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Fundamentalists On the Attack
Kraft boycotted for supporting Gay Games.
By Michael Wilke


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JUNE 10, 2005. In today's highly charged political environment, boycotts of corporations engaged in gay marketing are becoming as common as defrocked priests.

The anti-gay American Family Association (AFA) announced a boycott of Kraft foods last month shortly after the company made its first foray into the gay market by supporting the 2006 Gay Games in its hometown of Chicago. Last week, the AFA called for a boycott of Ford Motor Company, though the exact impetus was unclear, since Ford has pursued the gay market since 2000. These campaigns follow the boycott of Procter & Gamble initiated last September.

In all cases, the AFA cites gay-friendly advertisements and sponsorships. The Tupelo, Mississippi-based organization has set up dedicated sites at boycottford.com and pgboycott.com/promotion.asp, but has not yet created one against Kraft. (The AFA says the Ford boycott was temporarily suspended until December 1, because Ford dealers asked to negotiate with the company.)

Changing Technologies
Email, blogs and the Internet have created easier ways for conservatives to organize constituencies and attack companies more quickly and cheaply, updating pressure tactics that in the past have been used against Disney, American Airlines and Anheuser-Busch.

Progressive organizers use similar methods. Microsoft recently reversed its decision not to support gay-friendly legislation in the state of Washington when gay supporters swamped the company with feedback.

Ford, which markets Volvo, Jaguar, Mazda, and Land Rover in the U.S. market, responded to the boycott, stating, "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, gay activist Brian Dolan of Massachusetts set up a clone of the Ford boycott site SupportFord.com,with reversed language in support of the company.

Supporting Diversity When It Hurts
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 support 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."

While there is growing conventional wisdom that right-wing attacks have little to no financial impact (Disney actually enjoyed banner years during a ultra-conservative Christian boycott that just ended after nine years), the seven-month campaign which recently ended against Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble seems to have affected P&G advertising decisions.

The AFA claims that its boycott forced P&G to withdraw advertising dollars from "Will & Grace," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and gay media because they "normalized homosexuality." Yet P&G spokesman Doug Shelton says that 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 comment about specific content.) However, no major gay web sites or magazines have carried P&G brand ads for some time.

Strategies to Cope With Boycotts
Even the companies that ignore the boycotts fear 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, DC, 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.

The Commercial Closet — bringing lesbian, gay, bi and trans sensitivity to corporate advertising.



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