- Our media analysis found that, unlike previous years when accusations of pinkwashing triggered the loudest boycott calls during Pride, the latest LGBTQ+-related consumer activism came from conservative and far-right voices.
- Analysing the debate around the most prominent boycotts, we found that bowing to transphobic criticism is rooted in short-termism and can cost more in the long term.
- Our research suggests that companies should embrace the risk and continue to tie brands to social issues because it fosters a deeper relationship with customers and even turns boycotts into buycotts.
Well before Pride month was underway, it seemed as if it was open season for companies celebrating the LGBTQ+ community. However, it was also open season for something that is becoming a Pride tradition – backlash and consumer boycotts. And if it feels like these types of boycotts and online firestorms are gaining steam, that’s because they are.
The start of Pride Month 2023 became a turbulent period, with brands walking a tightrope between supporting the community and dealing with the consequential consumer backlash and digital firestorms.
To explore the most prevalent instances of LGBTQ+ backlash, we analysed 652 English-language articles about consumer activism published in the last year. Here’s what we found:
1. Boycotts are less about pink-washing and more about conservative opposition
Our previous analysis showed that a significant amount of consumer backlash against brands’ LGBTQ+ marketing initiatives was sparked by what is known as ‘pinkwashing.’ Pinkwashing refers to companies using LGBTQ+ themes or symbols, often during Pride Month, without demonstrating a meaningful commitment to the community.
However, we found that the tide has shifted this time. Now, boycotts are increasingly driven by conservative consumers who take issue with a brand’s open support for the LGBTQ+ community. These consumers, fueled by the rising tide of culture wars, view these marketing initiatives as a violation of their own ideological or religious beliefs.
What makes this year different is the US political climate — primarily because a number of Republican-led states have introduced and passed legislation restricting transition care for transgender minors and adults, and transgender rights have become a galvanising issue for many conservatives.
Food & Drink and Fashion – consumer-facing industries that rely heavily on brand identity and image – were at the forefront:
In the Food & Drink sector, Anheuser-Busch‘s Bud Light brand was the target of conservative social-media outcry in April after it partnered with the trans influencer and TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney. Pretty much the same critics were making calls to boycott Hershey after a trans woman was included on the chocolate bar’s wrappers.
In Fashion, Nike was under fire over its campaign which also featured Dylan Mulvaney, while Adidas was in a row over its use of a biologically male model to promote a women’s swimsuit in its Pride 2023 collection.
Meanwhile, in Retail, right-wing commentators who made false claims about certain Target Pride merchandise — prompted Target to start disassembling prominent Pride displays. And in Entertainment, Disney has found itself the target of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as well as right-wing protesters and conspiracy theorists, after it took a stance against the state’s controversial education bill dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics.
2. Bowing to a transphobic boycott can cost more in the long term
We found that the Bud Light affair garnered considerable media attention in comparison with other brands – the backlash was particularly strong due to the brand’s traditionally more politically conservative customer base. Unlike brands such as Disney or Starbucks, whose consumers generally skew younger and more progressive, Bud Light‘s demographics meant that the brand’s foray into LGBTQ+ support was a more contentious move, which in turn harmed its sales.
This is what made Anheuser-Busch the most influential company in our research sample in terms of media impact.
We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.
In response to the boycott, Anheuser-Busch announced that two of its marketing executives were taking a leave of absence and also said that it would focus its marketing campaigns on sports and music. CEO Brendan Whitworth became one of the most influential spokespeople in the debate when he said he “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.”
Anheuser-Busch‘s response, however, is rooted in short-termism and the exact opposite has been achieved. In effect, the company’s capitulation to the boycott has positioned Bud Light as a beer not meant for trans people or their allies. Anheuser-Busch’s handling of this situation is even more puzzling when you consider that Whitworth acknowledged only last month in a podcast interview with Nines Living that there would be “no future for Bud Light” if it could not attract young drinkers.
In an increasingly crowded market for light beer (lower in both alcohol and calories) aimed at more health-conscious millennials and Gen-Zers, Bud Light has several popular competitors, such as Coors Light or Estrella Galicia, so messaging really matters. The answer, then, should be not to acknowledge transphobic trolls on social media but to develop campaigns with them in mind.
As an example of how to do this well, look to Nike. It found itself at the centre of a similar furore in 2018 when it included the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The company was both praised and criticised for including Kaepernick, who had ‘taken the knee’ by refusing to stand during the national anthem at the start of games in protest at racism. But, as the campaign was built and developed with its customers in mind, Nike stood its ground. And went on to see an uplift in both brand metrics and sales – and has since gone from strength to strength.
