By Evan Nierman

Target is truly living up to its name. Recently, the retail giant has placed an enormous red target on itself by wading headlong into one of the most divisive culture war issues in America today. The controversy erupted when the retailer began carrying a line of LGBTQ-themed merchandise ahead of June Pride Month that included transgender-specific items, including women’s swimwear with extra room in the crotch to accommodate the male anatomy.

Predictably, social media erupted in a furor with outrage quickly making waves on the Internet. And now Target is facing growing calls for a boycott of the chain. Certain merchandise has already been pulled from the shelves, but much damage has already been done. Target now is stuck between a rock and a hard place, damned if they do reverse their stance and damned if they don’t.

For now, Target’s CEO Brian Cornell has appeared to double down on the company’s business decision, saying he thinks Target’s stance was good for sales and good for business. But don’t expect that sentiment or approach to last.

Identity politics are no small thing and powerful economic consequences have been brought to bear upon other companies that waded into America’s culture wars. Anheiser-Busch is still reeling from the backlash it received since engaging trans Tik Tok influencer Dylan Mulvaney in a promotional ad for its beer. Large swaths of its customer base lashed out at the beer giant, boycotting the Bud Light and its other brands, reportedly reducing its market share bynearly four percent and costing the company an estimated $15.7 billion in lost revenue.

Don’t be surprised to see the CEO Cornell and Target change their tune in the coming weeks should a sustained campaign to punish the retailer come to fruition. This is an entirely self-inflicted misstep by the retail giant. 

Regardless of whatever their corporate policies may be in terms of how they recruit, train and treat employees and their customer base. The company willingly put itself at tremendous reputational and revenue risk by venturing headlong into this danger zone without carefully considering the consequences.

Target is not wrong to advocate for fair treatment, kindness and respect toward all people. But it was not smart for the family-friendly retailer to carry and aggressively market merchandise that would obviously prove objectionable to a critical mass of the American populace. There are plenty of t-shirts and sweatshirts that the company could stock nationally without anything to do with gender politics. In its case, the Target controversy was exacerbated because the store carried clothing geared toward children and in many cases placed its displays at the front of its stores, essentially forcing nearly every customer to encounter the controversial items.

Making matters worse was Target’s partnership with the U.K.-based brand Abprallen, which has thrown accelerant onto the fires of controversy. Abprallen’s designer Eric Carnell is an outspoken Satanist whose apparel features a range of clothes with occult imagery and messages such as “Satan respects pronouns.” Basic background research would have revealed what a risk it was to pursue this partnership.

The blowback and PR crisis should be a warning signal to other companies in every industry: if you don’t do your homework or are seen as coming down too heavily on one side or the other when it comes to divisive political issues, then expect devasting consequences.

If the company wants to minimize the long-term damage to sales and its brand, then there are a handful of things it can do immediately. Target could fully and publicly disavow its relationship with the radioactive designer. It could also proceed with pulling some of the most objectionable products, including those designed for young children, from shelves.

Already, it appears Target is looking for ways to dial back its full-throated foray and seek to split the difference between maintaining the support it has shown for the LGBTQ community while also avoiding alienating and enraging much of its customer base.

Target need not reverse course entirely and openly disavow its support for LGBTQ—especially trans rights—but it must avoid making it so easy for detractors to muster public outrage against it. Thinking strategically about avoiding conflict and controversy is good business. It also shows shareholders that corporations understand the risks and rewards of being thoughtful. American companies are learning the hard way that most would do well to focus on their products and services without willingly embroiling themselves in culture wars that result in PR nightmares, steep financial costs and long-term brand damage.

In short, companies do not have to take a position on every social issue in America today. Bud Light and Target have shown the risks that come with leaning in to activism. During a time in history characterized by political divisiveness and near daily social media outrage, most businesses would do well to stay out of politics and avoid controversy. Otherwise, they are choosing to make themselves a target.

Evan Nierman is CEO of crisis communications firm Red Banyan and author of The Cancel Culture Curse: From Rage to Redemption in a World Gone Mad.