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Opinion: The reality brands must face amid America’s culture war

How brands can support the LGBTQI+ community and discourage violence without pandering to far-right extremists.

7 min read

MarketingPublic Relations

The reality all brands must face amid America’s culture war

Helen H. Richardson / Getty Images

Target’s Pride Month collection has been yet another “target” of the far right. Following threats to employee safety, the company chose to pull some Pride Month merchandise from its shelves. This, along with the backlash against Bud Light’s collaboration with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, has fueled the anti-LGBTQI+ movement and led to right-wing commentators like Matt Walsh declaring success

Look, no matter how you shake it, this is a tough line for any brand to walk. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to support the LGBTQI+ community while keeping employees safe. Several Target stores received bomb threats on Memorial Day even after it was announced products would be removed from stores. 

On the other hand, pandering to the demands of such groups only emboldens them … and leads to even more threats against employees, stores and warehouses. The Department of Homeland Security noted that it may even allow for a rise in wider-scale attacks on LGBTQI+ people in large, public spaces. 

While there’s no one size fits all solution, there are crucial, and in some cases life-saving strategic steps from a communications standpoint that brands should start preparing to take.

Stop playing both sides of the aisle

Before America’s culture war, it was easier for companies to remain apolitical as long as they weren’t directly associated with the government, military or inherently working in a controversial industry such as with big oil, abortion rights/right to life and so on. Now, just about anything a company or public figure does will be scrutinized by the court of public opinion across channels from news to social media to real-life protests. 

Target has been recognizing and selling Pride Month merchandise for years. The culture war and increasing political polarization in America, encouraged by right-wing politicians, are to blame for why this year it’s escalated to a dangerous problem. And while Target may have previously been able to sell Pride Month merchandise while still marketing to consumers on the right side of the aisle, those days are likely numbered. For instance, Budweiser’s choice to put out a pro-America Clydesdale ad right after the Dylan Mulvaney/Bud Light backlash was heavily criticized and labeled as pandering

It isn’t just companies either – Taylor Swift is getting a taste of the consequences of straddling two very different audiences as the controversy involving her, her partner Matty Healy and Ice Spice unfolds. 

I wouldn’t say companies always have to pick a side, but they will have to stop pretending to be on everyone’s side, which is simply to say that brands have to commit to their values and embrace authenticity, more than ever before.

Brands may worry this will hurt their revenue or reputation, however, that’s unlikely. Disney spoke out against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill without too many losses and still reported a 13% increase in second-quarter earnings. M&Ms even executed a successful PR stunt during the Super Bowl that mocked companies who pander to the requests of extremists.

Doubling down and supporting a cause could be the thing to help, not hurt, your brand when done right. And at the end of the day, with social media having a constant finger on the pulse of what’s happening, it’s only going to become harder and harder for companies and public figures to try to make everyone happy for the most money. 

Pandering to threats doesn’t guarantee safety

Target was between a rock in a hard place. Potentially, if the company didn’t remove Pride Month merchandise and a violent attack occurred, it would still be opening itself up for criticism. Many might’ve felt that Target was more focused on making money on merchandise than the safety of its employees. Some might argue that Target was backed into a corner, and it did what any prepared company would do in a PR crisis – issue a statement that communicates the full scope of what’s happening.

However, for one, Target acquiescing to threats doesn’t assure the safety of its employees, and it certainly doesn’t help the fight against LGBTQI+ hate. In fact, it may embolden it further. There was more Target could’ve done in this scenario.

Target instead should’ve taken a note from The North Face, who encountered similar backlash and threats during the rollout of its Summer of Pride campaign. Instead of backing down on the campaign, North Face doubled down on its support for the LGBTQI+ community. Could violence still occur against employees of The North Face? Yes, however, retracting the company’s Pride campaign wouldn’t have necessarily stopped that violence.

Brands need to realize that giving in to the requests of groups that disagree with them isn’t going to solve the problem for themselves or for the communities at risk. The larger issue companies should be focusing on is how they can actively advocate and use their money and power to make America a safer place for LGBTQI+ people and effectively put a stop to ongoing violence and threats.

Being an LGBTQI+ ally likely won’t hurt growth

In 1994, I worked with IKEA at the same time the company put out the first mainstream commercial to feature a same-sex couple. Backlashes and boycotts against the brand quickly followed, and while the company issued statements and acted fast to put out the fire, IKEA rightfully never apologized.

IKEA faced the same criticism as Bud Light, Target and The North Face are dealing with. The thing is, nearly 30 years later, we can see it didn’t hurt IKEA. In fact, the company probably sold more furniture than what was lost due to the uproar at the time of its ad. 

No one probably remembers the uproar from that IKEA commercial. What they are more likely to remember is how IKEA stood by a community and was on the right side of history. 

These sorts of uprisings against LGBTQI+ support aren’t going anywhere, and brands need to take note. Supporting marginalized communities may cause controversy in the short term, but in the long term, it could be the one thing setting your brand apart from all the others.

America’s culture war is no longer metaphorical – we are now living in a country that has credible threats of violence being made and acted upon by select groups. LGBTQI+ folks risk danger simply for existing as themselves in this country. Companies need to realize that the threats, violence and risks aren’t going to stop by simply ignoring it or pandering to it.

If you as a brand are going to support LGBTQI+ people, stick to your principles and support them. There is no longer room to play both sides, and it’s no longer possible to ignore the polarized reality we are all now living in.


Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communications, media and public relations expert with over 41 years in the industry. Eric also is a bestselling author who literally wrote the book on public relations – the industry-standard bestseller, “PR for Dummies” – as well as six other titles, including “Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs.”

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