Friday, July 30, 2010

Hitting the Bullseye?

A steaming cauldron of outrage at Target has been bubbling over since campaign finance filings revealed their $150,000 contribution to MN Forward. But I have to admit, I've been curious about the apoplectic response.

It should surprise no one that Target, like any large retailer, would prefer the anti-union, lower wages, anti-regulation economic policy favored by Emmer (specifically) and the GOP (generally.) But it seems to have been a surprise to quite a few folks who had fuzzily positive feelings about Target to discover that their political agenda looks more like Walmart's than their local co-op. I'm trying to decide whether to chalk that up to strategic amnesia on the part of activists or to the success of Target's marketing department. Personally, I think that both explanations have some truth to them. It's been my experience that where Walmart inspires revulsion on the part of lefty types, especially in the upper Midwest, Target gets a pass. Is it Target's canny marketing of upper-middle class aspirations? Regional chauvinism that excuses the behavior of a Minnesota corporation while tut-tutting about the Bentonville behemoth? I suspect that many folks who are upset about Target's pro-Emmer contribution would have found the same contribution from Walmart barely worthy of a mention.

There's a selectiveness to this outrage that I find confusing. The most obvious example of this is that another Minnesota-based large retailer gave six figures to MN Forward, and no one's marching into Best Buy and cutting up their credit card. And I don't know whether the $50,000 that Red Wing Shoes gave to MN Forward will cause Tom Rukavina to stop wearing his Red Wing hiking boots, but it must at least cause some cognitive dissonance when he puts them on.

Boycotting businesses that support political causes that you disagree with is a staple of activists on the right and left. Just this week the American Family Association "made it official" and announced a boycott of Home Depot for its support of "open displays of homosexual activism." Some of the most visible calls for boycotting Target have come from GLBT activists, upset that Target simultaneously markets to GLBT customers while supporting a candidate opposed to GLBT rights.

Target CEO Steinhafel's letter to Target employees tried to finesse this:
However, it is also important to note that we rarely endorse all advocated positions of the organizations or candidates we support, and we do not have a political or social agenda.
On the one hand, Steinhafel's response is ludicrous; how can you say that you have no political agenda when you are supporting a candidate? But on the other, Target's real interest in supporting Emmer is a financial one. Target, like any corporation, will support candidates that would help their bottom line.

The very visible and specific anger toward Target for a pretty predictable contribution needs to be interpreted in the context of the Citizens United decision. It is not "ugly" or "thuggish" to use boycotts to influence corporate behavior. You have a right to vote with your spending, and Target (and other corporations) will have to balance their desire to support a political agenda that could increase their profits against the potential loss of customers that would hurt their bottom line. And this very visible attack on Target for their MN Forward donation is meant as a warning shot. Since corporate money/speech has been accorded First Amendment protection by the Supreme Court, counter-money/speech is a logical response.

So, why Target? I think the answer is part emotional and part strategic.

Emotionally, there are a lot of folks on the left who feel betrayed by a corporation for whom they had positive feelings. I honestly don't understand that, since it should be obvious that the political interests of a large retailer are focused on their profit margin. Target's success at developing an emotional connection between consumers and the Target brand is now boomeranging back at them as jilted consumers vote with their pocketbooks. If it makes you feel better to boycott Target, go for it. I'm just saying "what took you so long?"

Strategically, this is a test case for the financial cost incurred by corporations in response to their political contributions. In that sense, I do see value in emphasizing to corporations that they do not get to pursue a social and political agenda that some of their customers disagree with at no cost. In Minnesota, the loss of Target's squeaky clean image is the biggest cost that a boycott can impose on them.

Follow me on Twitter @aaronklemz

(Image Credit: AP, via Minnesota Public Radio)

No comments: