Ford Motor Co. said it will stop running ads for its Jaguar and Land Rover brands in the gay press, helping to avoid a confrontation with conservative Christians but setting up a fight with gays and lesbians.
The American Family Association, a conservative religious group, launched a boycott of Ford this year for extending marriage benefits to same-sex couples and giving "thousands of dollars to support homosexual groups and their agenda," the group said in written statement. The group criticized Ford for supporting gay commitment ceremonies and gay pride parades.
Ford spokesman Mike Moran said the move to stop advertising Jaguars and Land Rovers in gay publications such as the Advocate was based on a decision to streamline marketing budgets. Moran would not say what other magazine categories might be affected, citing competitive reasons.
Volvo, another Ford-owned luxury brand, will continue to advertise in gay publications. Ford has not advertised its U.S. brands, which include Ford, Mercury and Lincoln, in gay publications and does not plan to start, Moran said. "We've made it clear that decisions on where Ford brands advertise are made for business reasons, not as a social statement one way or the other," he said.
Ford has focused on niche markets at various times -- for example, trying to reach black families though marketing at churches and by supporting gospel music.
Gay groups denounced Ford's decision as a capitulation to the religious right. "It looks pretty clear that they have bowed to the American Family Association's demands," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group.
Ford is the latest company to be ensnared in the culture wars over homosexuality, religion and American culture. Microsoft Corp. became a target of religious groups this year for its support of a Washington state bill to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. The company withdrew its support for the bill, saying it was not caving to pressure but wanted to avoid taking a stand on a politically sensitive issue. After protest by employees, Microsoft reinstated its support for the anti-discrimination bill.
Ford became a target of the American Family Association in May. The association was founded in 1977 by Donald E. Wildmon, who was the pastor of a United Methodist church in Mississippi at the time. It claims to be one of the largest pro-family organizations in the country with nearly 3 million supporters. The association owns 200 radio stations under the American Family Radio name, according to its Web site. In the past, the group has targeted Walt Disney Co. for extending benefits to gay couples and criticized the Fox television series "Boston Public" for sexually oriented story lines.
The prospect of a boycott from the American Family Association, which gathered 110,000 signatures on an anti-Ford petition, worried some Ford dealers in the South, such as Jerry Reynolds of Texas. Reynolds said he started getting calls from customers and realized that a boycott would hurt business, so he faxed a letter to the association. "I said I am a dealer and I am the one who is going to get the brunt of the boycott," he said.
Reynolds and five other dealers met with Wildmon during the minister's subsequent visit to Dallas. In the meeting, he said, Wildmon agreed to give the dealers time to work things out with Ford officials. Subsequently, Ford executives held discussions with the association, including a meeting last month at the AFA's headquarters in Tupelo, Miss. After the meeting, the association agreed to call off the Ford boycott, saying in a written statement that its concerns were being addressed by the company.
Neither Reynolds nor Ford executives would specify what was discussed. Representatives from the American Family Association also declined to comment.
Reynolds said no deal was made on advertising. "There was no agreement struck -- period," he said. The AFA, he said, seemed to appreciate the fact that the dealers and Ford would simply sit down and talk. "Everybody wants there to be something. But there wasn't. We just talked."
Ford's success in heading off a confrontation with the AFA appears to have pushed the company into a new fight. Solmonese, of the Human Rights Campaign, said he spoke yesterday with a top Ford executive in Washington but was not satisfied with the company's explanation.
"Ford Motor Co. has a big public relations mess on its hands that it needs to clean up in short order," Solmonese said. He said his group is galvanizing its 600,000 members to protest Ford's advertising decision with letters and e-mails.
"Ford has been a friend to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender consumers and employees in the past," the group said in an e-mailed "Action Alert." "E-mail Ford today -- ask them to reject the American Family Association's assertions . . . and reaffirm their support for fairness."
Late yesterday Ford noted in a written statement that it would not change its employment policies: "Ford's commitment to diversity as an employer and corporate citizen remains unchanged. Any suggestion to the contrary is just plain wrong."