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Corporations face challenge aligning policies with Pride marketing, some experts say

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(NEW YORK) — High-profile anti-LGBTQ+ consumer boycotts last spring left corporations little time to reconsider long-planned marketing campaigns for Pride Month, experts previously told ABC News.

Over the past year, major companies have had ample opportunity to prepare their advertising for the time of year when public attention centers on the LGBTQ+ community. In this case, however, Pride Month coincides with a growing conservative backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion programs (DEI) in the private sector.

Experts who spoke with ABC News differed about the scale of LGBTQ+-themed advertising so far during Pride Month, but they agreed the anti-DEI movement has made it more difficult for companies to align their policies with the support for LGBTQ+ employees voiced in such marketing.

“When you have this level of political animosity as part of our public discussion, it will show itself in the market,” Joanna Schwartz, a professor of marketing at Georgia College & State University who focuses on LGBTQ+ advertising, told ABC News.

In recent months, some business leaders have sharply criticized corporate DEI programs, including prominent figures such as billionaire investor Bill Ackman and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

At least 10 states have implemented restrictions on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI: Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Some of these policies ban state funds for diversity-based programs, activities, and offices on college campuses, as seen in Alabama. Some states, like Texas, ban diversity offices at universities altogether. Florida’s law also targets diversity training or programs in private workplaces.

The political push accelerated after a Supreme Court decision last year disallowing affirmative action programs at undergraduate colleges that previously considered a candidate’s race as part of their admissions process.

“We know that politics are elevated in the current climate and we know companies are facing that,” Tammi Wallace, president of the Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, an advocacy group that works with corporations headquartered in the area, told ABC News.

“I have heard of some companies that have pulled back DEI budgets,” Wallace added. “That’s probably the biggest impact that we’ve seen.”

Christie Lindor, a diversity strategist and CEO of Tessi Consulting, said she has heard from LGBTQ+ employees frustrated with what they perceive as risk aversion in company programming around issues of gender and sexuality.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies dilute organizational programming,” Lindor told ABC News. “LGBTQ programming is part of that.”

“It definitely has created opportunities where people, especially those in the LGBTQ community, are questioning the authenticity of their organizations,” Lindor added.

Still, executives at large corporations overwhelmingly support DEI initiatives, according to a Morning Consult poll in December. Diversity programs are considered important for business by 82% of executives at companies with 1,000 or more employees, the survey found. More than two-thirds of executives said they expect such programs to become more important in the coming years.

In response to the public scrutiny, some corporations are preserving DEI programs but doing so quietly, Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who studies corporate diversity, told ABC News.

“Some companies are changing the names of their DEI activities, so moving them from a focus on equity or diversity to a focus on talent,” Dobbin added.

The political push against DEI places even greater importance on the outward posture of corporations toward the LGBTQ+ community, Dobbin said. 

“It’s a mistake for companies not to continue to express their support, especially in the face of all these people who are leading the charge against any kind of DEI programming,” he said.

Experts who study LGBTQ+ advertising differed about the relative volume of corporate marketing during Pride compared to previous years.

Schwartz described a “pull back” in advertising during Pride as a result of consumer boycotts and a surge of anti-LGBTQ+ political sentiment among some conservatives.

Instead of mass-market advertising and LGBTQ-themed merchandise displays, companies have prioritized targeted ads that are more likely to reach LGBTQ+ customers and less likely to stoke criticism, Schwartz said.

“Companies are finding other ways to connect with this community,” Schwartz said. “They are having to be more careful this year, and will probably have to be more careful for several years.”

Michael Wilke, founder of AdRespect, an archive of LGBTQ+ representation in marketing, disagreed with the assessment of a dropoff in themed advertising. Rather, he added, corporations have largely maintained their advertising, albeit in a quieter fashion.

“We’re in a golden era of inclusion of LGBTQ — and that extends to advertising,” Wilke said.

“In the past year, companies that are staying the course may not be touting that they’re doing so,” he added. “They’re not promoting it to avoid attracting a pile on.”

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