Target misses the target ... again
What I’ve learned from years of wrestling with the retailer’s management team
I have been wrestling with the management team of Target Corporation for two-and-a-half years, starting with their decision to ban the sale of books that made the case against sexual reassignment for minors. The banning was triggered by a single tweet by an LGBT activist. There was a backlash against the banning and the company backed off, for a time. Around then I began talking with investor relations executives at the firm.
Initially, the dialogue with Target was promising. The company acknowledged that it had not acted as it should have, that it should have a process in place with a thoughtful approach. I suggested that the problem was not just the lack of a process, but a corporate culture problem that had shifted towards taking sides in the culture war. The company told me they were selling the books again and offered to continue in a two-way dialogue.
But that’s not what happened. Shortly before the company’s 2021 annual meeting, the books had been quietly re-banned. There was no press release about the banning or the newly released set of guidelines under which the re-banning was being justified. Neither was there any notice to those of us who had been in respectful dialogue with the company.
I alerted the company that I would be asking about this matter at the upcoming annual meeting, which I did. The CEO’s answer at that meeting was unsatisfying and insubstantial: “This Spring, Target rolled out new guidelines that shape our book assortment. These guidelines ... put more definition around harmful content that will be excluded. As a result, some books previously in our assortment no longer fell within these guidelines.” The guidelines were the same vague verbiage that gives nearly infinite discretion to whomever is interpreting them, “harmful … hurtful … exclusion.” In theory, these can mean anything. In reality, they mean content from the right is banned, and the company could not give a single example of content from the left which had been.
One’s inner philosopher reels at the paradox of a company admitting that what it saw as harmful content “will be excluded” based on a document that condemns exclusion. If someone tried to publish a transcript of the company’s Question and Answer session, could it be sold as a book by Target? The old adage applies—“it is forbidden to forbid.”
After those developments the company stopped answering my questions, and so I worked to take the matter to other shareholders. My goal was to place a proposal on the ballot that called upon the company to issue a report outlining the risks of making business decisions for non-pecuniary purposes. The company fought to exclude that proposal and there were some technicalities. The company won that round.
Even so, there was a meeting. The managers insisted that they don’t take political positions based on ideology, pointing towards lobbying on matters such as property and sales taxes. I pointed out that lobbying on such matters was not a concern, but lobbying on divisive social issues was, as was the appearance of ideological book screening. They argued that the company was doing well. I argued that a backlash was forming that they had underestimated, and that the reputation of the company was at risk.
The rest is history. Target doubled down on the pandering, forming a partnership with an apparent Satanist (though he claims that his pro-Satan products are tongue-in-cheek) to sell items such as “Bible Girl: 666” tee-shirts and bathing suits tailored to be “tuck friendly,” and yes, that means what it sounds like. This was all part of a massive “Pride Month” rollout of over 2,000 products. Of course, this triggered (understandable) outrage. The CEO initially brushed the question off when he was asked about brand blowback by the very pro-ESG Fortune Magazine, referring to Target’s diversity culture, what with stores in mixed race neighborhoods and Spanish speaking customers.
The tone-deafness is jaw-dropping, as if African American moms are going to take their kids shopping at Target after church because hiring a designer who tells us that “Satan respects pronouns” is a signal of diversity. Will tuck-friendly bathing suits be a favorite Quinceañera item this year? Don’t count on it.
Then reality set in and now the company is pushing the stuff to the back of the store and yanking it off its online sales portal. But it may be too late. Target seems to be committed to the self-destruction of its own brand.
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