The Right tries to steer Ford

By Todd Henneman

Originally published on Advocate.com January 17 2006 1:00 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.

The AFA went
after Target “with a vengeance” after the
corporation prohibited the Salvation Army from
collecting donations outside its stores, Stoltman
says. “They used the Salvation Army decision by
Target as the rallying cry internally. They push the
buttons, whether bell ringers in front of Target or
Ford Motor Co.’s policies, that get the loudest
horn to go off internally to get their own troops
rallied.”

Despite
AFA’s claims, its boycotts aren’t always
successful. In April the group ended its eight-month
boycott of Procter & Gamble Co., saying the maker
of Crest toothpaste and Tide detergent had stopped
advertising on TV shows such as Will &
Grace
and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
In reality, Procter & Gamble continued its
advertising.

“We
advertise on shows like these because they are among the
most popular and widely watched programs on
television, plus [they] reflect the diversity of our
nation,” says Procter & Gamble spokesman Scott
Stewart. “While we don’t just advertise on any
program, we don’t believe the presence of a gay
character on a program means we should automatically
avoid it.”

The AFA’s
nine-year boycott of the Walt Disney Co. for offering
domestic-partner benefits didn’t hurt the Mouse House
financially. During the boycott Disney reported record
profits and exceeded expectations on Wall Street.

Still,
conservative Christian groups tap into a sizable base. About
10% to 15% of adult Americans describe themselves as
evangelical Christians, says Nancy Ammerman, professor
of sociology of religion at Boston University. The AFA
alone has close to 200 radio station affiliates under
the American Family Radio name and boasts 2 million online
supporters.

When a religious
group declares a boycott, Ammerman says, it may be less
about economics and more about defining what the group
believes in. “It is both assuring members of
the group who they are and declaring to the rest of
the world who they are,” says Ammerman.

Adds Stoltman:
“The thing about any boycott is, once you show the
slightest wrinkle of weaknesses, from then out all bets are
off. It’s a crisis of your own making.”

The unusually
strong show of unity among LGBT groups reflects how alarmed
they were by suspicions that a corporate ally had caved to
pressure by one the most vocal antigay groups in the
nation. “Anyone who works in the gay community
understands AFA’s history of misrepresenting the LGBT
community,” says Sandra Telep, an organizer with
Pride at Work, an AFL-CIO affiliate for LGBT workers.
“And it was important to all of us that those
lies were not legitimized by a national company.”

New York State
comptroller Alan Hevesi, who controls more than 9.4
million shares of Ford stock on behalf of the state, wrote
Bill Ford Jr., asking what cost-benefit analysis
justified giving into a “bigotry-based”
threat.

“It was a
PR debacle,” says Gordon Wangers, president of
Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. “The
problem was that Bill Ford has publicly declared time
and again that Ford is a progressive and socially aware
company. So it was off strategy to pull advertising from gay
and lesbian media. Their decision was 180 degrees off
their stated position.”

Two days after
meeting with gay rights leaders, Ford sent its letter
reaffirming its commitment to policies that support LGBT
workers and said the company would support
“certain” LGBT events. The letter also said
the corporate parent would not force its Jaguar and
Land Rover divisions to advertise in gay media, but
Ford would buy corporate ads in the publications.

“We have
decided to run corporate ads in these targeted publications
that will include not only Jaguar Land Rover but all
eight of Ford’s vehicle brands,” reads
the letter, signed by Joe Laymon, vice president for
corporate human resources. “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.”

Allan Gilmour,
the gay retired vice chairman and chief financial officer
of Ford, says he is confident that the automaker’s
decision to nix the Jaguar and Land Rover ads was
driven by a retooled marketing strategy, not the
AFA’s threat of a boycott. He says Jaguar and Land
Rover had decided to change advertising tactics before
the AFA first made its threats. Jaguar, for example,
left its longtime ad agency Young and Rubicam in
February for rival Euro RSCG Worldwide in a well-publicized
shakeup geared at rejuvenating sales of the luxury car unit.

But even Gilmour,
who retired in 1994 after 34 years with the company,
only to be asked back in 2002 for another three-year stint,
acknowledges that he doesn’t know exactly what
was told to the AFA when Ford executives met with the
group. Several members of Ford’s LGBT employee
association declined to comment, referring questions to the
corporate headquarters, which also isn’t
talking. “We want the letter to speak for
itself,” says spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes.

Among those who
are relieved by Ford’s announcement are several
dealers who say they were unaware of the controversy
until after it made national headlines. “It
wasn’t like Ford kept us fully informed about what
was going on,” says Paul Thiel, managing
partner of Palm Springs Motors in Cathedral City,
Calif. Located next to a city where one in 10 couples
identify as gay, Palm Springs Motors has what Thiel calls a
“significant” gay clientele.

Joseph
Clapsaddle, public and community relations manager for
Hornburg Jaguar/Land Rover in West Hollywood, Calif.,
says he is “thrilled” that Ford will run
corporate ads.

The fight
doesn’t appear to be over. Wildmon maintains that his
organization and Ford had an agreement, which he says Ford
broke. “All we wanted was for Ford to refrain
from choosing sides in the cultural war,”
Wildmon said in a press release. “And supporting
groups which promote same-sex marriage is not
remaining neutral.”