Expect fewer rainbow logos for LGBTQ Pride Month after Target, Bud Light backlash

Love-themed Mickey Mouse backpacks. Pronoun pins. “Not a Phase” hoodies. “So gay for each other” greeting cards.

Every year, national brands cozy up to LGBTQ+ Americans with colorful merchandise for Pride Month. This June, those displays may not be as loud and proud.

“Especially during Pride season, most companies like ours are pretty busy working on Pride projects. I can tell you for myself, I have not been, and I think it’s across the board,” said Matt Skallerud, president of Pink Media, which helps brands reach the LGBTQ+ demographic.

Mainstream brands used to brush off anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment. That changed last year when conservatives organized boycotts online that slashed sales.

National retail chain Target moved its Pride displays from the entrances to the back of stores after conservative activists confronted employees and vandalized displays. This year, Target is scaling back its Pride collection and won’t carry the collection in all stores.

Bud Light, owned by beer giant Anheuser-Busch, is still struggling after last year’s conservative blowback over a social media campaign with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

A PRIDE sticker is exchanged during a Westchester PRIDE event in downtown White Plains, N.Y., on June 5, 2022.
A PRIDE sticker is exchanged during a Westchester PRIDE event in downtown White Plains, N.Y., on June 5, 2022.

“The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands,” conservative commentator Matt Walsh wrote on X, formerly Twitter, at the time.

The strategy worked. Activists rallied supporters using hashtags and slogans like “go woke go broke” and held boycotts and other actions they called “Bud Lighting.”

Not only did sales suffer, some in the LGBTQ+ community turned away from Target and Bud Light, too, for bowing to conservative pressure.

Now brands are navigating the volatile political climate more gingerly. Expect fewer rainbow logos, Skallerud says.

“Nobody in the media, marketing and advertising world wants to admit how heavy and hard this has been,” he said. “Ever since Target and Bud Light had their fiascos last year, a tremendous number of brands have decided it would be much better to sit on the sidelines and let this sort itself out.”

Retailers and brands tone down Pride merchandise, promotions

Opposition from some conservative quarters is common, but bursts of outrage usually fizzle quickly. In fact, before last year, companies were more likely to face criticism for “rainbow washing” – using Pride promotions to signal support for the LGBTQ+ community without making meaningful commitments.

That’s not the case anymore. So, after years of weighing in on divisive topics like abortion, immigration and racial equity, business leaders are trying to steer clear of the nation’s culture wars.

Transgender issues, in particular, have emerged as a conservative flashpoint. Hundreds of bills restricting LGBTQ+ rights have been introduced and dozens have passed. Harassment and violence targeting gay and trans people have surged. Last year’s backlash against Target was largely driven by false allegations that it was selling “tuck-friendly” swimsuits for children.

A vendor sells Bud Light and other cold beverages during the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds game at Nationals Park on July 6, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
A vendor sells Bud Light and other cold beverages during the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds game at Nationals Park on July 6, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, says mainstream brands know they can’t please everyone. He expects they will celebrate Pride in moderation, toning down the merchandise and keeping promotions under the radar.

“If you promote Pride, some people will be unhappy with it. If you don’t promote Pride, some people will be unhappy about that. It’s not a battle you can win completely, which is why some retailers and brands are taking a middle-of-the-road approach and keeping it moderate,” he said. “They are doing some promotion but they are restricting it to things that they think are palatable and acceptable for most people.”

Pride Month apparel is seen on display at a Target store in June, 2023 in Austin, Texas.
Pride Month apparel is seen on display at a Target store in June, 2023 in Austin, Texas.

Saunders does not expect that to change anytime soon.

“The country is extremely polarized at the moment and there are very few signs that that will change, so I think for the immediate future, we will see this type of approach continue,” he said. “Retailers and brands will be more cautious about how they promote issues and causes.”

Levi Strauss & Co. told USA TODAY it has no plans to scale back its Pride Month collection or celebration.

"This year’s Pride collection marks ten years that the Levi’s brand has been celebrating Pride with products, marketing and an $100,000 USD donation to Outright International, a global organization working to advance human rights for LGBTQ+ people all over the world. We are excited about this year’s collection and our plans to engage consumers," the company said in a statement.

