Target, the century-old mid-tier discount store that leads the US market, experienced major backlash following the launch of its Pride Month merchandise in May 2023, a campaign it had been running for over a decade. The Target controversy crisis management strategies also widely damaged the company’s sales and reputation. It can now provide invaluable lessons for entrepreneurs and marketers to better understand the changing operational environment and expectations of customers.

Here at Business2Community, our experts have organized all the key dates, facts, and consequences surrounding the Target controversy. In this article, we’ll go through the ins and outs of the incident so you can build appropriate business and marketing strategies that nurture growth and align with customer expectations.

Target Controversy – Key Facts

  • In May 2023, Target launched a new collection to celebrate Pride Month in June, receiving intense backlash from conservative customers.
  • By the end of May, the company decided to pull some of the merchandise from its stores, prompting another round of heated backlash, this time from the LGBT+ community.
  • Following the controversy, the company experienced a fall in quarterly sales for the first time in 6 years and a 12% drop in share prices.

The Story of the Target Controversy

Target, with a market capitalization of $75.13 billion as of April 2024, is one of the largest discount general store chains in the US. In May 2023, a month before Pride Month, the company launched its Pride merchandise with over 2,000 items – as it had done for a decade. Since then, it has been wrapped up in a series of heated confrontations from conservatives as well as the LGBT+ group.

target pride 2023

The backlash took a toll on the company’s business performance and brand image. Let’s take a look at what Target did and how poor crisis management led to more damage to its sales and deeper criticism.

Target Store Employees Faced Threats Over Pride Month Merchandise

Before Pride Month began in June 2023, Target teamed up with a few LGBT+ artists to launch its pride collection in physical stores around the US in early May to celebrate diversity. The Pride Month merchandise included a mug that says “Gender Fluid,” “queer all year” calendars, clothing items in rainbow colors, and LGBT-themed accessories. The entire Pride collection contained over 2,000 products.

Up to that point, Target had celebrated Pride Month for over a decade without getting into any trouble. However, the whole ordeal happened at the peak of the Bud Light controversy, when conservatives got mad at the brand for hiring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney to promote its products. Bud Light’s parent company revealed the backlash damaged its sales. It also happened at the same time as numerous state legislatures were actively trying to criminalize LGBT+  individuals.

Target’s Pride displays received intense backlash instantly from conservatives, criticizing Target for promoting gender-fluid and other LGBT+ items. There were threats against store workers and physical confrontations between angry customers and store employees that led to Target store items “being thrown on the floor,” endangering employee safety.

False rumors were also circulated, accusing the budget retailer of selling “tuck-friendly” bathing suits designed for children. Tuck-friendly items are designed for trans people to hide their male genitalia when wearing a clothing item. Associated Press found the claim to be false as the swimsuits in question did not come in kids’ sizes and were only for adults.

Target Pride Month Merchandise Pulled, Received Backlash From the LGBTQ Community

On May 24, 2023, after a series of heated confrontations from conservative customers against Target store workers, the company released an official statement stating it was pulling some of its Pride Month merchandise from stores and removing other items from the front door area as employees’ safety was at risk. The company emphasized that it would still show support to vulnerable groups. The statement read:

Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.

It continued, “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,” the statement read.

At the same time, the company also confirmed that some merchandise would be moved further back in some Southern stores where staff had faced more serious confrontations and threats so these products wouldn’t be as visible to customers.

LGBTQ Community Slammed Target For Removing Its Pride Displays

The removal and repositioning of its merchandise prompted a new round of intense backlash, this time from the LGBTQ+ community. LGBT activists slammed the brand for not supporting the marginalized group during this time and urged the discount store giant to return the items removed to show respect and its stance for the community.

Kelley Robinson, President of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said Target needed to stand up with the community via a Tweet.

“Extremist groups want to divide us and ultimately don’t just want rainbow products to disappear, they want us to disappear. The LGBTQ+ community has celebrated Pride with Target for the past decade. Target needs to stand with us and double down on their commitment to us,” she tweeted.

Target’s removal of the rainbow items also caused concerns about encouraging more hate crimes. Michael Edison Hayden, a spokesperson for the hate-crime monitoring organization Southern Poverty Law Center, told NPR about the possible consequences of more hate crimes against marginalized groups.

