For more than a year, the American Family Association has pleaded with Home Depot (HD) not to publicly back gay rights. The home improvement retailer has ignored those pleas. In fact, the Atlanta-based company continues to participate in the city's gay pride parade, as it has done for years.
Still, the AFA, founded by the controversial Rev. Donald Wildmon who has made a career scolding the likes of Howard Stern, isn't giving up. "AFA focuses primarily on one boycott at a time," Randy Sharp, the AFA's director of special projects, said in an interview. "A successful boycott can take two or three years."
There's a Boycott?
The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay rights group, knew that the AFA was angry with the retailer, but was not aware that the dispute had escalated into a boycott, spokesman Paul Guequierre says. The AFA disputes this but does agree that the Home Depot boycott isn't getting the attention of past actions because of the liberal bias of the media, Sharp said.
Home Depot is holding its line on the issue: "Our response on this has been and continues to be that we respect the diversity of all people and maintain an inclusive culture," Home Depot spokesman Steve Holmes said in an email. "This is what [Chairman] Frank [Blake] told the AFA publicly at our annual shareholders meeting earlier this year."
Home Depot isn't the only high-profile company the AFA has targeted. It has also tangled with Walt Disney (DIS), Procter & Gamble (PG), and PepsiCo (PEP).
The AFA, which brags on its website that it has been on "the frontlines of America's culture war" since 1977, insists that it has nothing against gays. All it wants is for corporate America to remain "neutral" in these same conflicts, according to Sharp. That includes both supporting gay causes and marketing to the LGBT community.
"It's not about refusing to hire gay people," he says. "When they begin marketing [to gays], then they are giving support to their agenda. You never see Home Depot advertise in Christian publications. There is a bigger Christian market than gay market."
The HRC rejects these arguments. Guequierre notes that members of the LGBT community lack legal protections offered to heterosexuals on issues such as workplace discrimination. "What they call being 'neutral,' isn't really being 'neutral,'" he says.
Campaign's Unintended Consequences
If nothing else, the AFA's campaigns have raised public and corporate awareness on one important issue: the growing economic clout of the LGBT community.
A survey by Witeck-Combs Communications and Packaged Facts estimated the LGBT community's financial muscle at $743 billion in 2010, an increase from $660 billion in 2006. Plenty of companies openly court their business:
- Marchers in this year's New York City gay pride parade held colorful, star-shaped balloons with Macy's (M) printed on them.
- Absolut Vodka ads regularly appear in LGBT media since 1981, and the vodka maker claims it's one of the first consumer brands to have embraced the community.
- AMR's (AMR) American Airlines has a Web page that offers deals geared toward LGBT travelers.
- Subaru has marketed to gays and lesbians for more than a decade and was one of the first advertisers to create custom commercials for Logo, a gay-themed cable channel.
Companies that court anti-gay groups do so at their own peril.
Target (TGT) CEO Gregg Steinhafel issued a public apology last year for the retailer's $150,000 donation to a Minnesota political group that opposes gay rights. The retailer's donation angered singer and gay rights activist Lady Gaga, who reportedly nixed a deal to sell a special edition of one of her albums through the chain. Steinhafel said in June that the retailer would stay "neutral" on the gay marriage debate.
Even with the gains being made by the LGBT community, plenty of businesses still listen to the AFA, Sharp said. The activists have "friendly relationships" with about a dozen or so major Fortune 500 companies, mainly retailers. AFA declined to name names in order to protect them from the ire of gay rights groups, he said. "If we have a concern, we have a name and number of somebody we can call."
Motley Fool contributor Jonathan Berr owns shares of Target. The Motley Fool owns shares of PepsiCo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Home Depot, Disney, Procter & Gamble, and PepsiCo, as well as creating a diagonal call position in PepsiCo.