Brands are facing pressure from many conservatives to roll back their focus on Pride Month, and inclusion more broadly, as the ‘culture wars’ rage in America; Cathy Taylor, WARC's US Commissioning Editor, writes that, unfortunately, there’s no easy advice for navigating this.
It’s the subject almost everyone in the US marketing industry is talking about, but, in the main, only in private: the ratcheting up of the country’s so-called ‘culture wars’ and their increasing encroachment on brands.
The ‘wars’ have been with us as a nation for some time, but in the last few weeks, things appear to have meaningfully escalated, with a particular focus on the LGBTQIA+ community.
And the fact this has occurred just in time for Pride Month – held in June every year – doesn’t look like a coincidence, as LGBTQIA+ rights and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have faced growing pushback from certain politicians, members of the commentariat and segments of the American public.
It should be noted at the outset this view is not the mainstream one; a recent study from GLAAD, the US-based non-profit focused on supporting the rights of LGBTQ people, found that 84% of “non-LGBTQ Americans support equal rights for the LGBTQ community” – a figure that has risen from 79% in 2021. Additionally, 75% of non-LGBTQ adults “feel comfortable seeing LGBTQ people in advertisements.”
The organization previously found that US consumers say they are twice as likely to buy from businesses that “demonstrate a commitment to expanding and supporting LGBTQIA+ rights,” and other surveys over the last few years have shown similar findings.
But the smaller group of unsupportive people can still make a significant amount of noise. One illustrative case in point: conservative blogger Matt Walsh wrote on Twitter last month that, “The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands. If they decide to shove this garbage in our face, they should know that they’ll pay a price. It won’t be worth whatever they think they’ll gain. First Bud Light and now Target. Our campaign is making progress. Let’s keep it going.”
Major brands caught in the storm
The mocked-up meme below captures some further dimensions of the most popular talking points from the right of the political spectrum on this topic:
The man pictured here in front of Disney’s Cinderella Castle is Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Governor and a Republican presidential candidate. He has been fighting with the state’s biggest employer, The Walt Disney Company, since 2022, when the company stated its opposition to the DeSantis-backed Parental Rights in Education act. Also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, it “limited discussion of LGBTQIA+ issues and gender identity in schools.”
For its part, Disney has recently canceled a $1bn office project for the state. And while the company was coy about its reasons for doing so, re-appointed CEO Bob Iger has been open about his problems with continuing to invest in Florida.
In the US, DeSantis has become the standard-bearer of what has been called “the war on woke,” a movement aiming to dismantle DEI efforts at the institutional level. Last month, for instance, DeSantis signed into law a bill that prohibits public colleges and universities from investing money in DEI programs.
In the meme above, DeSantis is also holding can of Bud Light can, a reference to the well-known incident that kicked off the latest round of controversy, when Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bud Light brand drew fire for a social media post by the trans actress and activist Dylan Mulvaney promoting a Bud Light sweepstakes.
Oh, and then there’s the t-shirt with the Target logo on it. That’s a reference to a controversy which emerged soon after the Bud Light backlash and consumed the giant American retailer Target, which felt forced to pull some Pride-related products from its shelves because of threats to its workers and incidents of the products being thrown on the floor of the retailer’s stores.
Chick-fil-A faces a backlash
The current round of discontent, however, does not stop there, but has even reached quick-service restaurant chain Chick-fil-A, traditionally known for its alignment with conservative values.
More specifically, the company has recently faced criticism for simply having a DEI officer, in the form of long-time company executive Erick McReynolds. This New York Times story quotes several conservative pundits expressing their outrage, and trying to rally followers to boycott the Atlanta-based brand.
Even though Bud Light and Target have seemed to garner the most headlines, Chick-fil-A’s situation could be the best exemplar of where we are for two reasons:
- In fact, McReynolds has served in a DEI-focused role with the company for three years, so this should not qualify as news.
But, given the heightened rhetoric among certain culture warriors, it’s easy for all sorts of things to strategically bubble to the surface at unpredictable moments. This also means that controlling the narrative becomes more difficult for brands.
If the objective is to please everyone, Chick-fil-A (and by extension, other brands) is in an unwinnable situation.
This is a restaurant chain with a founder, S. Truett Cathy, who “based his business on Biblical principles”, with a stated mission, "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.”
Such a commitment means the brand’s stores, for example, still close on Sundays. In short, it is hard to find an American mass-market brand more in alignment with conservative Christian values than Chick-fil-A.
But, as shown by its emphasis on DEI, the brand has made some moves over the last few years that demonstrate it is harder to categorize than may be assumed.
As it was for so much of society, the murder of George Floyd three years ago proved a critical moment, and Chick-fil-A doubled-down on its longstanding commitment to building “a culture of care,” which had obvious implications for how the brand shows up both to its employees and its customers.
Under pressure, it also stopped donating to several US organizations that had been flagged as being less-than-friendly to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Similarly, for Bud Light, there is really nothing new in its embrace of the LGBTQIA+ audience. Its Pride Month rainbow bottle, for instance, dates back to at least 2019, and the brand has had a partnership with GLAAD for twenty years.
But such nuance was lost on the American musician Kid Rock who, following Mulvaney’s social-media post, took to filming himself shooting up a case of Bud Light before looking at the camera and saying, “[Expletive here], Bud Light. “[Expletive here again], Anheuser-Busch.”
One doubts that Kid Rock did any homework on the brand’s long-time embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community before he pulled out his rifle. One also doubts that if he did, his response would have been different.
The challenge for marketers
Trying to position a brand at this time can be scary and confusing stuff, which is why, for all of their concern about the current escalation in the ‘culture wars’, few marketers seem willing right now to talk or write about it in public forums.
A rare outlier is the UK’s Outvertising, the UK-based advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in marketing and advertising. With an eye to what’s been happening across the pond, it issued a statement earlier this week, with backing from 60 organizations, including agencies, calling for the marketing community to be resolute in its support of Pride Month, and in continuing to support visibility in advertising among the LGBTQIA+ community in general.
You probably see where this is going: for brands: there is no ‘winning’, if that is defined as pleasing everyone. So, the best advice is to grow into that realization, and proceed accordingly.
Which, of course, doesn’t make it easy. Imagine being in the C-suite at Target and having to weigh what it said were “threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being at work” and continuing with its decade-long history of selling special products to celebrate Pride Month. Target aimed for some kind of middle ground, continuing to sell Pride Month merchandise but removing some products that were a particular focus of ire.
It’s not a place any brand wants to be in. But, increasingly, it’s also unavoidable.