There are many who similarly praised Bud Light for its work with Mulvaney, but Anheuser-Busch has chosen not to listen to them. This is despite its previous work supporting the LGBTQ community, for example through sponsorship of Pride events and a partnership with GLAAD that saw it release rainbow-inspired bottles. That support cannot only work when it suits the brand.
3. Boycotts are often fuelled by social media misinformation
Analysing 3.51 million tweets posted in the last three months, we found that Target was the brand that drew the most outrage.
Target faced criticism for its Pride collection, which included clothes and books for children. The retailer moved its Pride displays — including rainbow-striped collared shirts, yellow hoodies reading “Not a Phase” and baby clothing and accessories — from the entrances of some stores around the country and placed them in the back. Target said it was concerned “about threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work” after some customers had screamed at employees and thrown the Pride-themed merchandise on the floor.
The fuel that lit the fire began when members of the right-wing blogosphere — including self-proclaimed “theocratic fascist” Matt Walsh and the social media account Gays Against Groomers — began to spread the lie that Target was selling “tuck-friendly” swimwear to children. According to PolitiFact, Walsh blatantly lied and said that the swimwear was “available in kid’s sizes” on a May 17 episode of his podcast.
Though Target was indeed selling swimwear designed to conceal the genitals of the person wearing it, it was marketed and sold as an adult bathing suit. The claim that it was for children was fact-checked as false by the Associated Press and other outlets. Yet this didn’t stop some customers from entering Target stories to record themselves destroying pride displays and harassing employees, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Target‘s experience exemplifies the complexity that PR and comms professionals navigate when handling politically sensitive matters such as LGBTQ+ initiatives. Misinformation and conservative outrage led to real threats to employee safety, forcing the retailer to adapt its store layouts. This highlights the crucial need for brands to prepare for potential backlash, including the rapid spread of misinformation on social media. Notably, misinformation on social platforms can quickly spiral out of control, fueling boycotts and leading to potentially damaging consequences for a brand.
4. Boycotts bring mixed results, and it’s unclear what critics are seeking
We also found that most calls for a boycott have not included a specific demand. The lack of specific demands offers both challenges and opportunities for PR and comms professionals. On one hand, this ambiguity makes it more challenging to address and resolve the issue directly, but on the other hand, it provides a chance to reiterate the brand’s commitment to inclusivity and educate audiences on the rationale behind their marketing initiatives, thereby strengthening their relationship with supportive customers.
And some of the most prominent voices calling for boycotts of brands over their LGBTQ+ marketing have attacked the transgender community in the past – for example, the musician Kid Rock, who posted a video of himself shooting a stack of Bud Light cases. Such critics have now felt empowered by the fact that Republican state lawmakers are proposing legislation that seeks to regulate the lives of young transgender people.
Moreover, research on boycott behaviours has found that such efforts tend to be short-lived and don’t have a long-term effect – while people may be willing to change their behaviour for a few weeks, it is much harder to convince people to change their long-term behaviour.
Another obstacle in boycotts is finding replacement products. For example, Anheuser-Busch sells more than 100 brands of beer in the United States and is the largest beer brewer in the world. One supporter of the boycott, Representative Dan Crenshaw, Republican of Texas, posted a video online to show that his fridge did not have Bud Light, but it did have beer from Karbach Brewing Company, which is also owned by Anheuser-Busch.
5. Issues can give brands a powerful gravitational pull
Even with the risk, companies should continue to tie brands to social issues because it fosters a deeper relationship with customers.
This deep connection can be so potent that it often has a “powerful gravitational pull,” drawing customers towards the brand. In fact, the strength of this bond is typically why boycotts generally do not impact a company’s long-term sales. For every customer who ceases purchasing due to a boycott, there tends to be another who begins a “buycott”, buying the product specifically to express their support for the brand’s stance on the issue.
A “buycott” is when people buy a product to protest a boycott against it. For instance, after the country musician Travis Tritt said that he would stop including Bud Light in his tour rider, Kevin John Wasserman, the guitarist for the Offspring who goes by Noodles, said that the band would include Anheuser-Busch products in its rider.
However, our previous media research showed that boycotts make headlines much more often than buycotts. To counter any potential or existing boycotts, brands need to make buycotts into good headline-grabbing stories that would excite consumers as much as or even more than boycotts.