Boycotts of GLBT marketing don't deter diversity efforts

With more companies promoting tolerance, Keith O'Brien explores when and how they should respond to a boycott sparked by their own diversity marketing and policies

With more companies promoting tolerance, Keith O'Brien explores when and how they should respond to a boycott sparked by their own diversity marketing and policies

On left-wing blog Daily Kos, a contributor took the opportunity to post an extensive list of companies that James Dobson's Focus on the Family allegedly asked members to boycott because they "did business with homosexuals."

The scope of the list, which includes many telecom and internet providers, led one person to joke in the comments: "Check the IT list. [Focus on the Family] must use carrier pigeons."

It is no surprise that groups decrying the so-called "homosexual agenda" have an extensive list to work with. Mike Wilke, executive director of the Commercial Closet Association (CCA), which advises corporations on GLBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender) marketing, says that one-third of the Fortune 500 companies have explored some form of gay marketing. In addition, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reported that 101 companies got a perfect score on its Corporate Equality Index (CEI), and 81% of companies ranked by the CEI had some form of same-sex benefits.

When and how companies should respond to a boycott, or threat of one, resulting from their diversity marketing and policies is a hot topic, thanks to a recent incident between the American Family Association (AFA) and Ford Motor Co.

The AFA had been one of the busiest boycotters in 2005, threatening boycotts of Kraft Foods for its sponsorship of the 2006 Gay Games and Procter & Gamble for, among other things, its diversity training. Last summer, the AFA also launched a boycott against Ford, one of the companies with a perfect score on the CEI, because it advertises in gay magazines.

Then, in December, Ford announced it was withdrawing ads for the Jaguar and Land Rover product lines from gay-themed magazines for business reasons. But the AFA claimed victory. After much clamor in the GLBT marketplace, Ford reversed and announced it was placing corporate ads, which would mention all eight brands, in gay-themed publications in a show of its support of GLBT consumers.

Neither the AFA, Ford, nor other groups PRWeek contacted who have organized such boycotts in the past returned requests for comment. The AFA released a statement on December 15 attributed to Donald Wildmon, chairman: "We had an agreement with Ford, worked out in good faith. Unfortunately, some Ford Motor Co. officials made the decision to violate the good-faith agreement. We are now considering our response to the violation and expect to reach a decision very soon."

Witeck-Combs, a DC-based communications firm, works with Ford on GLBT outreach and issues. While Bob Witeck, CEO and cofounder, declined to discuss that particular work, he stressed the need for companies to maintain a consistent message in its decisions to do inclusionary marketing.

"The advice you give [companies] is for them to determine what their policies are and what they're about," Witeck says. "The marketplace and culture respect companies that make a business-like statement [about diversity] and are consistent with that."

Joe Sibilia, CEO and president of Meadowbrook Lane Capital, a socially conscious investment bank, says that companies that include GLBT out- reach in their policies have to stay committed for business reasons. Meadowbrook Lane owns CSRwire, a newswire focusing on CSR.

"Once you create this base of operation, consumers and the investment community will want to see improvements the next year," Sibilia says. "Once you go back, you lose all credibility."

"The biggest thing for corporate America to realize is Americans are generally on the side of diversity and supporting all people," says Jay Brown, HRC director of communications strategies. "People don't react well to companies that back down from support of their policies."

Microsoft won accolades from the gay rights community last year for supporting Washington state legislation banning gender and sexual-orientation discrimination. That community castigated the Redwood, WA, company when it then withdrew support for that measure, after apparently meeting with a Seattle pastor, former Dallas Cowboys football player, and George W. Bush inauguration guest Ken Hutchinson, who claimed to have persuaded the company to renege on its previous decision to support the bill.

One organization, the LA Gay and Lesbian Center (LAGLC), announced it was revoking an award it gave Microsoft in 2001. When Microsoft reversed its decision and renewed its support, the LAGLC allowed the software giant to retain its award.

Boycott effects

Religious-right groups, most of which have a negative opinion of homosexuality, are often credited with giving President Bush a second presidential victory in 2004. When the Bush administration claimed the victory represented "a mandate," many of those groups agreed. So, despite Americans' generally tolerant nature, noted by Brown, threats of boycotts have continued in 2005.

Wilke says that while some "conservative groups have made a renewed effort since the presidential election to try to create a feeling of terror among corporations who do gay marketing, so many are engaged in gay marketing that groups couldn't boycott them all."

Witeck notes that such groups are less interested in damaging a company's bottom line than ruining its name and increasing the group's profile at the same time by garnering as much media attention as possible.

"Companies are most concerned with their names being dragged through the media mud, and the conservative groups know this well," Wilke says. "One could speculate that [the AFA] knew Ford was down," based on poor revenues and layoffs.

Still, says Brown, while gay-rights opponents like to claim a victory, it rarely is the case.

"With this latest news, it was not adequately covered [in the media] that the 'extremist group' boycotts were short-lived and eventually failed," Brown says, wondering why the media "makes so much hay over something from a group that launched many failed boycotts."

For instance, the AFA recently ended a nine-year boycott against Disney, which it had faulted for what it had perceived as a decline in family-oriented Disney film and TV fare. The group cited the departure of former CEO Michael Eisner, the dissolution of Disney's partnership with the Weinstein brothers, and the release of Christian-tinged The Chronicles of Narnia as evidence of the company's moral resurrection, though none of those events was a response to AFA's boycott.

The AFA claims to have had some successes recently, during its activity in the "War on Christmas" front, boycotting companies such as Target and Sears to compel them to include Christmas in their promotions. Some companies did respond to the boycott, saying they will make more of an effort to include Christmas in 2006 advertising.

In its Christmas campaigns, the AFA claimed 700,000 people signed up to boycott Target. But Wilke says that companies are beginning to understand that not everyone who sends an e-mail or makes a phone call is a customer. "Companies now may take a closer look at the root of the complaints. What your actual customers say matters more."

While the media attention may scare corporations, Sibilia says the investment community is on board with diversity; a number of hedge funds are shorting companies that rank on the lowest end of diversity surveys.

"Companies [in a boycott] might lose some customers, but the investment and business community will reward them," Sibilia says.

Effect on gay community

Marketers say that years of inclusionary policies can be harmed by one change in policy.

"History has shown that companies that have stood up to anti-gay groups gain awareness and positive perceptions in the market," Wilke says. When boycotted, "they're basically weathering a storm, which can give them brownie points if done right."

Witeck agrees that, over time, any company will be judged by its long-term commitment.

"For the many companies that have been attacked, [gays] want to get in line to support them," Witeck says. "Gay people and their families and friends make up millions of people; to exclude them or stigmatize them is just a poor business decision."

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