Will Ford Don Gay Apparel This Xmas?

December 13, 2005

Will Ford ultimately have to choose between gay rights groups and Christian conservatives?

Don't bet on it. The automaker figures to try and play a waiting game as the two sides fight over which gets to claim victory with the beleaguered automaker in the middle.

It all started when the American Family Association (AFA), which is in favor of family units of its own choosing, organized a boycott of Ford products because the automaker has a gay-friendly human resources policy that provides benefits for domestic partners and has supported gay media and gay organizations with sponsorship money. Specifically, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo have supported gay media and advocacy groups with ads and sponsorships.

Last week, the AFA dropped the boycott and took down its boycott Web site when it learned that Jag and Land Rover had dropped a sponsorship of a gay advocacy group's annual awards dinner and a few media buys—despite the fact that Volvo has no intention of dropping gay media from its ad schedule.

The move sent a mixed message to the marketplace. Senior Ford executives met with the leadership of national gay and lesbian organizations on Monday in Washington, D.C., to try and quell anger and concern on the part of gay special interest groups that had counted Ford as a supporter. "We have asked that Ford repudiate its relationship with this extremist group, reinstate its advertising of Jaguar and Land Rover and continue investing in organizations working for equality," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay rights organization, said in a statement after the meeting.

Ford had hoped that it could quiet the AFA by pointing out the dropped ad buys by Jag and Land Rover, which executives said was part of its 2006 business plan anyway, and not anger the gay advocacy groups with Volvo's continued support.

But it isn't working. The AFA is claiming victory, hollow as it is. And the right-wing group has the appearance of victory on its side. The only way HRC gets to snatch victory back is by getting Ford to do something overt now to show support for the gay community---like Volvo picking up the slack on the sponsorships Jag and Land Rover vacated. Ford, Lincoln and Mercury have not been advertisers in gay media.

Ford executives are sticking to official statements. "We value all people -- regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and cultural or physical differences," Ford Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Ford Jr. said in a statement released after the meeting with gay rights groups. Indeed, privately, Ford executives say they do not value the AFA, nor what it has tried to do. But dealers, feeling pressure from already falling sales, asked Ford Motor Co. to meet with the AFA and get them to drop the boycott.

The AFA had insisted that Ford stop donating cash and vehicles to gay causes and stop endorsing activities such as gay pride celebrations. The AFA has warned it could reinstate its boycott if its demands that Ford stop supporting gay causes are not met.

The whole debacle could force Ford to choose sides, or face a restart of the boycott by January, just when the car company will be busy laying out its "Way Forward" restructuring plan, which it hopes will please analysts and investors and restore profitability to its auto business.

The AFA has also tried to pressure other companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Walt Disney Co. with little success. In May, for example, the AFA ended a nine-year boycott of The Walt Disney Co. over Disney's decision to extend benefits to same-sex couples and promote gay-related events at its theme parks. The boycott appeared to have little effect, since Disney reported higher earnings and increased theme park attendance during that time.—Jim Burt

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