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Who’s making money on the anti-woke, anti-trans backlash?

Turns out, shopping when you’re trying to boycott everything is hard.

A flattened Bud Light box is posted up on a wooden sign with a spray painted circle-backslash symbol atop.
It’s tough to figure out where it’s safe to buy if you hate Target and Bud Light.
Natalie Behring; Getty Images/Vox
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

If you are a conservative consumer in America right now, shopping is getting weird. You’re not supposed to drink Bud Light or shop at Target or eat at Chick-fil-A or watch Fox News. It’s Pride month, meaning all the companies have gone gay again, despite you trying to make clear that you’d really rather they not. Maybe you’ve signed up for alerts to start getting warnings about allegedly “woke” businesses, and the list of brands there is getting long — Nike, Adidas, Speedo, Lululemon, the LA Dodgers. The alerts also say Bank of America is bad, and some guy on Twitter has included Citi in a list of companies you’re supposed to avoid for the month of June, meaning you need to ... I guess change your bank account?

Boycotting companies that don’t align with your politics is exhausting, which is why most people don’t, at least not for a sustained amount of time. It’s hard enough to exist in the world without worrying whether every purchase you make matches up with your personal views and values. But in recent months, the push for conservative consumers to vote with their dollars — or, rather, downvote by withholding their dollars — has been rampant.

“The number of boycotts is vast, and we’re talking about inconveniencing people at a level that doesn’t make any sense,” said Maurice Schweitzer, a Wharton professor who focuses on behavioral decision research, emotion, and negotiations.

If you do want to avoid certain companies, or, in the current context, a lot of companies, it can also be tough to find alternatives. Say you did give up Bud Light. You might not realize the beer you swapped for is also owned by Anheuser-Busch, or you picked up some Miller Lite, which you might be upset to learn is also now a no-no.

All that said, there is money to be made on being anti-woke, or some people believe there is.

There’s a reason right-wing media outlets and commentators are seizing on trans issues and Pride month — it generates outrage, which generates traffic and subscriptions, which, these outfits hope, generates money. There are plenty of niche businesses out there that tout conservative bona fides, from coffee to investment products. There are what appear to be somewhat sincere efforts that offer right-wing options for banking and e-commerce, which have seen varying degrees of success. Among all the offerings, there are some common themes: American-made, small business, traditional values.

“There are a lot of companies that are making products that are geared toward conservative consumers. It’s becoming a whole market,” said Howard Polskin, president and chief curator at TheRighting, a website that aggregates stories from right-wing media. “Now, how big is that? I have no idea. Is this a fad, or is this a business? That’s the question.”

The cynical view here is that a handful of people are trying to capitalize on conservative outrage to try to make a quick buck. A less cynical view is that this is an earnest effort to create a sort of shopping safe space for conservatives. If the latter is the case — and that’s a big if — setting up an entire parallel economy might be, you know, a little hard.

A six-pack of beer should not cost $30 no matter how mad you are at Bud Light

Assuming you’ve heard about the Bud Light thing (it sent some beers to a trans influencer in April and conservatives had a bit of a meltdown), you have perhaps heard of “Ultra Right” beer. Being marketed as “100% Woke-Free American Beer” by a guy who goes by Conservative Dad, this beer is expensive. It’s $19.99 for a six-pack plus shipping, which, in my case when I ordered it on June 1, amounted to $31.55. I imagine I will get this beer eventually, but I’m going to have to wait because it won’t ship for about 30 days. Ultra Right has had a hard time getting up and running, it appears, and was dropped from its first brewery.

Conservative Dad, whose actual name is Seth Weathers, is probably making money off of this endeavor — once you click to buy the $20 beer, his website also prompts you to buy other stuff, like a T-shirt and a cup. But it’s hard to look at this and think this is a serious operation. What beer drinker wants to spend $30 on a six-pack that they can get in the mail in a month?

When reached by Vox for comment about this story, Weathers responded, “I see our beer has angered the commies. Thoughts and prayers!”

There are all sorts of examples of anti-woke businesses and products. Some of them appear to be little more than an (often overpriced) ploy to separate hyped-up right-leaning consumers from their money, from coffee brands to dating apps to chocolate bars that cost $25 for a pack of four.

“They’re novelty items,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a media watchdog group. “You can probably sell some products, but that’s not changing the industry.”

In the investment realm, where conservatives have been irked by the rise of ESG — meaning investments that consider environmental, social, and governance factors — there are options that try to give those people a place to go. You’ve got exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, which are basically baskets of stocks, that are supposed to appeal to the right, such as the God Bless America ETF (YALL), the American Conservative Values ETF (ACVF), and ETFs from Strive, a firm co-founded by now-presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

They’ve all got their own sort of shtick. YALL says it screens out companies that “have emphasized politically left and/or liberal political activism and social agendas at the expense of maximizing shareholder returns.” It’s got about 40 holdings, the largest being Tesla, Charles Schwab, and Nvidia.

ACVF says it excludes companies “perceived to be most hostile to conservative values” and has upward of 300 holdings; its performance largely mirrors that of the overall market. It made noise amid the Target Pride backlash after it announced it was adding the company to its “refuse to buy” list of stocks. Strive is a little different — it basically says it will only focus on shareholder value when casting shareholder votes for the companies its ETFs invests in, no environmental or social funny stuff.

