Mark Dayton's campaign ads tend to feature timeworn photos of his family's department store downtown. For those old enough to remember, the pictures conjure memories of whimsical Christmas displays, fat old Santas and the smell of caramel corn wafting from the candy store.

Down the street, Target, the discount chain that Dayton's launched, has carved a similarly feel-good atmosphere that makes us crave that lime green wastebasket or retro toaster, even if we don't really need it.

Now that Target has jumped into the corporate political sweepstakes by donating $150,000 to an organization that supports Rep. Tom Emmer for governor, you have to wonder whether every American outing will eventually be tainted and influenced by the nasty politics that divide us.

Expect more. Pay less. Uh, vote Emmer?

What in the name of Isaac Mizrahi is happening?

It is, no doubt, the beginning. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to allow companies to donate to political campaigns, abolishing a 63-year ban and opening the door to the kind of uncontrolled spending binge most of us only experience at Costco.

By Tuesday, Target was on the defensive because of the immediate response of gays and lesbians, many of whom are no doubt valued "guests" of the Tar-zhay experience.

"We rarely endorse all advocated positions of the organizations or candidates we support, and we do not have a political or social agenda," Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel said.

Target offers domestic partner benefits and was a sponsor of the recent pride parade. But some gay groups are now criticizing Target because Emmer is against gay marriage.

One, OutFront Minnesota, said it is "disappointed and appalled" Target is supporting "a candidate with a long history of attacks against GLBT Minnesotans and their families for his own political gain."

Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, called on corporations and unions to refrain from making contributions to politicians or through advocacy agencies. He said the vast amounts of money available on both sides of the equation quash the voices of average Americans.

Those donations foster "an appearance of corruption," Dean said. "What are those corporations and unions expecting for that money? Our public officials are already too close to special interest groups."

Politicians beholden to those groups and corporations "are unwilling to find compromise." Meanwhile, corporations such as Target, or companies that support liberal candidates that could disenfranchise family values groups, gamble with their names and are sucked into battles that also make for poor policy, Dean said.

"Target clearly has the legal (and perhaps moral) right to make contributions to groups supporting political candidates," said Kenneth Goodpaster, a business ethics teacher at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. "Whether it is always prudent to exercise one's rights is a separate question. Polarizing issues can divide one's customer base and cost the company sales. Nevertheless, there were corporations during the civil rights movement that had no trouble risking boycotts based on moral convictions against racism."

Akshay Rao, professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management, said companies should factor in many variables before making contributions, including strategic long- and short-term effects, policies of the candidates and moral/ethical considerations.

"But practically, I think somebody made a phone call and arms were twisted, and now someone at Target is scratching their head saying, 'What do we do now?'" Rao said.

OutFront asks that Target rescind the donation or give to one supporting candidates who fight for gay rights.

But Dean said that "donating money to the other side only exacerbates the problem. I think they should give the money to restore the political contribution refund program. A donation to this program, instead of giving to these shadowy special interest groups, will help minimize the potential for political corruption."

Dean guesses this growing pile of money will only increase horrible attack ads by front groups and predicts the negative feelings they produce could stick to the corporate brands that funded them.

However, Rao, who has studied negative advertising, said only narrow segments are adversely affected by it, and he thinks Target's "damage to brand is very restricted" unless they expand controversial donations.

I, on the other hand, like to think of our political system as a delicate product. So remember, Target, if you break it, you own it. • 612-673-1702