“As soon as you back down like this, you send a message that intimidation works, and that makes it much scarier than if you had never started to begin with,” he said.

Target Pride Designer Talked About “Rainbow Capitalism”

Erik Carnell, a transgender designer who created products for Target’s Pride Month, told the media in late May about his frustration towards “rainbow capitalism” after his merchandise was pulled from the store following the backlash.

He criticized companies like Target for targeting LGBT people and making a profit out of Pride Month but failed to support them as soon as challenges arose. He felt the importance of the LGBT group was only for profits for these big corporates. The London-based designer said:

If you’re going to take a stance and say that you care about the LGBT community, you need to stand by that regardless.

Carnell added that since the controversy, he had received a lot of death threats and hate messages. However, Target had not personally reached out to him to try to understand how the situation had impacted the mental health of the people involved.

US Republican Attorneys General Warned Target of Child Protection Law Violations

Two months after Target became the center of controversy, in July 2023, Republican attorneys general from Indiana, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Carolina signed to file a warning against the general store giant for possible violations of child protection laws.

In the letter, they accused Target of promoting sexual and gender identity among children by advertising queer t-shirts and products. The attorneys called these items “anti-Christian” and “Satanic.”

The letter widely opposed Target’s donation to an LGBT+ organization as well, citing the business for violating “parents’ constitutional and statutory rights” by supporting the organization and that they believed parents and teaching staff should consult a child first before addressing the child’s gender orientation.

The Consequences of the Target Controversy

Within a month, the retail store giant faced criticism from both sides of the political spectrum – conservative groups and the LGBT+ community, significantly damaging its brand reputation and image. Following the crisis, the company immediately saw a drop in sales as well as a rise in store crimes. To avoid future controversies, it tried to adjust its creation process to ensure its products and services would align well with the current market trends and expectations.

Target’s Sales Dropped For The First Time in Six Years

If upsetting its conservative customers wasn’t enough, Target’s poor handling of the Pride Month controversy vastly disappointed the LGBT community as well, making both parties push for a boycott against the discount retailer.

Following the intense backlash, Target’s second-quarter sales saw a 5.4% drop in 2023, marking the first time in six years the business had reported negative sales growth. Although Target mostly attributed the fall in sales to the poor economic picture affecting all retailers in the country, executives admitted that the merchandise controversy was also the main reason for its dissatisfactory performance. For comparison, its rival, Walmart, saw a 6.4% growth in sales during the same period.

target five year price chart

The company’s stock price has also dropped by 12% since the beginning of 2023. While part of the reason was the high inflation that hugely impacted the market in general, part of it was due to the brewing controversy.

Target CEO Said the Company Would Continue to Support the LGBT Group

Brian Cornell, the CEO of Target, confirmed in July 2023 that the firm would continue to support the LGBTQ community and Pride Month in the future. However, noting safety issues for its workers, Cornell stated that the company would adjust its Pride line to create merchandise that takes into account the timing and other factors that would impact sales and public reception.

A month after the CEO’s statement, Cornell told investors in August that the company was seeing a “meaningful recovery,” having suffered a drop in sales during the previous quarter.

Target Faced an Increase in Violence and Thefts in Its Physical Stores

Target reported a 120% increase in violence and thefts in its stores during the first half of 2023. Despite the company not directly linking the increase in crimes to the controversy it faced, the news aligned with previous reports that many workers experienced verbal and physical confrontations when the Pride collection was pushed out.

What Can We Learn From the Target Controversy?

A campaign that was supposed to symbolize diversity and inclusiveness led to one of the biggest crises Target has faced. During the crisis, the brand failed to reassure its customers about its values, which were about supporting diversity and vulnerable groups, and plunged itself into more trouble.

First of all, you need to know your target audience and what they believe in. As a responsible brand, you should try to stand with your audience to promote core ethics and values celebrated in the operation. At the same time, you need to stay up-to-date about the latest news and movements so you are aware of the changes in the business environment to curate the most time-sensitive and appropriate campaigns to reap the most benefits.

If you do experience a crisis, damage control is important. You need to find the cause of it, understand what your target audience is expecting, and how to gain their trust again while staying ethical. This article has provided everything you need to know about the Target controversy and how you can avoid making the same mistake for your firm.


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