Wildmon wins PR battles, but not his gay-ads war

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The American Family Association crowed last week over its latest victory against a cowed corporate marketer. But the conservative group's claimed triumphs can also be viewed as slick bits of marketing that yield few genuine policy changes and seem crafted more to appease the AFA so it moves on to its next target.

Donald Wildmon's organization, fresh off a seeming victory in pressuring Ford Motor Co. to drop ads targeted to gays, boycotted Target last week over its failure to use the word Christmas in holiday ads. The Tupelo, Miss.-based group's success with Ford provoked outcries from gay-rights organizations, and such news outlets as The Wall Street Journal and CNBC credited AFA with scoring culture-war conquests in corporate boardrooms.

Ford's move came less than eight months after the AFA suspended a boycott of Procter & Gamble Co. when the marketer purportedly bowed to its wishes and pulled ads from such general-market shows as NBC's "Will & Grace" and Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

The reality, however, appears somewhat different than the press release. In an April announcement claiming, "P&G cleans up its act under pro-family pressure," AFA Chairman Mr. Wildmon was quoted as saying, "Insofar as we can tell by our monitoring, P&G has stopped their sponsorship of programs promoting the homosexual lifestyle, such as `Will and Grace,' and they have stopped their sponsorship of homosexual Internet sites."

P&G at the time neither confirmed nor denied AFA's assertions. But data from TNS Media Intelligence show P&G never stopped advertising on the NBC and Bravo shows. In fact, the marketer boosted spending 33% on them in the third quarter to more than $3.6 million over the prior quarter.

"We didn't change our media buys," a P&G spokesman said last week. "If we didn't show up in advertising [on the two shows around the time the boycott ended] it was either because the episode content didn't fit our guidelines or because there was no inventory available."

P&G did not have talks with AFA after the early days of the boycott in September 2004, according to spokespeople or executives from both sides.

It did halt ads on Gaywork.com, an employment recruiting site targeted toward gays, the P&G spokesman said, but added that the decision was based not on the boycott but on objectionable content on the site.

Other than that, P&G brands haven't been notable advertisers in U.S. gay and lesbian media anyway since 2000, when the company launched Crest Whitestrips, said Todd Evans, CEO of Rivendell Media, Mountainside, N.J., which specializes in buying gay and lesbian media and co-publishes an annual "Gay Press Report."

Ford's seeming rollover late last month, when Advocate.com reported it would stop running ads in gay and lesbian media for Jaguar and Land Rover in an apparent bow to the AFA, may also be less dramatic than billed.

A Ford spokesman told Advocate.com the move was "strictly business," and there's some reason to believe the brands were pulling out of gay media even without AFA pressure. Ford also has yanked African-American ads for the two brands, said an executive familiar with the matter, who blamed both moves on poor marketplace results.

No `settlement'

Ford said in a statement to employees that it's continuing to advertise Volvo in gay and lesbian media and is maintaining its "commitment to diversity as an employer and corporate citizen." A spokesman said he had "no idea" whether Jaguar and Land Rover also had pulled African-American ads.

The Ford spokesman said Ziad Ojakli, group VP-corporate affairs in Washington, and David Leitch, senior VP-general counsel, had been "in dialogue with the AFA." But he said Ford did not agree to "a settlement" with the AFA. Ford dealers were involved in some of the decisions, he said, declining to give specifics.

Of the more than $1 million spent behind Ford brands on gay print media in 2005 and $931,000 in 2004, the majority was by dealers, not Ford corporate, according to Rivendell.

A voice-mail message from an AFA spokeswoman said the group would not comment about its decision on Ford beyond an earlier brief statement. Group officials did not return calls for comment on the P&G matter.

Mr. Wildmon is an ordained Methodist minister and Army Special Services vet who one night in 1977, as he describes it on the AFA Web site, sat down with his family to watch TV and found adultery on one channel, cursing on the next and a man beating another with a hammer on the third.

This being before the days of cable in Mississippi, he turned off the tube and took action, launching a "Turn Off the TV Week" at his church, issuing a press release that garnered national media attention. The same year, he founded the National Federation for Decency, which was redubbed the AFA in 1988, and has been one of the primary crusaders for cleaning up media ever since. The AFA has branched increasingly into supporting a broader conservative agenda, such as backing efforts to ban gay marriage. The nonprofit AFA also has become a family enterprise, with Mr. Wildmon as chairman and his son, Tim, as president.

Unlike with P&G, the AFA did not make any specific claims of capitulation by Ford. "While we still have a few differences with Ford, we feel that our concerns are being addressed in good faith and will continue to be addressed in the future," the group said in its statement. Media reports painted the rest of the picture of AFA victory.

Notwithstanding the AFA's efforts, overall spending in gay media was up 28.4% in 2004 and is having "another banner year" in 2005, Mr. Evans said.

Appeasing or even appearing to appease groups like the AFA is usually ill advised, even if no substantive action is taken, said Harris Diamond, CEO of Weber Shandwick Worldwide, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.

"When it looks like you're rolling over on an issue of principle, you anger not just the people who the boycott was aimed at but also generally other employees," he said. The boycotts themselves usually have no real business impact, he said.

The AFA seems to be scoring somewhat more tangible successes elsewhere.

The group ended its boycott of Target on Dec. 9, citing an official statement that over the next few weeks, Target's advertising, marketing and merchandising will "become more specific to the holiday that is approaching," including Christmas and Hanukkah. "We do not have a policy or intention of excluding the word `Christmas' from our holiday advertising," said the statement, adding that such references had been made in the past and would be in the future.

Previously, such chains as Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Lowe's had added Christmas references to their holiday marketing after complaints by the AFA.

Contributing: Jean Halliday, Mya Frazier

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