Ford's Family Values
As predicted, the American Family Association (AFA) has renewed its boycott of the Ford Motor Company. The move comes after The Blue Oval reneged on a private pledge to the AFA to stop advertising in gay and lesbian media, and end direct financial support to gay and lesbian events and organizations. When the story broke back in December, Ford denied the AFA deal. They claimed the decision to pull Jag and Land Rover ads from gay-oriented publications was "strictly business." When that didn't fly with the gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender (GBLT) community, Ford reversed itself and kept the cash flowing. Thus the AFA's retaliation for their alleged betrayal. Now what?
This time 'round, Ford has taken a sensible line on the AFA's boycott: ignore it and hope it goes away. Yesterday, Blue Oval Spinmeister Kathleen Vokes issued a written statement more generic than store brand soap. 'Ford is proud of its tradition of treating all with respect, and we remain focused on what we do best — building and selling the most innovative cars and trucks.' Ignoring Henry Ford's vicious anti-Semitism and the brand's spurious claim to technological supremacy, the official pronouncement left little doubt about Ford's current perspective on the AFA's goals. Not to put too fine a point on it, Vokes' words were multi-national corporate PR speak for "fuck off and die."
That's not likely. Like many such crusades, the AFA's Ford boycott is largely the result of one man's zeal. In this case, it's Donald E. Wildmon, a United Methodist minister operating out of Tupelo, Mississippi. In 1977, Wildmon formed the AFA's predecessor, the National Federation for Decency. His subsequent boycott and protest march against Sears Roebuck and Co. convinced the doomed retailer to pull its ads from 'Three's Company' and 'Charlie's Angels.' The action might seem quaint by today's moral standards, but Ford underestimates Wildmon's resolve at their peril. Wildmon is a veteran campaigner whose scored many high profile victories in the last twenty-nine years– including Procter & Gamble's decision to remove its sponsorship from 50 TV shows in 1981 and chain stores' banishment of Playboy and Penthouse magazines in 1986.
Again, Wildmon is something of a one man army; it's highly unlikely that the AFA has anywhere near the 2.2 million supporters it claims. But the main point remains: the Mississippi minister is a tough, shrewd, organized and persistent opponent– who knows the fine art of media spin. While the GBLT community likes to present the AFA as a group of right wing fundamentalist extremists who revile and reject alternative lifestyles, Wildmon and his followers are not so easily cornered. According to the AFA's official statement, "Ford could have easily avoided this boycott had they desired to do so by simply remaining neutral in the cultural battles."
Wildmon has a point. While the AFA is rightly reviled for demanding an end to Ford's advertising in homosexual-oriented publications, FoMoCo's financial aid to GBLT pressure groups plants the corporate flag on one side of a highly contentious issue. Ford has made large cash contributions to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Campaign. More specifically, the Ford Motor Company Fund donated $250k to the Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Ferndale, Michigan. More explosively, Ford sponsors a great many GBLT events (e.g. the London Pride parade) that generate images bound to offend mainstream sensibilities.
Does the average American Ford buyer care that his or her car payments support these GBLT organizations? I have a sneaking suspicion we're going to find out. Wildmon is an Internet savvy activist with a strong core constituency. He's ready, willing and able to spread his message of protest to the general public. In stark contrast, the GBLT community cut Ford a great deal of slack when it was revealed that the Blue Oval Boys had been playing footsie with the AFA. They pointed to the company's policies towards their GBLT workforce, took a meeting with Bill and let the incident slide. If it comes down to it, I reckon the AFA's steadfast determination will surprise its opponents and hurt Ford's reputation, but good.
It promises to be a nasty scrap, but that doesn't alter the fact that this is a debate worth having. While all fair-minded people support the GBLT community's right to fair treatment under the law and Ford's right to advertise its products where it pleases, the AFA raise a pertinent question: why is Ford donating money to gay and lesbian activist groups? Surely the company should take a politically neutral line in ALL its charitable contributions, restricting their largesse to apolitical organizations like children's hospitals. Either Ford has a deep moral committment to homosexual rights, or, more cynically, they thought that spreading corporate cash throughout the GBLT activist community made good business sense. If that's the case, Wildmon may be about to prove them wrong.
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