Christian group spooks advertisers

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For 25 years The American Family Association has been on a mission "to change the culture to reflect biblical truth." Now, it's finding growing success, enlisting marketers in its cause by tapping the fear of its virtual army of believers and convincing companies to pull ads from controversial TV shows.

The Tupelo, Miss.-based group claims in the past three weeks alone that its 200,000-strong OneMillionMoms and OneMillionDads e-mail action networks have persuaded four advertisers- Lowe's, Tyson Foods, ConAgra Foods and Kellogg Co.-to yank support from the hottest new series of the fall season, ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

Not all the AFA's claims pan out. Kellogg said it had only scheduled a single-week run on "Desperate Housewives" and Gillette Co., which the group last month indicated had stopped advertising on NBC's "Father of the Pride," said it never actually started. But the group's hit rate appears to be climbing.

In September, the group said in e-mails and Web postings to supporters that it had persuaded Geico, Best Buy, Foot Locker and Finish Line to stop advertising on Comedy Central's "South Park." The AFA also claimed its complaints led Skechers USA to drop a magazine campaign featuring singer Christina Aguilera dressed as a naughty nurse, teacher, schoolgirl and policewoman.

In all, over the past 18 months, the AFA has told supporters it's persuaded more than 30 marketers, including a dozen of Advertising Age's 100 Leading National Advertisers, to stop running ads in shows and on networks it finds offensive.

AFA's e-mail supporters may number only about a fifth of the aspirational "1 million," but they have swelled by about 25% over the past year, according to Randy Sharp, AFA special-projects director.

After the first several thousand e-mails or phone calls arrive, it's easy to lose count. Several marketers contacted were reluctant to speak for attribution for fear of fueling more barrages, and one said a company policy to respond to each e-mail or phone call means considerable labor every time the AFA issues a call to action. An agency executive for another marketer targeted by the AFA said the threat of thousands of e-mails is enough to make it drop shows.

frightening force

"What really scares me is the OneMillion Moms," conceded an executive for a major marketer last year, who feared the group's e-mail campaigns ultimately would wear down senior management.

While the AFA has been at this for a quarter century, its recent successes stem largely from the power of e-mail to reach supporters and advertisers, said Tim Wildmon, president of the group. "E-mail is instantaneous, and our numbers are growing rapidly," he said. "A lot of people are disgusted with the explicitness on television, and the advertisers I believe are having a hard time defending it. Couple that with the fact that it's a very competitive marketplace. You don't want to offend several hundred thousand people."

some resistance

Not all marketers wilt under AFA pressure. Hardees has so-far spurned calls by the group to drop ads showing a woman moaning as she rides a mechanical bull and suggestively sucks down a hamburger. And Procter & Gamble Co. has held its ground recently in a different sort of battle.

Last month, the AFA started boycotting P&G products after the company supported a Cincinnati initiative to repeal an ordinance that prohibits gay-rights laws. AFA mailings have accused P&G of supporting a broader "homosexual agenda," which P&G has denied. A P&G spokesman declined to comment on the group, but said it hasn't changed its policies.

Some marketers resist pressure from all sides. "If we begin to base [our advertising] purchasing on what any particular group of people thinks ... it sets us up in a position where anytime somebody doesn't like a program or the owner of a particular group of stations, they put us under pressure to change our advertising," said Chris Carroll, senior VP-marketing at Subway, which has been targeted in the Sinclair/John Kerry affair.

While the AFA has sent some advertisers scurrying for cover, it has had little impact on programming, Mr. Wildmon admits. "The big picture is no, we have not succeeded. Things have only gotten worse over the past 25 years." Ultimately, however, he believes the group's growing success with advertisers may make networks rethink programming.

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