The Right tries to steer Ford

The antigay American Family Association nearly changed the course of Ford Motor Co.’s commitment to equality. The feud with the country’s number 2 automaker is not finished

BY Todd Henneman

January 17 2006 12:00 AM ET

On World AIDS
Day, December 1, a group of executives from the Ford Motor
Co. gathered at the United Nations in New York for an awards
ceremony honoring companies and individuals who have
shown significant leadership in the fight against
HIV/AIDS. There the automaker’s education programs
in China, Russia, Thailand, and India were lauded by the
National HIV/AIDS Partnership. It was another example
of the automaker’s longtime support of
progressive causes, including a lengthy pro-gay record.

Only a week
earlier, however, Ford executives had held a secret meeting
with the antigay American Family Association inside the
group’s Tupelo, Miss., headquarters. The AFA
began threatening a boycott of the automaker in May
2006 because of its diversity training program, health
benefits for employees’ same-sex partners,
donations to LGBT organizations, and advertising in
LGBT publications. The AFA had suspended its boycott
threat in June and now wanted a resolution—or else.

Zealous AFA
chairman Donald Wildmon, who has a long track record of
calling boycotts to advance far-right interests, had a
couple of conservative Ford executives on hand who
might just listen to his demands: David Leitch, the
carmaker’s general counsel, and Ziad Ojakli,
its vice president of corporate affairs.

Leitch is a
former deputy counsel to George W. Bush, while Ojakli is a
former member of the president’s staff and is
reportedly a major GOP donor. He also worked as a
Senate liaison for the Bush-Cheney transition team as
well as a legislative assistant to archconservative U.S.
senator Dan Coats of Indiana.

Shortly after
that meeting, on November 30, the AFA proclaimed a victory
on its Web site, claiming that it convinced Ford to stop
advertising its Jaguar and Land Rover brands in such
gay publications as The Advocate.

After Sirius OutQ
News and Advocate.com broke the news of Ford’s
apparent deal with the AFA, the mainstream media
picked up the story and all hell broke loose. Dealers
with predominantly gay and lesbian clientele were
fielding angry calls from their customers. Gays and
lesbians, reeling at the betrayal, contemplated
boycotts of their own. And Comedy Central’s
The Daily Show and other cultural commentators
turned the company into a laughingstock.

Seven national
gay rights organizations arranged a meeting with Ford
executives, including chairman Bill Ford Jr., on December
12. Two days later Ford reversed its decision, and gay
rights groups backed off. “On this march toward
equality, there will be occasions when companies hit a
bump in the road,” says Joe Solmonese, president of
the Human Rights Campaign. “What’s
important is how they get themselves out of that
situation.”

Activists were
stunned that the number 2 carmaker in the United
States—so protective of its image as a
supporter of gay causes—became tangled in a
public relations mess with the conservative American Family
Association in the first place.

During the past
couple years, progressive companies have told antigay
groups to take a hike when threatened. When Nike Inc., which
is based in Beaverton, Ore., publicly supported the
state’s civil unions bill in June 2005, the
company stood its ground despite threats from the Right.

Ford continues to
pay dearly for its public dithering.

It remains under
the renewed threat of an AFA boycott and is trying to
smooth over its image with gay and lesbian consumers. A
recent online survey by GayTrendsetters.com and
LesbianTrends.com found that nearly 66% of users who
said they had leased or owned a Ford vowed they would not do
so again based “upon the perceived anti-GLBT policies
by the company.”

What remains most
striking about the developments is the AFA’s ability
to infiltrate Ford and nearly overturn the
company’s decade-long support of equality.

Why the AFA
decided to target Ford remains a mystery. DaimlerChrysler
and General Motors advertise in gay publications,
provide domestic-partner benefits, and sponsor LGBT
events. Like Ford, DaimlerChrysler has a perfect score
of 100 on the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. GM
scores a respectable 86.

Jeff Stoltman,
associate professor of marketing at Wayne State University
in Detroit, speculates that the AFA chose Ford as a target
either for personal reasons or because the company was
seen as vulnerable and willing to negotiate.

That has been the
AFA’s modus operandi in the past. The group canceled
a boycott of Target Corp. in December 2005 after the
retailer said it would use words such as
Christmas and Hanukkah in its
advertising: The AFA had objected to the company’s
use of the more inclusive—but
nonreligious—word holiday.

Tags: Commentary

AddThis

READER COMMENTS ()

Quantcast