Off-Target Again…This Time To the Left

Minnesota–based Target Corporation is outraging the conservative Family Research Council and American Family Association  by giving consumers the option of expressing “love,” “pride” and “harmony” on their clothing.    Thems fightin’ words for social conservatives, at least if the love, pride or harmony has to do with gay people.

In association with National Pride Month, t-shirts carrying those messages are now being offered by Target.  In addition, up to $120,000 from sales of t-shirts apparently will go to the Family Equality Council, which supports same-sex families in a variety of ways, including in the political arena.  The Family Equality Council website says “Because of us…the law more often recognizes all the moms and dads who have made the commitment to be parents.”

Context:  In 2008, Target Corporation CEO Gregg Steinhafel stepped in prodigious political poo when he gave $150,000 in corporate money to support Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who is anti-gay rights.  For several months, protests, boycotts, stockholder questioning, flash dances, Lady Gaga scoldings, and lame corporate apologies tarnished Target’s valuable brand.  It wasn’t pretty.

I support gay marriage, and criticized Target for using corporate money to support Emmer.  I even engaged in a quixotic little boycott myself.  So you might think I am pleased with Target.

And I am.  Target is finally on the morally defensible side of the issue.

But from a strict brand management standpoint, I don’t understand why Target is a) selling merchandise related to any politically contested issue and b) tying sales proceeds to any group engaged in political advocacy.   I don’t care what the issue is, or whether the issue position is pleasing or displeasing to me.  It’s just plain dumb idea for Target brand managers to put their enormously valuable brand in the middle of damaging political crossfire.

The lesson Target took away from 2008 seems to be “we need to show that Target is a gay-friendly brand.”  Wrong lesson.  The lesson they should have taken away from the 2008 debacle is “we need to keep our valuable brand out of all divisive political issues.”

– Loveland

16 thoughts on “Off-Target Again…This Time To the Left

  1. PM says:

    Yeah, i generally agree with you, but…this time, they are, in the words of Shep Smith, on the right side of history.

    And it looks as if public opinion is shifting even faster towards favoring marriage equality–so maybe Target feels that it really needs to get on the bandwagon.

    Frankly, i would be willing to bet that there has been significant internal pressure on Target to get out in front of this issue–from Target employees. I think that that is an important consideration as well.

  2. Joe Loveland says:

    If they had tshirts reading “You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold dead hands,” and the money was going to the NRA to please employees and customers who are gun enthusiasts, I’d say the same thing. If they had tshirts saying “Thou shalt not kill” and the money went to groups fighting the death penalty to please anti-death penalty employees and customers, I’d say the same thing.

    Whether or not I support the political statement being made by the Target tshirt, and whether or not the polls support the particular statement, playing political games with your multi-billion dollar brand is reckless brand stewardship.

  3. PM says:

    Right, but doing all of that with t-shirts saying “Support our Troops” or “I love the USA” would be good brand stewardship, right?

    So the point you are making is that you only do things that are very popular, even though you will undoubtedly upset some people somewhere.

    So maybe Target is just getting ahead of the curve? Maybe they want a bit more of an “edgy” brand feel? maybe they think they need to be seen as hip or cutting edge or…and are prepared to take a risk?

    I agree with you that there is some risk in their approach–I think that they know that, and are still willing to take that risk. For me, the interesting question is why?

    (The other option, of course, is that they are just stupid, and maybe i am over-thinking/analysing. Always a possibility….)

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      You could be correct that Target is intentionally trying to make its brand edgier by playing in politics. But my guess is that it’s more of a community relations-inspired move than an intentional move to make the brand more politically edgy. That is, Target is trying to dig out of the hole they dug for themselves with the gay community in 2008.

      If they are intentionally trying to make the Target brand politically edgy, that doesn’t make sense to me. If they were Abercrombie, Aeorpostale, or American Eagle, sure. But Target is populated primarily by middle aged people who are very politically diverse. So, just give them great products and stay out of their politics.

