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Companies pull back from Pride campaigns after backlash, and threats toward employees


June is LGBTQ Pride Month, and some businesses want in on the event and the market. They have advertising campaigns, Pride-logoed products and maybe partnerships with queer influencers. But some companies are pulling back from that effort. Target announced that it will be removing some of its Pride Month products after receiving backlash against the items and threats against its workers. And some Bud Light consumers boycotted the beer after the brand partnered with trans actress Dylan Mulvaney in a recent campaign. Katherine Sender is a professor of media and sexuality in the communication department at Cornell University, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

KATHERINE SENDER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: What do corporate Pride campaigns look like, and why do companies do these campaigns in the first place?

SENDER: Well, I think we've seen a development for the last - well, really, since the '90s. Initially, corporations were interested in targeting gay and lesbian consumers, as they were thought of then, through things like booths at Pride events, maybe having a float or something like that, and then thinking that they could kind of fly under the radar and not get any kind of right-wing backlash in doing that. What's really changed is that now there's almost an imperative for marketers and companies to signal during June that they are in solidarity with and supportive of LGBTQ communities and particularly really want to court LGBTQ consumers and their allies.

RASCOE: These companies where they're doing these campaigns - the bottom line is that they want to make money, right? They're trying to attract customers.

SENDER: I mean, obviously, their bottom line is to make money - though we have seen some really significant progress, I think, in LGBTQ visibility partly through the ways in which companies have courted LGBTQ consumers. So I think that there's this sort of reciprocal effect that as companies become more LGBTQ-friendly, then similarly we're seeing some kind of political change as well.

RASCOE: Was there always a backlash to any of these types of campaigns?

SENDER: The tradition has really been consumer boycotts. So early on, national companies were very worried about religious right boycotts as really kind of affecting their bottom line. What's really shifted is that boycotts now are much more active from LGBTQ consumers and their allies. So companies are really worried that they're going to alienate this, you know, huge market - particularly in terms of younger consumers. And I think people's right to boycott, you know - whatever political place you are on the spectrum, boycotts are a fine way of exercising your democratic and consumer rights. What's really troubling me about what's happening more recently is violence directed towards, you know, in the case of Target, their employees. And also, we're seeing the targeting of some of the marketing personnel who've been involved with these campaigns - those people getting doxxed. They're getting harassed, you know? They've had death threats on social media and really feeling very personally attacked. And I think that this is a different kind of dimension and a newer dimension of the backlash against LGBTQ marketing.

RASCOE: Are these campaigns - or have they been important in changing people's ideas and changing their behavior?

SENDER: I think that marketing has been part of a general cultural opening, really since the early 2000s, towards the inclusion of LGBTQ people in all sorts of areas of life. The most contested issue right now is around transgender inclusivity. And I think that was part of the issue with Dylan Mulvaney - which was not just that she is in the queer community, but she's also a trans woman. And I understand that the most vociferous resistance to Target's products was to do with transgender-related materials. So I think even though we're seeing in some part of the country gay and lesbian exclusion again, you know, in places like Florida and Texas and Tennessee, the most contested area right now is around transgender inclusion.

RASCOE: What do you say to those people who look at Pride campaigns by corporations and things of that nature and look at it as rainbow washing?

SENDER: The accusation of rainbow washing tends to go towards companies who are seen as doing a very kind of superficial job, you know? They bop into the area of gay marketing in June, and we don't hear anything more about them for the rest of the year in that realm. They're not really connected with the community - that they don't have any queer or transgender or nonbinary people involved in the production of campaigns. So because of social media, particularly young people are extremely attentive to the authenticity and value of the commitment. If that's perceived to be shallow, then it's actually really unfortunate for the company. So I think companies are really trying to work very hard now to produce committed and authentic LGBTQ media and marketing campaigns.

RASCOE: That's Katherine Sender. She's a professor in the Department of Communication and a part of the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies program at Cornell University. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SENDER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Lennon Sherburne