Media Outlets Are Reporting 1 Million People Are Boycotting Target. Here’s The Truth.

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/ TK KURIKAWA
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/ TK KURIKAWA

News outlets are buzzing that a pledge to boycott Target over its transgender-inclusive policies is approaching 1 million signatures on Thursday. In reality, that number is unverifiable and almost certainly inaccurate. All that’s actually happening is that a hate group is getting a lot of free press.

The American Family Association (AFA), which has been designated an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, launched the boycott pledge on April 20 after Target issued a statement reiterating its promise that employees and customers can use the restrooms that match their gender identities.

AFA translated the statement as meaning that “a man can simply say he ‘feels like a woman today’ and enter the women’s restrooom…even if young girls or women are already in there.” This, the group warned, “is exactly how sexual predators get access to their victims,” and thus the policy “poses a danger to wives and daughters.” AFA also included a list of stories about non-transgender men who had been arrested for illegally filming women in restrooms to somehow prove their point.

But here’s what AFA doesn’t list on its site: who signed the pledge. It’s completely anonymous. There is no way of tracking the validity of the number of signers.

In fact, ThinkProgress successfully “signed” it three different times from the same web browser using the names “I disagree With this,” “I really think this is stupid,” and “This isn’t A real email.” All that it required was using a different email address each time. As the last name suggests, it was also possible to sign the pledge using a gmail.com address that does not even exist. Thus, there’s nothing stopping anyone else from doing the same to inflate the numbers, or even for AFA to do so to generate further buzz.

The important clarification is that this pledge is not a petition. Thus, the number does not represent an actual population of people. Such campaigns are frequently used by various advocacy organizations to build their email lists for future outreach efforts. At of its current total, the Target boycott counts at least three pledges that are not from people at all.

But even if it were a petition or there were some way to demonstrate the significance of the number of people who have pledged, that growing number should still be taken with a grain of salt. Past conservative boycotts, such as of Starbucks, have had little economic impact despite significant media attention. As several S&P; Global Market Intelligence analysts have explained, companies like Target and Walmart are so big that it’s hard for boycotts to actually have any economic impact at all.

Faith Driven Consumer, another conservative organization, is simultaneously recommending that individuals who are boycotting Target also “buycott” Walmart. The competing superstore has been mum about its policy for transgender customers, but has had nondiscrimination protections for its trans employees since 2011.

But the Walmart effort might only further prove the that the boycott pledge doesn’t mean much. Walmart already has a long history of appealing to a more conservative customer base. That has balanced out a bit in recent years, but it’s still quite possible that many of the people pledging to boycott Target never shopped there to begin with.

A quick look at the locations of stores bears this out. In Mississippi, for example — which is where AFA is based — there are only six Target stores across the entire state compared to 80 Walmart stores, a 13-to-1 ratio. In neighboring Alabama, there are 22 Target locations but 142 Walmart locations, a 6-to-1 ratio. In the more liberal — and much smaller — state of Massachusetts, by contrast, the number of Target stores actually climbs to 39 to rival the state’s 62 Walmarts.

If nothing else, the Target boycott is at least serving as political fodder for some. The city of Oxford, Alabama (which does have a Target) passed a typo-ridden law this week banning transgender people from using public restrooms specifically in response to Target’s policy. Anti-LGBT conservatives in Texas, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) and state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R) have similarly boasted their intentions to boycott the store. Shaheen went as far as to say that he will help Target pack up its stores, promising, “I will die on this issue politically. I am going to bat for my wife and my daughters.”

But given the numbers don’t mean much and won’t have any economic impact, the only other outcome AFA can hope for is for the company to change the policy they don’t like. Target did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress request for comment, but a spokesperson has already commented in the wake of the boycott that a change like that is not in the cards.

Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder responded to the boycott this week, saying, “We certainly respect that there are a wide variety of perspectives and opinions. As a company that firmly stands behind what it means to offer our team an inclusive place to work — and our guests an inclusive place to shop — we continue to believe that this is the right thing for Target.”

She pointed out that anyone who is uncomfortable using restrooms that welcome transgender people are free to use the single-stall/family restrooms that hundreds of stores already have.