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How the Bud Light boycott shows brands at a crossroads: Use their voice, or shut up?

Bud Light sales fell earlier this year after a promotion featuring a transgender social-media influencer led to boycott calls from conservative groups.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Bud Light sales fell earlier this year after a promotion featuring a transgender social-media influencer led to boycott calls from conservative groups.

Before Bud Light and Target, there was Disney.

And not just the Disney of today, which has become a target of the current Florida governor in the culture wars, but of 1995.

That year, Disney launched domestic-partner benefits. Fifteen Florida state lawmakers condemned the policy as "anti-family."

"We strongly disapprove of your inclusion and endorsement of a lifestyle that is unhealthy, unnatural and unworthy of special treatment," they wrote in a letter to the company. The Southern Baptist leadership and the Assemblies of God urged their millions of members to boycott Disney.

Disney didn't back down. Instead, the rest of the world caught up with it, as more companies expanded equal rights for LGBTQ workers. In the last 10 years or so, some corporations have gone further, advocating for marriage equality and publicly pushing for anti-discrimination laws.

That activism has played a big role in "how American society views queer people, their relationships, and their families," says Carlos A. Ball, Rutgers law professor, in his book The Queering of Corporate America.

All of that may be at stake now, as corporations face immense pressure — including threats to life and property and being jeered as "woke" — for supporting LGBTQ causes. Not just Disney, Bud Light and Target, but also Chick-fil-A, Walmart, Apple, Bank of America, Citigroup, CVS, Johnson & Johnson. The list goes on and on.

"Very, very powerful companies ... are being essentially silenced or feeling cowed by, or politically intimidated, by the ferocious right wing backlash against LGBTQ gains," says Ball.

Some companies are reacting to protect their brands – and causing a second backlash among those who want them to stick to their guns. Bud Light's promotion featuring a transgender social-media influencer led to calls for a boycott. The result: a drop in sales, as people both for and against the original promotion ditched the beer. Bud Light put two executives on leave.

Target moved Pride items to less visible locations in its stores or removed them altogether after videos on social media showed customers knocking down LGBTQ displays or threatening store employees.

If more companies dial back, it would be a substantive reversal in how corporations have used their clout and voice to shape laws and society. In recent years, companies have also been boldly vocal in their opposition to religious freedom laws and transgender bathroom laws that encourage discrimination against queer people. Some have even demanded that local governments reverse such decisions.

Because brands have outsized power and influence in America, their actions have gone "a long way toward normalizing and mainstreaming a whole series of LGBTQ rights positions," says Ball.

Walmart's Pride history

One of the best examples of this activism happened in 2015, when Walmart emerged as an unlikely voice in this issue. When the Arkansas legislature approved a measure that would make it easier for businesses and others to discriminate against LGBTQ people for religious reasons, Walmart's CEO Doug McMillon demanded and got the Republican governor to veto the legislation.

The CEO of the country's largest private employer, which is also headquartered in Arkansas, said that the proposed law was inconsistent with "our core basic belief of respect for the individual." Walmart also has a careers page titled: "Love Wins: Walmart PRIDE, Walmart Proud."

Ball likes to point out that corporations are far from perfect, with disturbingly homogenous workplaces that are far from being truly diverse, inclusive or equal. However, he believes that large corporations have been one of the biggest countervailing forces against social and religious conservatives and their strong and vociferous opposition has led to the defeat or weakening of many LGBTQ measures in several states.

How the legal and social arena has shifted

Part of why companies have supported LGBTQ rights is a recognition that it will help them to maximize profits by reaching new customers, while also attracting and retaining employees.

The other significant reason is that that times had changed on the legal and social fronts and it was less fraught to take these stances. Most notably, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Then in 2020, the court banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In this environment, public opinion of LGBTQ people shifted. AHarvard University study that analyzed data from over 4 million tests of attitudes between 2007 and 2016 found anti-gay bias had decreased by 33% over the 10-year period.

"We run a business. We don't run a political organization"

Despite all of this, however, companies are currently assessing their role and their voices in a charged world, not wanting to alienate any part of their audience.

They're taking stock in internal meetings. Tim Knavish CEO of PPG Industries, which makes Glidden paint, told The Wall Street Journal recently: "We run a business. We don't run a political organization. We don't run a religious organization, and we don't run a social organization." The company has re-examined its process of taking positions on cultural and political issues.

Any backtracking on LGBTQ support is also being watched closely.

"They're going to be in a tough position to deal with both young consumers and young workers," says M.V. Lee Badgett, economist at University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of The Economic Case for LGBT Equality.

One in five Gen Z adults is LGBTQ

One of the main reasons for this, Badgett points out, is that the numbers of LGBTQ people are rising, especially among younger generations. According to a Gallup survey released last year, 21% of Generation Z Americans who have reached adulthood — those born between 1997 and 2003 — identify as LGBT, as do 10.5% of millennials, compared to 2.6% of baby boomers.

Badgett says that when so many people identify that way, "it's not a tiny fraction anymore ... it's a game changer."

Law professor Ball points out that another thing that's been a game changer is social media, in terms of how public and visible the pressure can be. On top of that, there has been a deluge of bills — over 500 — proposed or passed in state legislations this year related to transgender issues.

In this environment, instead of taking the lead, corporate America he says has "taken steps backwards in silencing their support for and diminishing their inclusionary policies and statements for their LGBTQ employees."

Maybe it's expecting too much of companies. Ball says corporations generally seem to lead the way when they feel safe and the terrain has been prepared for them.

If that is the case, Disney's actions in the 1990s seem bold, in retrospect.

In an interview on 60 Minutes in 1997, Disney CEO Michael Eisner defended his company's inclusive stance: "We do not put up signs that say, 'No Blacks Allowed, No Jews Allowed, No Homosexuals Allowed' ... I think it would be a travesty in this country to exclude anybody."

Alina Selyukh contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As head of NPR's business desk, Pallavi Gogoi leads the network's coverage of the most essential financial, economic, technology and media stories of the day.

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