Target Boycott Expands Amid Confusion About Protest Goals

Late Thursday, announced plans to escalate its ongoing protest against Target, America's second-largest retailer. In an e-mail to supporters, the group described its new initiatives, "including skywriting above Target's headquarters, viral videos from angry customers, and live events outside stores around the country." It also plans to give the company an online petition with more than 200,000 signatories who promise to boycott the store "until it stops spending money on elections."

Why Is Everyone Mad at Target?

There seems to be confusion over what, exactly, landed Target in the doghouse. In an interview on Friday, Ilyse Hogue -- MoveOn's director of political action and the author of the emails -- stressed that her organization and the petition's signatories are focused on the question of Target's political contributions: "Target dramatically miscalculated the outrage of their customers when they tried to buy this election." In other words, Hogue believes that Target shouldn't make any political contributions at all.

On the other hand, most protesters are incensed by the specific politician that Target's money will help fund. The company gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a pro-business, pro-education political action group that is backing Minnesota state senator Tom Emmer for governor of Minnesota. While Emmer's economic priorities aren't terribly controversial, his social policies are a different matter: The senator has openly expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, and he previously met with Bradlee Dean, the leader of a group that violently opposes homosexuality.

The link between Target's political contribution and Emmer's homophobic statements quickly led to allegations that the retailer was homophobic, or that it didn't care about its gay customers and employees. Before long, a Facebook group, "Boycott Target Until They Cease Funding Anti-Gay Politics" emerged; it currently has more than 46,000 members. Meanwhile, a Minnesota grandmother's video of her protest at the store drew over a quarter of a million views on YouTube. And gay rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Out Front Minnesota were quick to protest the company's decision to support an anti-gay candidate.

Sending a Mixed Message

It isn't hard to see why there is confusion over Target's main crime: MoveOn's initial communication was firmly focused on Emmer's unpopular policies. The original e-mail began by stating "Target just gave a huge contribution to an anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-progressive candidate for governor in Minnesota," and went on to characterize Emmer as "a far-right Republican who supports Arizona's draconian immigration law, wants to abolish the minimum wage and even gave money to a fringe group that condoned the execution of gay people."

On Friday, Hogue stated that "Our protest over this is centered on Target's attempt to sway an election. It just so happens that the political candidate that they chose to support endorses a far-right social agenda, but the principle is still the same." Beginning with its Thursday afternoon e-mail, MoveOn narrowed its message: the group's follow-up e-mails and press releases have downplayed Emmer's politics, characterizing him only as an "anti-gay, anti-immigration candidate."

Even so, confusion still persists. This disconnect among protesters was evident in MoveOn's second e-mail, which stated that "Instead of apologizing, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apparently emailed Target employees and defended the donation as focused on 'business objectives.'" However, by mid-afternoon on Thursday, Steinhafel had issued an apology to his employees, stating that "our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry." He went on to state that the company plans to "begin a strategic review and analysis of our decision-making process for financial contributions in the public policy arena."

While addressing the question of Emmer's homophobia, Steinhafel's letter also expressed Target's intention to continue funding political campaigns. In this regard, he seems to be moving close to the position endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which wrote that it has "asked [Target] to make it right by contributing to groups that support pro-equality candidates."

Target's Outreach to Gays

The HRC's relationship to Target is particularly interesting.

As America's most prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, it indexes companies based upon the inclusiveness of their workplaces. In its 2010 review, the average score was 86%; Target achieved 100% rating. Among other things, that score indicates Target offers transgender-inclusive insurance coverage, provides full health benefits for domestic partners, "Positively Engages the External LGBT Community," and has a firm-wide diversity council. Target also has a "GLBT Business Council" that works with employees to foster inclusion in the greater community.

It seems likely that Target's score will drop next year: one of the HRC's criteria measures whether or not an employer "Exhibits Responsible Behavior Toward the LGBT Community" and "Does Not Engage in Action That Would Undermine LGBT Equality." While this doesn't directly contribute to a company's score, the HRC notes that "Employers Found Engaging in Such Activities Will Have 15 Points Removed From Their Scores." So it sounds like Target is looking at an 85% in 2011.

Lasting Damage?

Target clearly made a expensive mistake: according to some analysts, its decision to give money to MN Forward has already cost $1.3 billion in market capitalization. Since July 27, the company's share price has dropped by 3.5%. Although Target has asserted that the fall could be attributed to any number of factors, the alienation of hundreds of thousands of consumers would likely be enough to worry any investor. And even if Target manages to repair its relationship with liberal customers, this fiasco should worry any companies that plan to get involved in politics.

For Hogue, that is exactly the point. In an earlier video, she noted that direct action of the sort practiced by MoveOn can "promote something we call a psychic break," which can "radically shift an individual's perspective and...get them to ask questions that they might not otherwise ask." In this case, as millions of customers now wonder if Target is homophobic, and hundreds of companies question the wisdom of political donations, it's clear that MoveOn's tactics have been successful.

Asked if MoveOn intends to launch comparable campaigns against other companies, Hogue responded that "Any company that feels it's acceptable to meddle in our our Democracy and buy elections will face outrage from customers, employees and stockholders." Whether or not that outrage will be fueled by MoveOn remains to be seen.