  4. PM says:

    In support of the point i made about how quickly this issue is evolving:

    In MD there is going to be a marriage referendum, and the polling is fairly significantly and rapidly shifting in favor of marriage equality–a 12 point shift since March (marriage equality is favored to pass by 57 to 37 now).

    “-The movement over the last two months can be explained almost entirely by a major shift in opinion about same-sex marriage among black voters. Previously 56% said they would vote against the new law with only 39% planning to uphold it. Those numbers have now almost completely flipped, with 55% of African Americans planning to vote for the law and only 36% now opposed.

    -The big shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage among black voters in Maryland is reflective of what’s happening nationally right now. A new ABC/Washington Post poll finds 59% of African Americans across the country supportive of same-sex marriage. A PPP poll in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania last weekend found a shift of 19 points in favor of same-sex marriage among black voters.
    While the media has been focused on what impact President Obama’s announcement will have on his own reelection prospects, the more important fallout may be the impact his position is having on public opinion about same-sex marriage itself.

    Maryland voters were already prepared to support marriage equality at the polls this fall even before President Obama’s announcement. But now it appears that passage will come by a much stronger margin. ”

    Can’t wait to see polling in MN on the marriage referendum.

  5. Gailkate says:

    Maybe we have to think of this as a purely social issue. To my mind, every social issue can be political and vice versa, but why do you see this as politicizing the brand? If it’s an effort to be edgier socially (as well as healing the pain caused by their deeply political and offensive behavior in 2007), then they could be influencing far more people than the LGBT community. Like you, Joe, our family instituted our own little boycott, and, barring an occasional no-choice purchase, our boycott never ended. (Hell, we haven’t bought a Hormel product in 27 years.) I see your unease, but this move on Target’s part just might make us call off our boycott.

    JM’s bringing in the example of support-our-troops paraphernalia adds another valuable perspective. For years, our flag was co-opted by supporters of the War in Iraq. You couldn’t walk down any store aisle without seeing at least one product intended to prove your patriotism. Then there are the pink ribbon products, which make this breast cancer survivor uncomfortable. “Green” and “eco” are used with abandon, presumably to attract a group of people with specific values and behaviors. If we see Target’s shirt as a marketing decision, then the only question is whether it will do them more good than harm.

    I’m thinking I’ll buy a harmony t-shirt.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Gailkate, you make a good point about the difference between a social and political statement. What takes this Target move into the political realm is that they are donating tshirt profits to an organization involved in advocacy to change laws. That makes it corporate-supported political activism.

      If the Support Our Troops tshirt proceeds were going to a Cheney-backed neoconservative group promoting military adventurism,that also would be bad brand management, because it would drive away people like me.

  6. Newt says:

    A “gay friendly brand”? My God, are gays so under siege they can’t find retailers to take their money? All of this is so damn absurd and seemingly contrived.

    My world concerns substantive issues – not MTV melodrama.

  7. Oh Newt???
    If my spouse dies, and she bore our child, under current laws in many states, that child is not mine. That is “MTV melodrama?”

    I have a feeling you didn’t really think about that statement much. Not only is it important in a constitutional, human rights kind of way, but big corporations really deplore all the anti-gay stuff because it kills much of their recruiting efforts.

    Nah, I don’t think you really spent a lot of time thinking over your comment before you hit Post Comment. I hope you will next time.

  8. OBTW Newt, hate/bias crimes are perpetrated on gays per capita, more than any other group.

    “are gays so under siege”


  9. Newt says:

    With all due respect, HMB, there is no such thing as a retail outlet that isn’t “gay friendly.” Even homophobes are capitalists.

    P.S. There is no such thing as a “hate crime.” Victims of assault, harassment or murder are equally victimized, irrespective of their political status. All offenses need to be prosecuted and penalized the same.

  10. I love consumer boycotts. You mini-cott of Target was on target, Joe. I’m still boycotting Charmin tissue for its Mr. Whipple ads. We’ll bring ’em to their knees.
    Consumers making buying decisions based on a seller’s behavior is a great way to exercise personal ethics.
    Good discussion, all.

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