business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

I’m betting most parents have dodged a difficult question by responding, “Go ask your father (or mother).” Call it a dodge, a deflection, or just a decision to pass the buck.

It is an option that today's retailers - faced with consumers demanding answers about divisive cultural issues - may not have.

Just ask Target, which is at the epicenter of the seismic national debate over allowing transgender employees and customers to use a restroom or fitting room that corresponds with their gender identity.

Or ask Lands' End, which got tripped up on cultural issues that weren't even mentioned when it featured in its advertising an interview with feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

And now, ask Old Navy, which unwittingly set off a firestorm on Twitter last week with a perfectly delightful ad featuring an attractive interracial family. It prompted a bigoted backlash on social media, followed by an even stronger response to the racist vitriol with the hashtag #LoveWins, which went viral last year after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling.

Different scenarios and different issues, to be sure - but they all illustrate how retail has become a battleground for the nation’s culture wars, and why it is so important that businesses are ready for these thorny questions and the ramifications of their response.

The transgender bathroom issue is dominating front pages and social media, fueled by a North Carolina law requiring people to use bathroom facilities consistent with their birth gender. Target is the biggest national retailer to publicly state its support for gender identity over birth gender as the determining factor. Other companies including Starbucks and Barnes & Noble have a similar policy.

Target said its decision is based on inclusivity and respect. Conservative groups argue that Target’s policy threatens the public safety. There have been protests across the country and more than 1 million people have signed a boycott Target petition.

In my view, Target has taken an important stand against discrimination. Is the boycott costing Target customers? Absolutely. Does the company think doing the right thing is worth taking the heat? I believe so, and support its stance.

That said, I understand that the transgender bathroom issue is extraordinarily complicated.

What is not so complicated, and is much easier to understand (and condemn), is the racist mindset behind the venomous initial reaction to the Old Navy ad, with hashtags such as #WhiteGenocide. I was heartened by the good-trumps-evil internet response, including a family photo posted by Navy pilot Jack McCain, the senator’s son, who is white, and his Air Force reservist wife, Renee Swift McCain, who is black. The backlash-begets-backlash scenario was reminiscent of the innocent 2013 Cheerios ad featuring an adorable and relatable interracial family, which Cheerios brought back for the 2014 Super Bowl.

The reality is the American family is evolving and becoming increasingly diverse. The Pew Research Center found that 12% of newlyweds in 2013 married someone of a different race, a record high. Add in same-sex couples and the share of non-traditional families in the U.S. is even larger, and on the rise.

Retailers, of course, must factor in socio-economic demographics and cultural attitudes when formulating policy and business plans, which will differ based on size and geographic location.

But keep in mind that this only goes so far. A company's response in North Carolina also will be noted - and publicized - via both traditional and social media virtually everywhere. Which almost certainly is why Target made the decision that even though its response to the bathroom law in North Carolina might make it unpopular in certain circles, it needed to make a statement that it believed that was appropriate and relevant to a much larger circle.

Target's bet was that a message of anti-discrimination - that bias based on sex, race, age, religion, disability, sexual preference or gender identity is illegal and morally wrong - would be the one that is most resonant and most relevant to the majority of its customers, and that this majority only would grow.

Comments? As always, send them to me at .

KC's View: