Right’s Pocketbook Politics
The e-mail alerts zip across the nation, fomenting outrage.
Levi Strauss donates to Planned Parenthood. Don’t buy their blue jeans! Johnson & Johnson advertises Tylenol in a gay magazine. Click here to register your disgust! Support traditional values: Boycott Pampers! Boycott Ford! Don’t shop at Target!
In the last 12 months, conservative advocacy groups have urged their millions of members to stop buying brand after trusted brand. Boycotts have long been a mainstay of both the right and the left, but analysts say there’s a new intensity to the protests as social conservatives test their ability to punish companies for taking liberal stances on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Their latest target: the popular line of American Girl dolls and books.
The American Family Assn., an influential conservative group, recently told its 2.1 million e-mail subscribers that American Girl made “a terrible mistake” by donating money to a nonprofit youth group that supports abortion rights. More than 100,000 consumers have used the group’s website to e-mail a protest to American Girl.
The Pro-Life Action League, an antiabortion group based in Chicago, plans to announce a boycott of the brand today. That would put American Girl’s dolls, accessories and books on a long list of products -- including Allstate insurance, Nike shoes and Victoria’s Secret lingerie -- targeted in recent months.
“It’s getting so that if you’re going to boycott based on principles, you practically have to show up for work wearing a barrel and eat nothing but grass,” said Peter LaBarbera, a conservative activist.
He may soon add to the list. As executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, a conservative lobbying group, LaBarbera is considering calling a boycott against Kraft Foods and Walgreens to pressure them to withdraw their support of next summer’s Gay Games in Chicago.
“It used to be the left -- guys on the lawn with ‘No Nukes’ buttons,” LaBarbera said. “Now, it’s pro-family conservatives fighting corporate America.”
Boycotts remain a time-honored tactic for the left. A national coalition of farmworkers, college students and liberal ministers recently ended a four-year boycott of Yum Brands’ Taco Bell chain after securing a promise of better working conditions for migrant tomato pickers.
But protests that come from the right tend to make a more visible splash because the American Family Assn., the Traditional Values Coalition, Focus on the Family and others can quickly mobilize hundreds of thousands of consumers, thanks to online newsletters and Christian radio stations.
It’s impossible to quantify the effect of such protests. Consider the American Family Assn.'s boycott of video rental chain Movie Gallery because of concerns that some of its stores stock erotic films. Last month, Movie Gallery said its average same-store revenue dropped 9% in the third quarter, compared with the same period last year.
Is that the boycott at work? American Family Assn. would like to claim credit. The company, though, says it has gained market share and blames its slumping sales on an industry-wide lull.
Outside analysts often dismiss the impact of economic protests as minimal. They point to the eight-year Southern Baptist boycott of Disney, which had little practical effect.
But even if they don’t cut into the bottom line, boycotts can be a force for change.
Last fall, the American Family Assn. began boycotting Procter & Gamble products, citing the mammoth company’s “support of the homosexual agenda” by advertising on the TV shows “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and donating money to a gay-rights political initiative in Cincinnati, where it is based.
In e-mails urgent with bold-faced type, the group offered “proof” of Procter & Gamble’s depravity by linking to an ad for Downy Wrinkle Releaser that ran in a Canadian magazine several years ago. The photo showed two men who had scattered their clothes in their rush to bed, with the caption: “You were more concerned with taking them off than folding them up.”
That ad so outraged customers that 360,000 signed a vow to stop buying Crest toothpaste, Tide detergent and Pampers diapers. Thousands more clogged P&G;'s phone lines. “It was significant enough to draw our attention,” spokesman Doug Shelton said.
Procter & Gamble’s spots soon disappeared from the shows the protesters deemed inappropriate, although Shelton said that was a coincidence attributable to corporate concerns about the content of specific episodes.
More significant, the company now consults advocacy groups “any time we’re thinking of doing something that we think might be a concern to a segment of the population,” Shelton said. He would not give specifics, but the American Family Assn. suspended its boycott in March.
“Our success is in our numbers,” said Randy Sharp, the group’s director of special projects. “When they get thousands of calls a day, day after day, companies can’t ignore it.”
Skeptics point out that many companies are ignoring the threat from the right.
Advertiser spending in the gay press was up 28% last year. The number of ads directly aimed at gay consumers more than doubled, according to Prime Access Inc., a New York advertising agency.
Viacom’s new 24-hour TV channel Logo, aimed at the gay market, has dozens of big-name advertisers, including Motorola, Orbitz travel services, Sharper Image, American Express and Anheuser-Busch.
American Girl has not backed off its commitment to Girls Inc. Instead, it issued a statement expressing profound disappointment with the protesters.
“To me, that belies the [claim] that companies are running scared,” said Bob Witeck, who runs a Washington, D.C., communications firm that helps companies handle protests. Conservatives “have a powerful megaphone,” he said. “But most boycott effects are short-lived.”
Activist Doug Scott agrees that many boycotts are ineffective, and that frustrates him.
Scott tracks corporations that donate to Planned Parenthood and puts out an annual list of their products, which he believes consumers opposed to abortion should avoid. But he says he calls a boycott only after giving a company every chance to cut ties with Planned Parenthood.
“A boycott should be a last resort. You need to do it intelligently or you look weak,” said Scott, president of Life Decisions International, an antiabortion group. “Too often now, it’s being used willy-nilly.”
He calls the pending boycott of American Girl premature. But it’s already gaining momentum.
The doll maker, a Mattel subsidiary, gives money to hundreds of causes, including children’s hospitals and Girl Scout troops, Junior Leagues and public libraries. Critics, however, have seized on American Girl’s yearlong partnership with Girls Inc. -- a nonprofit that offers educational programs for girls, including information about abortion and homosexuality.
American Girl has donated $50,000 to the group and is raising additional funds by selling star-spangled bracelets.
That infuriates Judy Cross, 61, a longtime customer who always thought of American Girl as a wholesome brand that promoted character and moral values.
“American Girl should not be political, and this is political,” said Cross, who lives in Fort Worth.
She and her husband have spent thousands of dollars on dolls for their seven granddaughters, she said. This holiday season, they will shop elsewhere. “We’re not buying from American Girl. Absolutely not.”
Raising similar concerns, a co-ed Catholic school in Brookfield, Wis., canceled a fundraiser that was to have featured an American Girl fashion show. “It makes me heartsick. I love American Girl,” said Ann Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League.
“But we have to teach them a lesson.”