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Why the Far-Right Is Targeting Target

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The beloved big-box store has found itself in the crosshairs of a very-online, anti-LGBTQ contingent

Target has long carried LGBTQ Pride-themed merchandise for the month of June. Sure, they've received some angry comments from the right, or even been called out as cringe by the left. But this year — as LGBTQ organizers brace for a particularly hate-filled Pride — Target began receiving intense backlash. Then, following intense scrutiny from conservative outlets and waves of online misinformation, the company decided to remove some of the items from their collection, as well as reposition the goods further back in some Southern stores. 

The big-box store has become a beloved destination not just because of its fun, red-and-white aesthetic, but because it welcomes shoppers to peruse the aisles endlessly, Starbucks-in-hand. It's a safe-haven for white America, the pinnacle of suburban luxury and middle-class comfort. Now, that deep identification has turned into anger, with people feeling that their sanctuary has been taken over. So it's no surprise that corporate assurances, and this latest surrender, haven't done anything to calm people down. Instead, experts tell Rolling Stone, Target's attempt to appease the detractors — before Pride month has even begun — could actually encourage new intimidation tactics from extreme far-right groups and conservative figureheads. 

At the start of May, Target rolled out its annual Pride collection, a series of apparel, accessories, and and various other goods celebrating the LGBTQ community and June's pride month. In addition to Target-branded items, the collection also includes "community created" picks, items designed and created by LGBTQ-owned brands. Erik Carnell, a trans designer and creator of London-based apparel line Abprallen, announced on May 9 that he had designed several items, including a colorful tote bag, fanny pack, and sweatshirt, sporting phrases like  "We belong everywhere," "Too queer for here," and "Cure transphobia, not trans people." 

"I wanted to ensure that any young people who saw Abprallen in Target would know that who they are is beautiful, purposeful, and worth expressing," Carnell said in May. "I wanted to create a range that would embrace younger me and tell him that who he is is more than OK, that being trans is special and wonderful and that the closet is not made for him to thrive in." 

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But after conservatives found Carnell's Instagram, thousands of people took umbrage with the brand's use of occult imagery (skeletons, witches, satan horns, all set against pastel backgrounds), accusing the artist of trying to indoctrinate or "groom" children. "We did it with Bud Light," far-right pundit and famous transphobe Matt Walsh said on his show. "Now it's Target's turn."

Over the past two weeks, the hashtag #boycotttarget has grown to 24.6 million views on TikTok. The misplaced outrage continued after online rumors spread that the Pride collection included swimsuits for transgender children. While Target did have suits marketed as "tuck-friendly" and "Extra Crotch Coverage," the options were only carried in adult sizes and placed in adult sections of the store. While some of the children's swimsuit options were more gender neutral, those tags only read "Thoughtfully Fit on Multiple Body Types and Gender Expressions." 

But there's also a larger reason why the shopping center has become such a focal point. For many middle class white Americans, Target isn't just a store. It's a place to congregate, to spend ludicrous amounts of money. It's both a necessity and an activity in its own right — and a signifier about the type of voter, shopper, and parent you are. According to data from analytics firm Numerator, the average Target shoppers are white suburban mothers between 35 and 44 years old, with annual incomes around $80,000. And in common videos that reference the boycott, (mainly) white women complain about having to find a new place to spend "$500 a week" while sipping their coffee. 


Since 2019, the company's revenue has grown by over $30 billion. And it's why, according to Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, when people are confronted with products that are inconsistent with their brand's perceived worldview, it can inspire instant backlash. 

"Target has had a tremendous rebranding effort over the last three decades with respect to becoming more upscale," Reed tells Rolling Stone. "Brands [want] to make self expressive connections to their products and to their services. And that if that's done properly, that can create a sense of identity and deeper loyalty. In fact, the great brands are able to transcend what they do, in terms of the functional features, and are able to actually become something more symbolic."

While Target's holy place in white America explains why conservative consumers have been so quick to voice their displeasure, experts say small victories — even to protect employees from harassment, as Target stated when it dropped the products — could have a "chilling effect" on brands' interactions with Pride month going forward. And with the company's recent and immediate submissions in the face of minor outrage, Target might have unintentionally given itself a new likeness — the store that gives in, and gives up. 


"By Target bending in this way so early in the process, they are signaling a capitulation and making it potentially more dangerous for LGBTQ+ people," Michael Edison Hayden, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells Rolling Stone. "You are saying to the LGBTQ+ population, 'We have your back. We are interested in your business and we celebrate you.' And then when you back down out of pressure, you leave those people exposed and you leave them vulnerable. It's worse than having not done it in first place."

"Purpose-driven marketing is not for the faint of heart," Reed adds. "If you're going to do this, then you have to take a stand and you have to go all in. 

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