In today's highly charged political environment, conservatives' boycotts against corporations engaging in gay marketing are becoming as common as defrocked priests.
Shortly after Kraft Foods made its first foray into the gay market, by supporting the 2006 Gay Games in its hometown of Chicago, the anti-gay American Family Association announced an action against them. Last week, the AFA also called for a boycott against Ford Motor Co., though the timing was less clear, as Ford has pursued the market since 2000. They follow another boycott initiated last year against Procter & Gamble.
In all cases, the AFA cites gay-friendly advertisements and sponsorships. The Tupelo, Miss., based organization has set up dedicated sites at www.boycottford.com and www.pgboycott.com/promotion.asp but has not yet created one against Kraft. ( The AFA says the Ford boycott was temporarily suspended until Dec. 1, because Ford dealers asked to negotiate with the company. )
E-mail, blogs and the Internet have created an easier way to organize constituencies and attack companies more quickly and cheaply, updating conservatives' pressure tactics that in the past also targeted Disney, American Airlines and Anheuser-Busch. Similarly, Microsoft recently reversed its decision not to support gay-friendly legislation in Washington state when gay supporters swamped the company with feedback.
Fight Back: SupportFord.com
Ford, which markets Volvo, Jaguar, Mazda, and Land Rover in the market, responded to the boycott with this statement in part, 'Ford Motor Company values diversity among all of its constituents … We are glad to see that this spirit of inclusion is evident in the practices of other automakers who do business in this country as well.'
In a quick defense of Ford by gay activist Brian Dolan of Massachusetts, a clone of the Ford boycott site was set up, but with reversed language in support of the company, at www.SupportFord.com .
In the wake of the AFA's attack, Kraft stood tall. Spokesman Marc Firestone said in a statement, 'The true test of any commitment is how you respond when challenged … . While Kraft certainly doesn't go looking for controversy, we have long been dedicated to supporting the concept and the reality of diversity. It's the right thing to do and it's good for our business and our work environment … . It can be difficult when we are criticized. It's easy to say you support a concept or a principle when nobody objects. The real test of commitment is how one reacts when there are those who disagree.'
There is growing conventional wisdom that right-wing attacks have little to no financial impact. Disney enjoyed banner years during a 9-year-long boycott that just ended, as did the seven-month campaign against Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble.
The AFA claimed that, due to its demand, P&G withdrew support of Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and gay media because they 'normalized homosexuality.' Yet P&G spokesman Doug Shelton says while the company may have hedged support of some episodes of Will & Grace for content concerns, it is still sponsoring both programs. ( He declined to offer the content issues. ) However, no major gay Web sites or magazines have carried P&G brand ads for some time.
What To Do When the 'Worst' Happens: Boycott Strategies
Even while staying firm, companies despise the media coverage of such attacks.
'No amount of planning will brace you for such a thing when it happens,' notes John Nash of Moon City Productions, which represents Subaru. 'And it doesn't matter how intelligently or carefully you're doing it, it's seen as an egregious thing that's 'promoting a lifestyle.' '
Bob Witeck, of Witeck-Combs Communications in Washington, D.C., provides gay marketing strategy for Ford and IBM, and previously for American Airlines and Coors. He recommends corporations have a plan in case of attack.
'First, focus on your original business case for reaching the market'—treating customers equally and valuing diversity. Creating a gay campaign is 'not picking one over anybody else, and they're not 'legitimizing' anybody, except as customers. It's Business 101,' he says.
'Second, focus on consistency of your position,' Witeck notes.
'Finally, engage the opposition as little as possible. 'Tennis' can't be played if you don't hit the ball back!'
If the attack creates a surge in phone calls, Witeck encourages dedicated phone lines. 'It gives people a chance to register their views and be acknowledged, and will help keep your other lines free.' Still, when it comes to tallying caller's positions, Witeck acknowledges that 'everybody is a little jaded—numbers don't mean as much as duration and intensity.'
Indeed, Shelton says P&G tracks all contact from consumers, and sometimes makes changes based on their input. But asked if any advertising decisions had been made recently from such input, Shelton knew of no recent examples.
Increasingly, companies are recognizing the boycott bluster for what it is and making decisions that are right for business, not fundamentalists.