JCPenney Doesn’t Love Gay People

They love gay money.

Over the past couple of months, there has been a whole lot of ruckus surrounding 110-year-old department store, JCPenney. Thanks to a not just gay-friendly but actually gay-targeted mainstream national advertising campaign, the brand has probably had its name tossed around more times since January than in the entirety of the previous decade. Gays and friends-of-gays and just good people who believe in equality and human rights for all have heralded the company’s controversial new direction as “heroic,” celebrating the JCPenney ads as as if they are a smart bomb attack in the Culture Wars and a statement of solidarity. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not heroism. It’s just business.

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Back in January, television personality (and noted lesbian) Ellen DeGeneres announced on her show that she was partnering with Plano, Texas-based JCPenney, a company that she described as “undergoing an amazing transformation.” Naturally, she gave each member of her studio audience a $250 JCPenney gift card, wrapped in “a very, very cool box,” the very packaging itself a sign of said transformation, she explained. The most homophobic of homophobes led a brief revolt against DeGeneres as spokesperson, but overall, pretty much nobody batted an eye. After all, DeGeneres is arguably the least threatening gay person a company like JCPenney could hire.

But then came Mother’s Day and with it, this Mother’s Day ad featuring a cute-as-a-button little girl, her mom, and the mom’s partner. Not just gays. And not just gays with kids. But married gays (note the ring finger bands) with kids, and being celebrated on that most hallowed of invented holidays at that!

Of course, arch-conservatives and Leviticus-quoting fundamentalists led a charge and attacked the company for its abandonment of family values and support of the hot button, polarizing issue of the moment: gay marriage. (Doesn’t anybody remember abortion?)

Facebook, Twitter and the like erupted with cheers and adulation for JCPenney. A boycott ensued, led by One Million Moms, part of the American Family Association, which previously led boycotts against 7-Eleven, Pepsi, and Disney, among others, with mixed results.

JCPenney didn’t skip a beat. In honor of Father’s Day, they released this ad, which features gay, married dads. I can only imagine what they have planned for Fourth of July (Gays Who Grill!) and—perish the thought—Grandparent’s Day (JCPenney: Three Generations of Gay!). The result was exactly what you would have expected: Angry protesters got angrier while the rhetoric on the side of the company’s supporters went through the roof. JCPenney was officially the new gay hero.

But here’s the thing. JCPenney doesn’t care about gay people or their children. The company has been an irrelevant, nearly bankrupt organization for years, and it has latched onto the current headline-news battle over gay marriage not as a statement of its cultural values and social beliefs but as a publicity stunt and last ditch attempt to save itself from extinction.

Take the JCPenney board of directors, hardly a group of people you’ll find at the local pride parade shouting, “Remember Stonewall!”

First, there’s R. Gerald Turner, who has been on the board for almost two decades. Turner is the president of Southern Methodist University, which regularly makes the Princeton Review’s list of most gay-unfriendly schools in the country, moving from 16th worst to 12th in the most recent ranking.

Then there’s board member Colleen Barrett, who has donated thousands of dollars to gay-unfriendly Republican politicians, like Texas congresswoman Kay Granger, who voted to ban gay adoptions and who has come out against gay marriage.

Board member and JCPenney general counsel Janet Dhillon gave money to Rick Perry, who was a memorable opponent of the gays back when he seemed to matter.

Meanwhile, JCPenney chairman Thomas Enigbous has supported George W. Bush and Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who voted against expanding hate crimes to include sexual orientation and in favor of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. And the company even has its own PAC, Penneypac, which has funded more than its fair share of gay foes, including Michele Bachmann, who once described gays as being “part of Satan.”

Instead of being so quick to get into bed with JCPenney, perhaps gays should be questioning what the company’s true values are, not just what they show in their advertising. After all, advertisements and truth have never had a strong positive correlation.

The idea to go after the lucrative gay market can be attributed to JCPenney’s new CEO, Ron Johnson, who was brought in to rescue the company in 2011 in the wake of layoffs, store closings and sinking stock value. Johnson’s previous job was at Apple, where he spearheaded the smashingly successful Apple Stores. There’s no question that the Apple Stores are cool, but that’s, in part, because they’re selling iPads and MacBooks, not St. John’s Bay Worry Free Slider Pants and a ton of Liz Claiborne.

Johnson’s first bright idea at JCPenney, in addition to slashing even more jobs, was to change the pricing structure: Get rid of prices like $19.99 and $7.97 in favor of nice round numbers like $20 and $8, while also eliminating the very 20th-century concepts of sales and coupons. Customers were confused, and the company’s financial reports for the first quarter, which came out mid-May, were dismal: $163 million in losses, compared with $64 million in profits a year prior, and a total sales decrease of 20.1 percent, with Internet sales down a whopping 27.9 percent from last year.

We’ll have to wait a few months for second quarter reports to find out how Johnson’s second bright idea, the gay ad scheme, affected sales and JCPenney’s future. Clearly, there are a whole lot of churchgoing, Bible Belt folk who will not be shopping for dad at JCPenney this week.

And who needs ‘em?

The answer is that JCPenney does. Because while there will, no doubt, be more than a few gay dad tears shed this Sunday when they’re handed a JCPenney box containing an ugly tie or button-down shirt, something tells me that JCPenney will soon join Wanamaker’s and Gimbels in the trash heap of stores we used to shop at. I mean, can you really picture your gay friends shopping at JCPenney? Me neither.

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  • Natalie Hope McDonald

    Very interesting piece, Victor.

    But I actually think support for the department store chain from the LGBT community has a lot more to do with the backlash the company received from One Million Moms and other arch conservative groups when they made Ellen spokesperson. The feedback for the past few months has suggested that LGBT consumers have been eager to support Ellen (more than the chain, really) since she’s become such a mainstream representation of a gay person doing good. And the fact that the chain came out, so to speak, and voiced their support for her bodes well for LGBT consumers who – more than not – prefer to spend their money where they feel welcomed. Just take a look at the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index.

    But if it really is just about business, the question is whether courting the gay dollar is smart for JC Penney at this point in its history? Hard to say. The backlash has been pretty severe among conservatives and so-called “family” groups to the point that a few analysts have even suggested it could backfire among the consumers JC Penney already reaches and is likely to reach. That’s why, I suspect, the gay ads came rolling out. It makes sense to continue to attract a group that is showing they appreciate the acknowledgement.

    And that’s really where the impact is – being acknowledged and represented – however silly an ad might at first seem.

    Sure, we’re living in city where the retail options are much more available – cool shops, hip boutiques, you name it. But for Middle America – and the gay Mom and Dad living in small town, USA – having that representation (however insincere it may or may not be) is truly a big deal. Whatever the motivation, seeing these images DOES have an impact – for the better.

    The more often we see an image of a gay or lesbian parent, the less “strange” it becomes. Even if it is a last-ditch effort to turn JC Penney into the next Target, this campaign offers something concrete, something LGBT families can identify with in an authentic way (as authentic as any ad campaign can really be, of course – they all have economic motivations, right?). But LGBT consumers prove time and time again that they will stand behind a brand that acknowledges them – and kick to the curb the companies that treat them as less than equal.

    But for same-sex parents who are relegated to a few brief blips on the pop culture radar (hello, Modern Family) the campaign is kind of a big deal. When was the last time we saw same-sex parents on a billboard or magazine page? And even if the urban dweller may not set foot in the local JC Penney any time soon, I suspect others in the LGBT community may feel that much better doing so.