It is the story that Ford dealers want to go away. Yet it seems there's always a new chapter.
Ford Motor Co. is in the middle of a cultural battle between religious conservatives and gays. The auto maker, acting like it isn't sure what to do, has its dealers scratching their heads.
After six months of a threatened boycott, secret talks to avoid a boycott, and then allegedly reneging on a deal with a conservative activist group, Ford finds itself right where it was when the story began — facing a potential boycott by the group, the American Family Assn.
The saga began in May when the AFA threatened to boycott Ford for supporting some gay and lesbian causes and advertising in gay-oriented publications.
When Ford dealers began hearing from customers that they would honor the boycott, the Ford Dealer Council told Ford that it was in the dealers' best interests to avoid a boycott, says council chairman Tom Addis, owner of Lake City Ford-Lincoln Mercury in Coeur d' Alene, ID.
A group of dealers led by Dallas-area dealer Jerry Reynolds spearheaded an effort in June to get Ford and the AFA to talk. AFA Chairman Donald Wildmon agreed to suspend the threatened boycott so the two sides could discuss the issues.
After preliminary meetings, a final meeting was held on Nov. 29. Attendees included Reynolds and two former Bush administration officials who now work for Ford, David Leitch, the auto maker's general counsel and Ziad Ojakli, group vice president-corporate affairs.
Jaguar and Land Rover already had decided to pull their ads from gay publications provided a deal could be struck. The Ford and Lincoln Mercury brands had not yet advertised in any such publications, and so were not part of the discussion.
Volvo, which advertises in gay publications, refused to stop doing that. The meeting reached a critical point. If the sides could not compromise, then the 3-million member AFA said it would start the boycott of Ford products.
Ford officials asked Wildmon if he would agree to Volvo's continued advertising to the gay and lesbian market provided the brand used generic ads.
The AFA was reluctant to give in. A member of the Ford contingency told Wildmon that the AFA essentially was getting what it wanted and that overreaching would result in getting nothing.
Wildmon relented and agreed to call off the impending boycott. Both sides agreed to not discuss the details with the media. The only announcement would be a Ford-approved press release or a letter the AFA would send to its constituents.
News of the secret deal was reported first by WardsAuto.com on Nov. 30. As the story leaked out, Ford quickly approved a press release the AFA posted to its website, announcing it had called off the boycott.
It soon became a widespread story, getting extensive coverage.
While Ford dealers were relieved to have avoided a boycott, some Land Rover and Jaguar dealers were dismayed.
Joe Clapsaddle, customer-relations manager for Hornburg Land Rover and Jaguar in Los Angeles, says he was shocked.
The dealership has a loyal gay and lesbian customer base, and Clappsaddle estimates the backlash could cost the store.
“I think the brands were broadsided,” he says. “We're in a real fragile business environment here. Our customers are loyal, but something like this and we can lose them. What really is going on.”
The story ignited a fire storm in the gay and lesbian community. Bloggers posted phone numbers and e-mail addresses of several Ford officials, who, found their voice mails and e-mails swamped with messages from angry gay customers.
After meeting with gay activist groups on Dec. 12, Ford said it was reinstating gay-oriented Land Rover and Jaguar advertising and all eight brands will run ads with content reflecting a diverse market.
Addis says that was “rather surprising,” considering the AFA meetings. He says Ford management has yet to tell the dealer council what is going on.
Meanwhile, “the option of a boycott is now very much alive,” says a press release by a miffed AFA.
“We had an agreement with Ford, worked out in good faith,” says Wildmon in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, some Ford Motor Company officials made the decision to violate the good-faith agreement.”
And so the plot thickens.
“I imagine there are a lot of people talking right now,” Addis says. “Dealers hope common sense wins out.” They also hope to see an end in sight.