Wells Fargo, another longtime supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, said it would celebrate Pride Month by putting on employee events, supporting LGBTQ+ organizations and sponsoring parades in cities across the country.

“Our plans this year are not scaled back; we have celebrated Pride Month in the past and will continue in the future,” Wells Fargo said in a statement.

But other brands contacted by USA TODAY including Walmart, Google and Hyatt declined to say if they are adjusting their Pride Month plans.

“Up until last year, we saw more and more corporate dollars being thrown at Pride,” Skallerud said. “Now everybody is wondering if they will ever come back.”

On Saturday Walmart promoted its Pride collection on social media. "Not just a slogan. #PrideAlways is a reminder to lead with love," the retailer posted on Instagram.

"Guess they didn't learn from target and bud lite," one person commented.

Conservatives turn up the pressure on brands like Target, Bud Light

Jared Todd, senior press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization is not yet seeing many corporations back off their support for Pride Month.

“Granted, many companies have yet to announce their Pride plans publicly, so things could always change,” Todd said.

A recent survey found that most organizations are not planning to decrease expressions of solidarity.

Gravity Research surveyed a panel of 200 communications and corporate affairs executives including those from Fortune 500 companies. It found that most brands are not adjusting their plans to engage customers during Pride Month, said Luke Hartig, president of the firm.

A small percentage – 13% – said they were unsure, indicating that some may be taking the “wait and see” approach, Hartig said.

Plans vary sharply by industry. Consumer staples were the most likely to shift course (30%) as brands whose peers faced boycotts last year were more likely to take precautions.

“This indicates to us that corporations view last year’s anti-LGBTQ+ backlash as more noise than signal,” Hartig said.

What’s driving the pullback among some consumer brands? Intensifying pressure from conservative activists, Hartig says.

His firm’s survey found that 18% of corporations said the threat of conservative backlash pressured them to adjust their 2024 Pride plans, compared to 9% who said the same of progressive consumers.

“The reputational risk landscape for companies on LGBTQ+ issues continues to evolve,” Hartig said.

How big brands became allies of the LGBTQ+ community

Observed every year in June, Pride Month commemorates the 1969 riots following a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York.

Over time, the community’s activism from protests to boycotts helped turn corporations that were indifferent or hostile into powerful allies in the global fight for gay rights.

Brands have stepped up to promote LGBTQ+ equality internally with inclusive policies, and publicly with support for same-sex marriage and opposition to transgender bathroom laws.

Pride Month apparel accessories are seen on display last year at a Target store in Austin, Texas.
Pride Month apparel accessories are seen on display last year at a Target store in Austin, Texas.

The LGBTQ+ community is a huge customer base, representing trillions in potential sales, according to Anders Jacobsen, co-founder of investment adviser LGBT Capital.

LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. have an estimated $1.4 trillion in purchasing power and $3.9 trillion globally, Jacobsen's firm found.

At the same time, LGBTQ+ identification in the U.S. continues to grow, with 7.6% of U.S. adults now identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or sexual orientation other than heterosexual, up from 5.6% four years ago.

The proportion of younger people who identify as LGBTQ+ is even higher – more than 1 in 5 Gen Z adults – so companies trying to win their business need to appeal to them.

Research also suggests that Americans are more likely to patronize brands that support the LGBTQ+ community.

A GLAAD and Ipsos poll last year found that Americans are nearly twice as likely to say they would support companies facing criticism for supporting people in the LGBTQ+ community rather than their critics.

Two out of 3 Americans are neutral to positive about Pride merchandise in stores and nearly three-quarters of Americans are neutral or feel positively about a company offering Pride merchandise, the poll found.

That kind of research should rally the LGBTQ+ community, Skallerud said.

His colleagues and competitors are reluctant to talk about brands distancing themselves from Pride Month because “it’s an admission that the folks who orchestrated these attacks a year ago won,” he said.

But Skallerud says he sees it differently.

“I look at it as, if we admit it, we can dust ourselves off and try to figure out a game plan or a strategy to be able to move forward and prevail.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Targeting Pride: Brands back off Pride after conservative backlash