An antigay-rights group spearheading a 1-year boycott against Ford Motor Co. claims its efforts have led to a drop in Ford sales and that the carmaker has mustered its regional managers to a meeting to discuss its defense.
Ford says the American Family Association's claims regarding sales and managers are false. The company says its advertising in gay media trails that of several other automakers.
The AFA, based in Tupelo, Miss., launched its boycott in April along with 18 other groups after Ford refused demands to stop advertising in gay-themed publications and to curb contributions to gay-rights groups.
Since then, the AFA said it has collected 500,000 Internet pledges to boycott Ford vehicles, and has issued several strictures against the automaker for running ads in The Advocate and Out magazines with the tagline "Standing strong with American families and communities."
It also criticized the automaker last month for running ads during an episode of "Desperate Housewives." AFA Chairman Donald Wildmon has battled television networks for years over programming his group deems indecent or antiChristian.
Ford's U.S. sales were down 7% for June, and its sales so far in 2006 are down 4%, with high gasoline prices, rising interest rates and intense competition from some foreign automakers all blamed for the drop. While its truck sales are off sharply, Ford's car sales are up, with its new midsize sedans selling strongly.
Wildmon said some of the company's sales decrease was due to the group's efforts.
"Ford Motor Co. continues to support the homosexual agenda despite a steady drop in sales and the price of their stock," Wildmon said in his message posted on the AFA's Web site.
The message ended with an appeal for donations to the AFA, which generated $17.6 million in revenues in its fiscal 2005, according to its most recent federal tax filing.
AFA spokesman Randy Sharp said the group had been told by a source at Ford that Mark Fields, the head of Ford's North and South American business, had called a meeting of regional managers to discuss the strength of the boycott.
But Ford spokesman Jim Cain said the claims about the meeting and the boycott's effect on Ford's sales were not true.
"If the Ninth Commandment (against bearing false witness) applied to this boycott, this debate would be very different," Cain said. "There's been a lot of misinformation spread on the Internet. It's caused confusion and concern among some customers, and it's regrettable."
Al Giombetti, president of Ford and Lincoln Mercury, sent a letter to dealers June 7 saying he was "aware of the pressure" Ford faced over its ads. According to a copy of the letter obtained by the Free Press, Giombetti said that several other automakers, including Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp., were spending more than Ford in gay media outlets. He also noted that Ford was one of the largest advertisers on Christian radio stations.
"Marketing to specific communities is nothing new to Ford or to the industry," Giombetti said. "We don't do this to make a political or social statement; we do it because we respect them and hope they will become customers."
Sharp said the AFA was aware of other automakers' advertising and donations, but that Ford was targeted because its past donations to gay causes had been far larger than other firms. The AFA had first threatened the boycott last year but held off after talks with the company. It restarted its efforts after it said Ford reneged on promises to reel in donations to gay-rights organizations.
"You can't have an effective boycott against everybody," Sharp said. "You have to single out somebody."
Art Spinella, analyst for CNW Marketing/Research, said the boycott has affected Ford's sales "to a minor degree," but Ford's other problems were far more to blame for keeping buyers out of showrooms.
"Ford sales are miserable without it," he said.
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BY JUSTIN HYDE FREE PRESS WASHINGTON BUREAU