Bud Light and Target weren’t always political punching bags. But both companies have found themselves at the center of a long-running conservative battle after the brands launched campaigns supporting or portraying LGBTQ people.
Target announced Tuesday that it was pulling some LGBTQ-themed items from stores after what a company spokesperson described as “threats” to employees during this year’s Pride Month merchandise. In interviews, Target customers and employees at stores in North Carolina and Texas said the company was moving Pride collections away from the front of the store.
Bud Light, meanwhile, received backlash from right-wing commentators after teaming up with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a marketing campaign in April. Influential conservative figureheads called for a boycott, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—a contender for the GOP presidential nomination—said he would never drink Bud Light again. Sales have fallen further.
But several mainstream brands have been publicly supporting LGBTQ people for years. So what’s different now? Proponents and marketing experts say it is the growing power of a vocal minority of far-right political commentators, conservative politicians and religious legal groups that has issued the call for boycotts of the companies, while these right-wing groups and individuals have also passed a historic wave of state legislation that trying to limit LGBTQ rights.
Yet another recent shakeup centered on the Dodgers, who have been under pressure from conservatives like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., not to invite the Sisters of Perpetual Indulggence, a decades-old LGBTQ nonprofit, to the annual LGBTQ+ Pride Night of the team. The team later reversed course, re-inviting the group and receiving more criticism from conservatives.
The longest-running battle of all involves Disney, which is embroiled in an increasingly bitter feud with DeSantis. The root of the conflict: Disney’s decision, led by former CEO Bob Chapek, to publicly oppose Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law, which restricts classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. DeSantis hit back, targeting the media giant’s special self-governing status in Orlando, home of Walt Disney World.
The storm surrounding these brands stems in part from companies’ efforts to be more inclusive. In recent years, against a backdrop of growing cultural visibility for historically marginalized communities, consumer-facing companies have increasingly included LGBTQ people in advertising, marketing, and other public initiatives, such as Pride events.
Of course, big companies also saw a clear capitalist incentive: LGBTQ people in the U.S. collectively account for about $900 billion in annual purchasing power, according to a 2019 report from LGBT Capital, a financial services firm.
That hasn’t made them immune to backlash intensified in part by conspiracy theories on the internet and a spate of anti-LGBTQ bills in state houses.
Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ program director for Media Matters, a liberal watchdog organization, said a common thread between the firestorms surrounding the Target and Bud Light campaign and Dylan Mulvaney is Matt Walsh, a political commentator for the far-right website Daily Wire.
“He’s been one of the most shrill voices to move this forward,” Drennen said. “Now they’ve been picked up more broadly by the right-wing media from people who followed suit, but he’s been the person who really pushed these kinds of aggressive boycott tactics.”
She noted that Walsh declared victory over Target on social media where he has 1.9 million followers on Twitter.
“The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic to brands. If they decide to shove this garbage in our faces, they should know that they will pay a price. It won’t be worth what they think they gain,’ Walsh tweeted on Wednesday.
“First Bud Light and now Target. Our campaign is progressing,” he added. “Let’s continue.” Walsh did not immediately respond to a message asking for comment.
Brendan Whitworth, the CEO of Bud Light parent company Anheuser-Busch, distanced the company from Mulvaney, saying in the days following the backlash that it was “never meant to be part of a discussion that divides people.” About a week later, Anheuser-Busch confirmed media reports that two of the marketing executives working on the campaign were on leave.
Drennen said part of what allows Walsh to gain traction is his increased national recognition in efforts to limit transition-related medical care for minors. In February, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves invited Walsh to speak before Reeves signed a bill to ban transition-related care for minors in the state. Earlier that month, NBC News reported that Walsh’s advocacy also influenced Tennessee’s decision to reject more than $8 million in federal funds to fight HIV.
“All of this is a concerted effort to make it untenable to be specifically trans in public,” Drennen said. “And one of the ways they’ve tried to do this is by taking away any kind of political support, any kind of corporate support, which essentially makes it unsustainable to be an ally of the trans community. And I think that’s the real connective tissue between these.
She added that Fox News covered a new North Face campaign featuring drag performer Pattie Gonia during a segment on Wednesday. On Thursday, conservative commentator Candace Owens announced on her Daily Wire show that, because of the campaign, “there won’t be anything in my house that comes from the North Face.”
Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, a company specializing in LGBTQ marketing, said that while the controversies surrounding Bud Light and Target were “created” by a small number of people, they were amplified by social media and some news outlets.
“The kerosene just goes a lot further today,” Witeck said of how controversies sparked by a small number of people spread more quickly. He added that the conservative response to Bud Light’s Dylan Mulvaney campaign was fueled in part by commentator Ben Shapiro and then picked up by other right-wing voices and news. Shapiro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Conversations about LGBTQ people, at a time when LGBTQ issues are more visible than ever, “get distorted quickly,” he said. Witeck added that LGBTQ advocates are likely to continue taking legal action against anti-LGBTQ laws for violating the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, a 2020 ruling stipulating that gay and transgender employees are protected by title VII of the Civil Rights Act. of 1964. The decision moved many grassroots conservative activists.
“Trans people are dehumanized, people define them in political terms that are dehumanizing, and so it’s much easier for these media influencers to line up those things in front of people,” he said of the backlash against Target and Bud Light , even though “these are not the motivational issues in their lives.”
Laurel Powell, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the US, said “far-right extremists see an opportunity,” which is why there’s been a more intense response from conservatives to Target’s Pride Month collection, for example. .
“We’re coming out of the state’s most hostile and dangerous legislative season when it comes to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation,” Powell said. “We are currently in a country where one of our major social media networks has essentially become an alt-right platform. They see an opportunity, and what they’re about to discover is that they’re out of step with most Americans; they are not in line with the vast majority of people who believe that LGBTQ+ people should be able to live a life without discrimination.”
In 2016, a slew of major companies, including American Airlines, Apple, Microsoft, eBay, and Nike, signed an amicus brief in support of the Justice Department’s efforts to block North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which banned transgender people from using toilets. use that do not match the gender on their birth certificate.
Seven years later, US public and US-based companies are only accepting more LGBTQ people, the latter through both their internal policies and through public marketing campaigns. However, Witeck said the difference between then and now is that lawmakers have introduced nearly 500 bills to restrict LGBTQ rights in dozens of states.
“In 2016, you only had one state doing something new that other states weren’t doing,” Witeck said. Taking a position on even 10 of the bills proposed this year would be challenging, “and most of the big companies are based in all of those states.”
Witeck said he expects Pride Month to be “militant” this year as LGBTQ people are fearful and concerned.
“Corporate alliance will be tested like we’ve never seen before,” he said. “Allies have to be really willing to grow backbone, to really stand behind their values.”