These ETFs perform decent-ish, said Eric Balchunas, a Bloomberg analyst who covers ETFs. But they’re expensive compared to non-anti-woke products, which may explain why they’ve only managed to garner a middling amount of assets under management. “This is a tough area because generally, people, when they invest, they leave their politics at the door and just want to make money. This is going to appeal to a niche audience,” he said. “None of these anti-woke ones are really low-cost at all.”

Anti-woke in finance is a little tough. Just look at GloriFi, a bank backed by big names such as Ken Griffin and Peter Thiel, which was supposed to be an answer to an overly liberal Wall Street. The operation turned out to be a disaster, and the bank quickly shut down.

An alternative to Target: Possible? But very hard.

One of the issues with boycotting is that it can be hard to figure out where else to go. Some close competitors may get a boost when a corporation sticks its neck out and gets pushback — Coors Light and Miller Lite have benefited from the Bud Light debacle. But those companies aren’t specifically anti-woke, they’re just companies. Setting up an anti-woke alternative is not easy. Take Target, which conservatives have taken aim at over its annual LGBTQ Pride month collection, causing the company to pull some items and, in certain cases, move Pride merchandise to the back of stores.

“It depends on what the product is and whether there’s an obvious alternative to that product,” said Kyle Williams, a historian and the author of the upcoming book Taming the Octopus: The Century-Long Battle over the Soul of the Corporation. “You’re not going to be able to pop up overnight and create an alternative Target company.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t efforts underway. Enter PublicSq, an online marketplace for “freedom-loving Americans” that’s about to become part of a public company through a SPAC deal with a company called Colombier Acquisition Corp. (SPACs are a type of investment vehicle that were really hot a couple of years ago — Vox has an explainer on them here. They haven’t generally fared so well.) PublicSq says it has seen a lot of user growth recently, including in the wake of the Target backlash. “Any time Target pulls a Target, it’s kind of a reminder for our consumers of, ‘Hey, there’s maybe some other options out there that we should pursue,’” PublicSq CEO Michael Seifert recently told Axios.

It’s not clear how much of that user growth is translating to sales — you can’t actually buy much on the site right now, it just directs you to each seller’s website. (PublicSq says it will release an e-commerce platform later this year.) The web platform and app are clunky, and the product offering leaves much to be desired. About 10 products are listed in its “Ditch Target 2.0” section, including “smelly proof” reusable sandwich bags, a set of forks and spoons for toddlers, and earth-friendly “Bumroll” toilet paper.

Could PublicSq wind up being Amazon for the GOP? I mean, sure. It’s still early days, and building a giant e-commerce operation takes time. It could also go the way of MyStore, set up by the MyPillow guy, which doesn’t appear to be a runaway success. It also has competitors in the space who are doing ... something, such as Mammoth Nation, which lets you pay to be a member to then “shop your values” and says it donates that money somewhere. There are books that tell conservatives where it’s safe to buy and invest, too.

It probably pays to be Mad and Loud Online

Perhaps the real winners here are in the attention economy.

It’s not entirely clear where, if anywhere, conservative consumers are able to turn for the majority of their commerce needs amid the current Pride month-induced boycott mania or at any time, really. For their content needs, they are able to turn to right-wing influencers and outlets, which are fighting for readers and listeners and, likely, making some money off of all of the rage.

The Bud Light drama did gangbusters traffic in right-wing media, according to a recent report from Memo, a media tracking and insights company. Nearly seven times as many readers of right-leaning outlets read content about the controversy compared to readers of left-leaning outlets, and right-leaning outlets have continued to lean in. “Those publishers are getting tremendous traffic from this,” said Eddie Kim, Memo’s CEO and founder. “When a story lands and you see it working, there’s an inclination to write more of those stories because you have a lot of domain authority and SEO value. That drives readership, and that fuels the story.” Kim is also on the board of directors at Colombier, the firm trying to merge with PublicSq.

Carusone, from Media Matters, said that conservative media is in the midst of a bit of a land grab over eyeballs in the wake of radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s death and Fox News star Tucker Carlson’s firing. So if the anti-woke, anti-Pride stuff gets clicks, that’s an incentive.

The Daily Wire, a media company founded by Ben Shapiro and Jeremy Boreing, is really the “tip of the spear” here, he said, “because they have the mechanics in place to commercialize this faster.” They’ve launched gimmicky products, such as chocolate bars and razors, but they also say they’re putting together a $100 million fund for children’s programming to try to offer a counter to Disney over its opposition to Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill. The Daily Wire didn’t respond to requests for comment from Vox.

The Daily Wire is also streaming What is a Woman?, a film about the “logic behind a gender ideology movement that has taken aim at women and children.” It stars Matt Walsh, an influential anti-trans commentator who podcasts and blogs for the platform. Walsh has also been vocal in the right’s boycott strategy, advising his fellow conservatives to “pick a few strategic targets” and “make them pay dearly.”

That’s not what’s happening; the right appears to be in boycott-everything mode. With it being Pride month and the way corporations are about Pride, conservatives have a rainbow to freak out about at every corner. Maybe that’s a bit of the point, at least on the part of the people stoking the flames.

“The current monetization strategy is conversions, it’s getting all these monthly subscriptions, so the way you do that is having these breakout moments in the best way you can,” Carusone said. “There’s basically a race for subscriptions, and the way you get subscriptions in this model is through these types of high-valence, emotionally charged calls to action that you can then dominate.”

From the anger come the clicks and, eventually, the dollars.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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