The mere mention of the Rev. Donald Wildmon's name sends ripples of anxiety through corporate boardrooms.
A sort of César Chávez of the religious right, the United Methodist
minister from Tupelo, Miss., has championed consumer crusades against
Sears Roebuck, Ford, Lowe's, Reader's Digest, Kraft and Disney, to name
just a few, for dissing Christmas or supporting gay rights and
abortion. Just last week, his group's threatened boycott against Ford
for its "homosexual agenda" appears to have prompted the automaker to
pull its ads from gay magazines, although Ford has denied that was the
There was a time when even Wildmon thought boycotts might be beyond the pale for conservative Christians.
"At first, I felt very strange carrying a placard which screamed,
'Boycott Sears,'" he confessed in his autobiography about his first
boycott against Sears in 1978 for advertising on the sexually charged
"When I had watched civil rights and
Vietnam War demonstrations on television, I had never envisioned that I
would one day be doing the same thing. In my mind, carrying a sign
conjured up images of rebellion, disrespect for authority and even
violence. That's something good Christians just didn't do."
Using boycott as a strategy
But ever since that boycott achieved its goal in less than an hour,
conservative Christian groups have been following the playbooks of the
civil rights and labor movements. What began with Wildmon and a few
others as a fringe effort in the late 1970s has become the strategy of
choice of dozens of conservative Christian organizations, which now
boast Internet databanks with millions of addresses and full-time
Today, Wildmon's American Family Association,
the New York-based Catholic League and the Colorado Springs-based Focus
on the Family, to name a few, use techniques such as boycotts, investor
resolutions and e-mail campaigns to "promote the Biblical ethic of
decency in American society," as Wildmon's group puts it.
While analysts say that such efforts often have just a small effect on
companies' bottom lines, the negative publicity is often enough to spur
quick action from corporate executives - especially if the company is
already financially beleaguered like Ford.
"Don't forget that
corporations, large and small, are spending significant sums of money
to create and to nurture a brand image, and these actions chip away at
the foundation of that image," said Jeff Stoltman, a Wayne State
University marketing professor. "So all the equity they built up in the
Ford name or the Disney name is put at risk."
Major retailers targeted
In the last few weeks, major retailers including Sears, Target, Lowe's,
Nordstrom and Wal-Mart have been caught in the crosshairs for
substituting "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" in promotions. Most
have changed in response.
Wells Fargo abruptly lost its
contract with Focus on the Family because the San Francisco bank
contributed to a gay rights group. Kraft, Walgreens and Harris Bank are
being threatened with boycotts for giving money to the 2006 Gay Games,
slated for Chicago next summer.
American Girl, which
manufactures dolls and books, is being boycotted because the company
donated proceeds from the sale of a special "I Can" wristband to Girls
Inc., a nonprofit group that supports girls' education programs,
including those that promote the right to abortion.
Microsoft, a leader in offering domestic partner benefits, dropped its
support for a gay rights bill in the state of Washington this spring
after a local minister threatened a boycott. After a public outcry, the
company reversed its position.
"I think what you're seeing is
certain groups on the Christian right more openly embracing what's been
called the culture wars and demanding litmus tests over issues that are
important to them," said Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates,
a Somerville, Mass., group that researches the religious right.
To Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family
Association, it's just common sense to put your money where your mouth
is - especially if you believe your values are under assault.
"Just about any poll today shows that a great majority of Americans are
concerned about the moral direction of our country," Sharp said.
"They're fed up with political correctness. They're fed up with
anti-Christian bias. And they want their voices to be heard. We simply
provide a tool for them to make their voices heard."
of course, are nothing new in a nation that cut its teeth on the Boston
Tea Party. The country's most famous boycott was the Montgomery, Ala.,
protest in 1955, when blacks refused to ride city buses in a protest
that helped end legal segregation.
And plenty of left-leaning
religious groups still use economic pressure to advance their own
agendas, from the recently ended boycott of Taco Bell over its pay of
tomato pickers, to the Presbyterian church's call for divesting from
companies that supply the Israeli military.
What has changed is
both the upsurge in conservatives' use of such tactics and a track
record that includes some high-profile, if often indirect, successes -
from getting companies to restore "Merry Christmas" to ad campaigns to
pressuring them to ax their support for Planned Parenthood, said Pratap
Chatterjee of Corpwatch, a corporate watchdog group in Oakland, Calif.
Others, however, are skeptical, suggesting the tactics are most effective at building the groups' membership and donations.
"If you measure success in terms of framing an issue, doing education
and outreach, raising money and raising awareness, then these efforts
have been wildly successful," Berlet said.
"But if you measure it as whether the group achieves the stated goal of the boycott, then most of them are not successful."
Success of tactic debated
Doubters cite the example of Disney, which endured nine years of
conservative boycotts but never backed off its gay-friendly policies,
including offering benefits to same-sex partners.
dropped that boycott because it wasn't successful," said Brad Luna, a
spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay
rights organization. "When companies don't cave, they suffer no
Sharp, however, calls the effort a success,
citing the September resignation of chief executive Michael Eisner, the
company's split with Miramax, which had produced some of its most
controversial films, and the company's support of more family-friendly
fare, such as the newly released "The Chronicles of Narnia."
"Is there more to do?" he asked. "Yes, of course. But there always is."
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