Ford Veers Away from the Religious Right

The carmaker is increasing its ad spending in gay media, in spite of the outcry from a conservative Christian group

By David Kiley

Big corporations under fire from special-interest groups, especially those pushing so-called cultural values, often try to skate in the neutral zone rather than overtly take sides. But Ford Motor (F ) this week decided to overtly side with gay media and gay advocacy groups, potentially inviting a reinstatement of a boycott organized by a prominent conservative religious group.

The American Family Assn., which frequently singles out corporations for supporting violence, homosexuality. or secular values, withdrew a boycott of Ford products earlier this week after learning that the auto maker was dropping Jaguar and Land Rover ads and sponsorship from gay publications and advocacy groups. The withdrawal prompted gay-rights organizations, such as The Human Rights Campaign, to ask Ford for a clarification on the issue. It responded by committing to a corporate advertising buy in gay publications that includes all of its brands, including Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln, which previously hadn't been pitched in gay media.

"It is my hope that this will remove any ambiguity about Ford's desire to advertise to all important audiences and put this particular issue behind us," Joe Laymon, Ford's group vice-president for corporate human resources, wrote in a letter that was posted on Ford's Web site.


  AFA Chairman Donald Wildmon issued a statement on Dec. 15, stating that the group considers Ford's move to be a violation of a good-faith agreement it had with Ford and Ford dealers. "Unfortunately, some Ford Motor Company officials made the decision to violate the good faith agreement. We are now considering our response to the violation and expect to reach a decision very soon," said Wildmon. "All we wanted was for Ford to refrain from choosing sides in the cultural war, and supporting groups [that] promote same-sex marriage is not remaining neutral," Wildmon stated. A Ford spokesman said this week that no such agreement was struck with the AFA.

The AFA had called for a boycott of Ford last May because of what it calls, "Ford's support for the homosexual agenda and homosexual marriage." Ford's Jaguar and Land Rover brands, for example, sponsored the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an advocacy group and advertised in a few gay publications. Ford also supports domestic-partner benefits for its employees.

The AFA suspended the boycott for six months at the request of a group of Ford dealers led by Garland (Tex.) dealer Jerry Reynolds. Several Ford executives, speaking not for attribution, say they were dismayed that the AFA claimed a victory and that the Jaguar and Land Rover ads were withdrawn as part of a broad cost-cutting program and not because of the AFA's threat of a boycott.


  Dealers likely would rather avoid an AFA boycott. Ford sales have been declining, and its strongest markets in the U.S. are in the Midwest and South, where some consumers with conservative values back the AFA's stances. Reynolds, who has run ads on such issues as protecting "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance, didn't return a phone call by press time. An assistant said he was in meetings but acknowledged that Reynolds and Wildmon had spoken on Dec. 15.

Conservative and religious-right organizations, which are generally credited with giving George W. Bush two terms in the White House and a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, haven't been without victories lately (see BW Online, 12/14/05, "The Media Hears the Sermon"). Some of the nation's biggest cable-TV operators have just announced plans to offer a "family tier" of networks in response to the Christian right's long-running campaign against "indecent" TV programming. On Dec. 9, the AFA called off its boycott of Target (TGT ) after the retailer said it would include "Christmas" in its advertising and in-store promotions, as opposed to the secular "Holiday." And Wal-Mart (WMT ) and Land's End have issued public apologies to those who thought the retailers were slighting Christmas when they used the generic "holiday" in ad copy.

Marketing experts say advertisers want to be viewed as responsive, as well as responsible, but are loath to cave in to special interest groups flogging a social agenda. "The truth is that a very small number care very deeply about these issues, and they make for very good story lines on right-wing TV and radio," says marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "But in the end, an advertiser wants to to be seen as sticking to a set of values and not twisting in the wind," he adds.


  Advertisers have generally been more willing to listen to so-called family-values groups about violence and sex on prime-time TV shows rather than complaints about support of niche interest groups. Some advertisers, such as SC Johnson, dropped ads on ABC's Desperate Housewives last year after the AFA and other similar groups complained.

But Wildmon's claims of victories over advertisers are nearly always met with skepticism. An AFA press release last April stated, "P&G [Procter & Gamble] cleans up its act under pro-family pressure. P&G has stopped their sponsorship of programs promoting the homosexual lifestyle, such as Will and Grace, and they have stopped their sponsorship of homosexual Internet sites." Data from TNS Media Intelligence reported in Advertising Age, however, shows P&G (PG ) never stopped advertising on the NBC and Bravo shows in question. The data instead show that P&G increased spending 33% on the shows in the third quarter of this year.

It seems victory sometimes is in the eye of the beholder.

Kiley is Marketing editor for BusinessWeek in New York

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.