News that mega retailer Walmart has hired an ad agency specializing in gay media is, according to sources of mine, sending the American Family Association into overdrive over how to stage a boycott of the chain once the ads and support of gay events gets underway.

The AFA has been a thorn in the side of a few big companies. Though the effect of the boycotts and media campaigns staged by the conservative group is dubious, they can neverthless cause headaches and a certain amount of nervousness among marketers, car dealers and store managers.

The AFA, run by Rev. Donald Wildmon, has been boycotting Ford since late last year when the group's public pressure on the automaker prompted Ford to re-double its commitment to gay media and go out of its way to support gay organizations. Sure, Ford sales have been suffering. And the AFA takes credit for that. But I tend to think it's because of too few compelling vehicles rather than the wrath of God.

Walmart has been so conservative and such a friend to organizations like the AFA that it has at times refused to stock certain books the AFA found objectionable. And, of course, there is thought to be a substantial overlap in the constituencies of Walmart, Reverend Wildmon, The Republic Party and followers of Sean Hannity. So, this move by Walmart is a bold one to reach a boader customer base.

In an interview with Advertising Age, Justin Nelson, president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, an independent organization with 24,000 members, said, "They [Walmart] has been viewed with some degree of skepticism by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, and it's important for them in terms of gaining market share to change that."

Walmart is plainly trying to boaden its appeal and be more competitive with Target in terms of image and connection to fashion and design. Walmart realizes that they need to carry more merchandise with better profit margins than is the case now.

The agency Walmart hired, Witeck-Combs, also does work for Ford-owned Volvo, Land Rover, and Jaguar, as well as American Airlines and Citigroup.

On its website, the AFA boasts that it has signed up about 510,000 people to boycott Ford. The Texas Ford Dealers Association, representing 78 dealers in that state, recently wrote to Ford complaining that they are inundated with e-mail, phone calls and letters complaining. And, the group stated, their customers were recently moved to step up their complaints when a Ford ad appeared opposite an article in The Advocate, a gay magazine, about gay polygamy.

I don't expect the AFA to have any impact on Walmart's decision-making any more than I expect Ford to cave on support of gay media. But we may as well get ready for a publicity push from the AFA against Walmart and the group taking credit for pushing Ford into such desperate straits that it is considering selling off Land Rover and Jaguar just to make Rev. Wildmon happy.

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