Lifestyle

Ford vs. the Religious Right, Round 2


Nineteen conservative groups will reinstate a boycott of Ford Motor because, the groups charge, the auto maker went back on an agreement it had with the American Family Assn. to stop advertising in media aimed at gay consumers.

The AFA had threatened a boycott last year, but then announced in December that Ford (F) had agreed to pull ads and sponsorship from gay media and gay organizations. The carmaker, though, denied that it had reached any consensus on the issue with the AFA. Instead, it increased its sponsorship of gay organizations to make clear its opposition to the AFA's position.

Ford had met with the AFA last fall, prompted by Texas Ford dealer Jerry Reynolds, who was involved in the negotiations with the auto maker. Reynolds is known for spending his own money to run conservative social and political ads in Texas newspapers.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER. Ford is going through a tough time with an automotive business that is unprofitable, falling market share, and a languishing stock price. One of the company's strongest regions -- particularly for truck sales -- happens to be the Sunbelt, especially Texas, where it has the top truck market share. Dealers in those markets aren't anxious to lose more sales to an issue they feel is controllable by Ford. "There's a risk anytime a mainstream company strays too far left or right," Reynolds told The Detroit News.

The conservative groups -- led by the AFA and its leader, Rev. Donald Wildmon -- set up a Web site, boycottford.com, urging supporters not to buy Ford vehicles, which include Fords, Mercurys, Jaguars, Land Rovers, Lincolns, Volvos, and Aston Martins. Other groups joining the boycott include the Center for Reclaiming America, Coalitions for America, and the Liberty Counsel.

"Ford has the right to financially support homosexual groups promoting homosexual marriage, but at the same time, consumers have a right not to purchase automobiles made by Ford," Wildmon said in a statement. The AFA claims to have more than 2 million members. The group has targeted other advertisers, notably Procter & Gamble (PG) for its advertising support of TV shows the AFA deems offensive, such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

REMOVING AMBIGUITY. While the AFA occasionally claims victory after meeting with an advertiser, its influence is sometimes hard to detect. It previously took credit for getting P&G to cut back its support of programs like Queer Eye, without acknowledgment from the company, only to find out that P&G actually increased its ad spending on those shows.

In response to the boycott, Ford said in a statement that it was "proud of its tradition of treating all with respect, and we remain focused on what we do best, building and selling the most innovative cars and trucks worldwide." Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes declined further comment.

The flap arose after the AFA learned Ford was promoting its Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo brands in gay media. In December, Joe Laymon, Ford's group vice-president for corporate human resources, said he hoped the decision to advertise all Ford brands in gay media would "remove any ambiguity about Ford's desire to advertise to all important audiences and put this particular issue to rest."

UNSTOPPABLE TRENDS? According to the AFA, Wildmon and other leading conservatives wrote Ford Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Ford in January, asking him to remove the auto maker "from involvement in the cultural war." Randy Sharp, AFA's director of special projects, says Ford's chairman "refused to acknowledge, much less reply, to our concerns."

Gay-rights organizations have tried to counter the efforts of the AFA. Brad Luna, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay-rights group, says, "Clear trends towards fairness, nondiscrimination, inclusion, and acceptance of gays in Corporate America are unstoppable. Any attempts to turn back the clock, such as this one, are out of step with the values of the majority of Americans."


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