brands under fire
Posted by Abe Sauer on August 17, 2010 02:00 PM
Target would like consumers to get excited about back to school shopping (see below), but it's still being schooled by human rights activists.
Weeks ago, retailer Target made a $150,000 donation to a political action group in Minnesota that began running ads supporting candidate Tom Emmer for governor. The donation was made possible by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, allowing corporations to exercise "free speech" in elections by limitlessly funding third party campaigning.
The problem, as we've noted, came when gay rights groups got word that Target, a brand with a gay-friendly image, was supporting an actively anti-gay equality candidate. Then the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) leapt into action. Target apologized, but for some, actions speak louder than words.
The HRC sprung into action after Target leaned heavily on is 100% HRC Corporate Equality Index (CEI) score. Some questioned how Target could have such a high score while still supporting anti-gay politicians. The HRC resounded by taking out a full page ad in a Minneapolis newspaper challenging Target to "make it right" and donate an equal amount to pro-gay equality candidates. The game of chicken was on. Would Target flinch? Or would the HRC be forced to act on Target's perfect CEI rating? Target "apologized," but that wasn't enough for the HRC.
Now it seems talks between the two entities have fallen apart. Polarizing liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org's involvement may have had something to do with the breakdown. While originally the controversy was one of gay rights, MoveOn.org's campaign focused more on a general complaint about "corporate money in politics." Any capitulation on Target's part may now look like it folded to MoveOn.org, not the HRC (with which it has had a long, healthy relationship).
Appearing to fold to MoveOn.org would have enraged a whole new group of activists on the right which a brand expert at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, perfectly described as "a never-ending cycle of alienating people."
For Target, much of the damage is already done. Even a pro-gay rights donation at this point would do little to save the brand's image in the minds of gay consumers. So why bother? Additionally, will Target's new reputation damage its future dealings with gay or gay-rights-friendly designers? The brouhaha has already put at risk the retailer's plans for stores in San Francisco.
The HRC stands to lose just as much. If Target retains its perfect CEI score, how can any of the scores have any meaning? If HRC reduces Target's score, it will be forced to overhaul the entire CEI system, recalculating corporate scores on the basis of locals of (sometimes subjective) information.
The final consideration is just how the Citizens United ruling may endanger the brands of politicians themselves. Corporations can now use their deep pockets to promote (or decry) any candidate they choose. While on the surface this may seem beneficial to candidates with corporate support, there is a risk these candidates will lose control of their own campaigns, and brands.