The big news for Target Corp. this summer might have been the unveiling, after a “decade of wooing, of its first Manhattan store, in East Harlem. But just weeks after that grand opening (Jerry Seinfeld! Doug E Fresh! The National Double Dutch League!), the Minnesota-based, hip-on-the-cheap retailer was in the news again, this time defending and fending off and apologizing and taking heat and struggling and being haunted and in the crosshairs. Over the course of 10 days in August, per Brandweek’s consumer perception index, buzzy Target “lost one-third of its buzz score.”
A summary of what transpired – a “stumble,” an “imbroglio,” “heartburn for public relations”— from a Washington Post piece in August:
When Target gave money in July to a pro-business group in Minnesota, the company thought it was helping its bottom line by backing candidates in its home state who support lower taxes. Instead, the retailer has found itself in a fight with liberal and gay rights groups that has escalated into calls for a nationwide boycott and protests at the company’s headquarters and stores.
The problem: Target’s $100,000 helped pay for TV ads supporting the gubernatorial campaign of Republican state Rep. Tom Emmer, who thinks Minnesota’s corporate taxes should be lower. As it turns out, he also wants to ban same-sex marriage.
It was an embarrassing stumble for a company that has carefully cultivated an image of urbanity and hipness — and that’s earned goodwill with the gay community. The company offers benefits to domestic partners and receives sterling marks from liberal groups for its tolerance of gays. Target has even been an annual sponsor of the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.
The imbroglio illustrates the pitfalls facing companies after a game-changing Supreme Court decision in January allowing them to contribute unlimited money for political activities — often with complete anonymity. But corporate donations can still come to light and, when they do, cause unexpected heartburn for public relations.
Here was NPR’s Peter Overby (whose reports are always well worth a listen/read) on August 16:
During this election season, there’s likely to be a lot more corporate cash in politics, following a Supreme Court ruling last winter that lifted restraints on companies and labor unions.
Already, a case involving Target Corp. and the gay-rights movement has provided one picture of how American politics works in the wake of the Citizens United decision.
Target gave $150,000 to an independent group, which spent some of it on an ad supporting Republican Tom Emmer’s bid to be Minnesota’s next governor. Target regarded Emmer as pro-business. But as a state legislator, he also built a solid record opposing gay equality…
So protesters beat a path to Target stores…
… in one case, a “flash mob,” er, danced through a Seattle-area Target store singing a repurposed version of Depeche Mode’s 1984 hit, People Are People: “Target ain’t people so why should it be/Allowed to play around with our democracy?/I can’t understand what makes Tar-zhay/Think they’ll get away/Gonna make them pay!”
But Target is “people,” per the Supreme Court’s January Citizens United ruling, and can therefore dip as deep as it likes into company coffers to fund ads supporting or opposing political candidates. And so the company gave $100,000 (plus $50,000 of branding help) on July 6 to MN Forward, an independent expenditure group formed in June with a mission of electing “pro-business” candidates in Minnesota. “It’s unclear,” the Post reported, “whether Target knew that…MN Forward would be required under state law to disclose its contributors or that it would support Emmer as a candidate.”
On July 13, MN Forward and similar groups filed finance reports with the state disclosure board, and local coverage of the filings noted, in passing, Target’s contribution — along with similar donations to MN Forward from Polaris Industries, Hubbard Broadcasting and Davisco Food International. A few days later, MN Forward unveiled its pro-Emmer TV ad, and it became clear what Target’s cash was actually helping to pay for. Objections were raised by Target employees, and OutFront Minnesota, a gay-rights advocacy group, joined by the Human Rights Campaign and then MoveOn.org, which organized a boycott and petition drive, all of which led to Target defending and fending off and apologizing, as mentioned at the top of this piece, and to ongoing, wider press coverage (the Wall Street Journal, multiple stories from the LA Times, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, and assorted newspaper editorials including from the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune and the New York Times).
The takeaway, per many of these accounts, was that Target’s experience offered a lesson for other politically-inclined companies —or, as Businessweek put it, “a cautionary tale for other corporations about taking sides in political campaigns.”