earlier this year. But they and industry analysts said inflation and a more price-conscious consumer also weighed on results.

“The backlash against Pride Month merchandise almost certainly played some role, and it cannot be ignored,” said Neil Saunders, managing director for retail at analytics company GlobalData. “However, it is not the sole cause of Target’s woes. Indeed, Target’s sales performance was on a downward slope long before Pride became an issue.”

Conservatives reacting on social media seem to think causing financial damage to Target is a win for them. I’d be inclined to agree with them, but they also seem to have a larger goal: building up their social capital by showing companies that they best not run afoul of conservative demands … or else. 

And if that’s the goal — not merely getting Target to fall in line, but getting companies to stay in line — I think the right’s crusade will fail mightily. 

One major reason that businesses could be reluctant to bend to conservatives’ whims going forward is it’s not clear that the Pride Month boycotts were primarily responsible for Target’s sales drop. As the Post’s report noted, “Target stock had already been experiencing a prolonged decline.” 

In June, CNN consumer reporter Nathaniel Meyersohn helped explain why:

It’s conceivable that some investors sold Target because of the negative coverage on Fox News and other right-wing outlets. But Target’s stock went on a nine-day losing streak and hit a three-year low this week because of broader changes in the US economy, the possibility of a recession, and Target’s over-exposure to discretionary merchandise, according to corporate executives and retail and investment analysts.

Anheuser-Busch, which faced right-wing boycotts after Bud Light partnered with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, has a similar story. Conservatives took credit for its financial troubles, even though the company had been in decline for years.

Given this, it seems fair to say right-wingers didn’t bury Target with their performative outrage; they simply shoveled a few heaps of dirt.

Conservatives showed that when they band together in the name of reactionary politics, they can harm a company’s bottom line in the short term. But companies will have to weigh whether subjecting themselves to the whims of this horde — whose members seem to find new and more absurd scapegoats by the day — serves their long-term interests.

And the numbers don’t favor conservatives in a country that’s becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly tolerant of LGBTQ people. Writing for CNN in April, Danielle Wiener-Bronner explained why companies embrace diverse communities — an act portrayed by the right as nefarious “wokism”: 

The phrase “get woke go broke,” employed by some conservatives on social media, suggests that brands which employ inclusive campaigns are angering a significant enough portion of consumers to lead to a material drop in sales. But experts say that inclusive campaigns are, in fact, often lucrative for businesses, serving as an important tool to reach key demographics.

That article quotes a Bud Light executive who had said the beer brand had “been in decline for a really long time” and warned: “If we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light.”

In other words: So-called wokism can be good for business. 

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, broke it down rather simply in a June interview, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “There is a reason almost all the top 10 market cap companies in the U.S. can be considered ‘woke.’ It’s good business.”

I think of the right-wing boycotts like a scarecrow: At first glance, they might ward off some cowardly companies from aligning with marginalized folks. But once you take a closer look, there’s not all that much to fear.