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The Success of AFA's Ford Boycott Is a Disney-esque Fairy Tale

In his piece on Monday, Todd Blumer suggests that the American Family Association’s (AFA) boycott of Ford Motor Company for its policy of “giving money to gay rights groups, offering benefits to same-sex couples and actively recruiting gay employees” has led to that American automaker’s downfall and possible future bankruptcy.

Blumer paints a grim pictue of Ford’s financial outlook by noting its declining sales. He finds that the “dropoffs at Ford are far worse than those seen during the same time period at the company’s Metro Detroit counterparts at General Motors and Chrysler.” Indeed, his circumstantial evidence is pretty strong. The AFA announced the boycott in May 2005, and the company’s sales have pretty much been tumbling ever since.

In 2005, Ford enjoyed a modest profit. The following year, the company would suffer a loss of over $12 billion.

To attribute Ford’s decline entirely to the AFA boycott would require one to ignore other problems impacting the automaker over the past few years. To be sure, that boycott may well have played a part in Ford’s financial freefall, but it was far from the primary factor.

More than anything else, the company can attribute its decline to the leadership of former CEO, William Clay Ford, Jr., who seemed to have been hired more because of his pedigree (he’s a great-grandson of Henry Ford) than his management expertise. While he stepped down in September 2006, Ford still serves as executive chairman of the Ford’s Board of Directors.

As chief executive, Ford did not inspire much confidence and remained “reluctant to break from tradition.” As the market shifted, he failed to adjust company policies accordingly.

A committed environmentalist, Ford attempted to improve the fuel efficiency of his company’s fleet, only to find his goals impossible to achieve. Ford continued to produce a large number of gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks. With the price of gas rising significantly in the past few years, demand for such vehicles began to drop sharply.

In order to reverse its decline, Ford brought in a new chief executive from Boeing, Alan R. Mulally.

Shortly after replacing Bill Ford, Alan R. Mulally jetted off to Japan “to meet with top executives of its toughest competitor, Toyota, to seek their advice on ways to streamline Ford’s manufacturing operations.” Trained as an engineer, Mulally led the turnaround of Boeing’s commercial airplane division. This businessman understood that the problem at Ford had more to do with the company’s overall operations than its policies on gays.

Attributing Ford’s fall to AFA’s boycott not only ignores the automaker’s failure to respond to changes in the marketplace, it also ignores the record of past AFA boycotts. In 2005, it ended its boycott against the Walt Disney Corporation, with president Tim Wildmon claiming that the organization had made its point.

Perhaps it had made its point, but it didn’t make much of a difference. Despite the nine-year boycott, the company, which markets primarily to families with young children, did not drop its pioneering domestic partnership program (for same-sex couples) and continued to welcome “Gay Days” at its amusement parks. (For the record, yours truly is a huge Disney fan and a proud Disney stockholder.)

In short, the AFA’s boycott did not effect Disney’s bottom line. Families flocked to Disney parks; parents took their kids to see Disney movies and bought DVDs for their homes.

The Disney example supports the the argument that Ford’s fall has less to do with the boycott than it does with market conditions and managment intransigence. Interestingly, the AFA launched its Ford boycott at about the same time it dropped its campaign against Disney. Maybe its leadership was aware of Bill Ford’s failure to fix his family’s company, and they assumed they could attribute the company’s decline to their boycott.

Should Mulally succeed in turning around Ford, expect the AFA to drop their boycott and claim they made their point — even if Ford continues to offer domestic partnership benefits.

In a free market, socially conservative organizations like the American Family Association are free to lead boycotts against companies like Ford, Disney, or, for that matter, any corporation which violates (or appears to violate) their values. By the same token, gay organizations can launch boycotts against corporations which have adopted anti-gay policies — or refuse to implement pro-gay ones.

That doesn’t mean they’ll be effective. But the free market allows them to use boycotts to attempt to influence corporate policies.

Consumers weigh a variety of factors when purchasing a product. They consider its cost, its quality and even the company’s policies. While those policies may have little to do with the product’s quality, that doesn’t diminish the right of the consumer to act in a matter which some might deem irrational.

And while those boycotts may indeed hurt the corporations, their record has been spotty. Disney continues to do well, despite (or perhaps, because of) its domestic partnership program. Ford’s current woes have less to do with the AFA than with its immediate past CEO, a man either unwilling or unable to bring his family’s business into the twenty-first century.

Let the AFA attribute the decline of Ford to its drawing attention to the company’s pro-gay policies. But other corporations have adopted similar policies and not suffered like the American automaker. The AFA may claim that it hasn’t targeted them, but I would wager that if it had, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Americans are more concerned about a product’s quality than they are about the domestic partnership policies of the corporations than produce it.

Realizing this, expect the AFA to drop its boycott against Ford as it did the campaign against Disney. It will probably claim that it made a point, but it really won’t have made much of a difference.

B. Daniel Blatt, a writer based in Los Angeles, is completing his Ph.D. in Mythological Studies and blogs as GayPatriot West at GayPatriot.