Often, these metrics are contrived. After all, we’re often talking about billion-dollar companies that have ticked off a few dozen people, many of whom might not have shopped with the company in the first place. Is it likely that there would be any tactile demonstration of economic impact from such an effort?
Again, that was the pattern. But the new round of opprobrium that erupted at Bud Light in April and at other companies marketing products for Pride Month has felt different: larger in scale and more closely tied to the brands’ actual customer bases. Were the boycott campaigns that emerged, unlike so many others, actually effective?
On Friday, Axios’s Javier David argued that they were. David looked at the stock prices of three companies since early April and determined that the parent companies of Bud Light, Target and Kohl’s had all underperformed since they became the focus of right-wing outrage over LGBTQ issues. The S&P 500 is up since early April — but those three stocks are down.
And that’s true. But there is some additional context that’s useful.
Let’s consider just Target and Kohl’s. Target rolled out its Pride merchandise in May and conservatives quickly picked up on — and misrepresented — its product line. There was an anti-Target song and plenty of social media irritation. Fox News, always a good thermometer for the right’s anger, mentioned Target nearly 200 times in the second half of May.
But Kohl’s? There was some Fox News chatter about it, but not a lot. It didn’t earn itself a disparaging hip-hop song or very many tweets. Was the effect of the anti-LGBTQ backlash so strong that even a more limited campaign of opposition could do damage?
As David pointed out, both stocks were down relative to April 3, with Target’s stock price beginning to drop sharply in mid-May, as the backlash began. Kohl’s price had been falling for nearly a month, before anyone was talking about it at all.
But when we compare Target and Kohl’s to a range of other big-box and/or department stores, the picture gets more complicated. Kohl’s is doing better than the average company of the seven we looked at. Target is doing worse — but it’s still outperforming Burlington, for example.
If you were shown this chart outside of the context of the anti-Pride backlash, what retailer would you think had fared the worst over this period? Would you think that Kohl’s had been damaged by consumer outcry since mid-May?
All of this sets aside that stock prices are perhaps not the best way to measure this in the first place. Stocks are volatile and may be affected by sudden bursts of outrage, certainly. But while they are ostensibly measures of the long-term value of a company, they are perhaps more accurately understood as thermometers of their own, with people making assumptions about the long-term based on an emotional read of the immediate term.
It may be the case that Target took significant damage from the disparagement campaign against it, the sort of thing that harmed its bottom line this quarter or softens support from a large section of the population over the long-term. Neither of those things is probably well-reflected in the stock price over the past two months.
No company wants to go through what Target (or even Kohl’s) went through in recent weeks. Being the subject of enormous anger by lots of consumers is not ideal. But that doesn’t mean that it is crippling, much less particularly damaging, especially over the long-term.
The originators of these campaigns and the media often have little else to point to but stock prices to measure their success. So stock prices it is, however potentially misleading the conclusions.