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Target’s Pride Sponsorship: When Does Money Become Tainted?

by Megan Barnes

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 20, 2011

Last summer, Target came under fire when it donated $150,000 to MN Forward, a political action committee backing anti-gay candidate Tom Emmer. LGBT groups, bloggers and assorted activists called for a boycott of the popular retail chain. The controversy received a lot more attention when, shortly thereafter, Lady Gaga pulled out of an exclusive album release, reportedly because the retail giant continued to make sizable donations to anti-gay politicians.

Is it any wonder then, why some are questioning Target's sponsorship of several gay pride festivals this year? Local Target stores are also sponsoring a number of festivals

The company is the latest in a list of corporations that, at various times, have come under fire for donating to Pride celebrations, either because of politics or because of other issues (such as health, for cigarette maker Phillip Morris).

Chris Frederick, managing director of New York City Pride, one of three pride festivals sponsored by Target Corp. this year, believes the very fact that the company is doing the sponsorship is proof of a mea culpa -- an acknowledgement of past mistakes and a desire to improve.

"I think that they're making strides and they're trying to make up for the mistakes they made," Frederick said. Frederick said Target passed on sponsorship last year.

This year, groups like his expected criticism. "To me, it was a choice of whether I wanted to take the money, or if another pride would just end up taking it," he said. "A lot of major corporations support major Republican initiatives. I don't think it was an anti-marriage donation; I think it was more of a pro-business donation that just so happened to be tied into a candidate that was anti-marriage."

Deception? Or an Attempt at Redemption?

It's an issue that raises the question: Is Target's sponsorship of gay pride festivals a deceptive move or a redemptive one?

Last week, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel said the company has a neutral stance on an initiative to ban same-sex marriage in company's home state of Minnesota. Twin Cities Pride, which has defended its continued sponsorship from Target, was so disappointed that organizers redrafted Target's sponsorship agreement.

"Our board of directors was appalled this week to learn that Target has publicly stated a 'neutral' position on the constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman," organizers said in a statement posted on the group's Facebook page.

Pridegoers were also invited to submit comments. "Target is like getting medical care from someone who just shot you on purpose," one user wrote.

When the feedback was shared with Target, Steinhafel sent a personal letter and offered Target executives to meet with the Twin Cities planning crew. "Target has taken feedback from our team members and guests seriously and we're ready to move forward," a Target spokesperson told EDGE.

"After the 2010 election cycle, Target took a thoughtful approach and established a Policy Committee to review future corporate political donations," the spokesperson added. "Target is proud to show support for the GLBT community through our continued and enhanced sponsorship of Pride events in communities across the country."

The chain is also a major sponsor of for-profit Seattle PrideFest this year, providing a family and kid's play area.

Gay Maybe Not-So-Friendly Companies Like Pride

Joining Target in sponsoring Twin Cities and other pride festivals is another big MN Forward donor: Best Buy, although the chain has come under less fire.

Best Buy could not be reached for comment, but the board of directors of the Seattle Out and Proud festival, the city's nonprofit festival, said no one has raised an issue with their sponsorship.

"We are glad to see major corporations sponsor events that bring people together in Pride," said Board Director Adam Rosencrantz.

Target and Best Buy aren't the only sponsors who have dealt with criticism in the past year. Sponsors like Chipotle and Svedka received low preliminary scores on the Human Rights Campaign's Workplace Equality Index. The parent company of Bud Light, the biggest alcoholic sponsor of the pride festivals, was boycotted for donating to supporters of Arizona's controversial immigration law.

"We have a choice as consumers, do we demonize them outright and say, 'You did something bad and therefore you're bad outright and we won't support you at all,' or do we actually celebrate their good work as permission slips for others to do the same?" said Simon Mainwaring, branding consultant and author of upcoming "We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World." "Perhaps the brands weren't aware that those funds would ultimately go to an anti-gay candidate."

In an age when word of mouth marketing spreads across social media, Mainwaring said companies need to be clearer than ever on defining core values.

"The worst thing brands can do is be inconsistent; it just confuses the customer, it looks like they're effectively flip flopping like a politician and that doesn't earn them any loyalty, goodwill and ultimately any profits" he said. "[Steinhafel] is a CEO who's under fire and really would rather say nothing rather than saying the wrong thing, it sounds like."

LA Pride organizer Rodney Scott said LA has not been approached by Target about sponsorship.

"Would I accept money from Target? I don't know because I haven't had that conversation. If Target kept its same political position that it did, we wouldn't take the money," he said. "I think it's important that corporations aren't just buying into the community conversation; it needs to be much more than a financial investment, it needs to be an investment in our full equality."

He said Wells Fargo, long regarded for its LGBT advocacy, will celebrate 20 years with LA Pride next year.

"Wells Fargo is participating in over 40 Prides across the country this year because each one provides an opportunity for us to make a meaningful connection with the local LGBT community," said Mark Ng, the company's LGBT Segment Manager. "In order to build trust, the community needs to know that Wells Fargo is with them and supports them."

It is this notion of trust building that has some pride goers tilting their heads at the sight of Target's and Best Buy's logos this year.

Candida Scott Piel, a veteran New York activist and early '80s NYC Pride organizer, isn't fond of corporations buying into pride.

"I get a little cringey and queasy when I see a T-shirt that has so many sponsors listed on the back it almost seems a joke, it's like a walking billboard," she said. "On a personal level, I find it kind of creepy, even if it's for good economic reasons, that we're in bed with people who certainly do not have our best interests at heart."

"But," she added, "I do think on so many levels we've gotten caught up in this self-created feeling of 'Oh, this year's Pride has to be glitzier and fancier than the last one,' so we get stuck in" sponsorship issues.

She remembers hand-painting signs for the earliest pride sponsors, which were all local.

"If there was a way to tell everybody take [Target's] money, but don't shop in their stores, I think we'd all be better off and feel better about ourselves: If they give us more money than we spend there, then we win."

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at