Starkman: Despite Backlash, Ford Motor Co. Supports Gay Rights

May 22, 2023, 1:20 PM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter, blogs at Starkman Approved. This column first appeared on his blog. 

By Eric Starkman

It’s typically not my practice to publicly celebrate when my judgements and insights prove correct, as no one appreciates a braggart. But I confess it’s often frustrating to see the media latch on to an issue I called attention to weeks earlier. One such example is Miller Lite’s obnoxious video promoting its program called, “Bad $#!T to Good $#!T,” where it decried the company’s previous print ads and those of competitors it deemed sexist and turned copies of them into fertilizer to grow hops for women brewers.

I called out Miller Lite’s video more than a month ago in my commentary about Bud Light’s questionable decision to anoint transgender TikTok transgender sensation Dylan Mulvaney as one of its brand ambassadors. The video, which was released in March to celebrate Women’s History Month, has surfaced in recent days and generating controversy because of its hostile feminist tone. I’m heartened that even some women found the ad a turnoff. It’s a wonder that anyone, regardless of their gender identity, could watch the video and perceive Miller Lite as a desirable beer.

If the video doesn’t encourage you to shun Miller Lite, sampling a bottle should do the trick.

Miller Lite’s ad preceded Bud Light’s Dylan Mulvaney debacle, but some internet sleuths mistakenly assumed it aired afterwards and began targeting the company. Miller Lite appears to have dodged a bullet because anger about the ad so far seems contained. Sofia Colucci and Elizabeth Hitch, who reportedly oversee Miller Lite’s marketing, should count their blessings for not achieving the marketing infamy of Alissa Gordon Heinerscheid, the Harvard MBA who was responsible for the Mulvaney debacle and has since taken a leave of absence.

Ford Motor Co. has a potential controversy on its hands. In recent days, a year-old video called “Ford’s Very Gay Raptor Redefines ‘Tough’ for a New Generation” has surfaced, prompting calls for a boycott.  The video, made in honor of a Gay Pride celebration in Germany, features a Ranger Raptor pickup being put through some rugged paces and then the badass nameplate emerges painted in sparkling gold adorned with rainbow graphics.

My definition of wokeness is when companies and individuals feign to support the progressive causes de jour in hope of garnering the approval of the legacy media and their cancel crowd supporters. Sofia Colucci, the Miller Lite marketing executive, strikes me as a wokester. After her name surfaced in connection with Miller Lite’s feminist video, she deleted many of her social media accounts, possibly not wanting to be associated with all the causes she once trumpeted.

The Daily Caller managed to grab some screenshots and identified a trend.

Bud Light’s embracement of Dylan Mulvaney was another textbook example of corporate wokeness: Mulvaney was chosen not because the TikTok sensation was a beer lover but rather because he was a man who a year ago declared he was a woman. In fact, I noticed in the background of a podcast filmed in Mulvaney’s living room a bottle of Dom Perignon, as well as liqueurs and a bottle of wine. In the videos I’ve seen, even Mulvaney seems surprised to have been tapped as a Bud Light ambassador.

Ford’s support of gay rights isn’t an example of corporate wokeness. The automaker was championing gay rights across the globe as well as workplace inclusion in all aspects of corporate life long before it was fashionable. Ford for decades hasn’t just talked the talk, it has walked the walk, naming a gay executive as one of its top managers some 30 years ago. The company refused to waver on its gay rights commitment even when it was bleeding red ink and likely losing sales because of a boycott organized by dozens of pro-family and religious groups.

Ford’s employee resource group, Ford Pride ERG (formerly GLOBE), was launched in 1995. Five years later, Ford, GM, and Chrysler jointly announced they would offer full health benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their then nearly 500,000 U.S. employees, a move hailed by gay rights activists as a watershed moment persuading other “old economy” employers to do the same.

David Murphy, then vice president of human resources at Ford, said the new benefit was saying to prospective employees, “Look, we are a diverse company, and we do recognize not only race and gender but sexual orientation.” He said Ford was sending a recruiting signal to the labor force.

Ford was among the first, if not the first, major corporation to appoint a gay executive to a top leadership position. His name was Allan Gilmour, who spent 34 years at Ford, eventually rising to CFO, and after retirement was recruited back to the company as vice chairman. Although Gilmour wasn’t openly gay throughout his career, he told Fortune in a 1997 interview his sexuality was “the subject of water cooler gossip.”

When Ford lured Gilmour out of retirement to rejoin Ford as vice chairman in 2002, it was public knowledge that he was gay because national and Detroit-area publications had picked up a story in a gay publication talking about his involvement in gay organizations and support for gay causes. Gilmour’s 1997 Fortune interview is a fascinating and moving read.

Ford’s gay rights support at times likely cost it sales. In 2006, American Family Association and more than 30 other conservative groups launched a Ford boycott, urging Christians not to buy cars from the company and its various brands. The groups pointed to Ford’s financial support of organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, its sponsorship of “gay pride” events, and its advertising in gay magazines and television programs.

“We have researched the automakers, and Ford is head and shoulders above the others in their financial support and contributions,” Randy Sharp, then AFA’s direct of special projects, told Baptist Press. “While it is true that others do [support gay causes], they don’t do it to the extent that the Ford Motor Company does. We looked at all the automakers and other companies, and it was quite clear to us that Ford was the top offender of family values.”

Ford in 2006 posted a $12.7 billion loss, still the biggest loss in its history. In June of that year, more than 75 Texas Ford dealers signed a letter urging then-Ford CEO Bill Ford to “cease” advertising in gay “media and events.” The dealers told Ford the boycott was “affecting our business.”

Despite the economic headwinds it was experiencing, Ford’s support of gay rights continued unabated.

Ford’s promotion of gay rights is considerably more thoughtful and strategic than the sophomoric marketing efforts of Bud Light’s and Miller Lite’s marketing people.

In support of a Gay Pride event in Cologne, Ford last year launched ‘Ford Presents Tough Talks’, a series of videos exploring how the automotive and other industries could foster a culture of inclusion and allyship for the LGBTQ+ community.

The first episode, hosted by Welsh sporting legend and first openly gay rugby union professional Gareth Thomas, discussed LGBTQ+ issues in the automotive industry. Ed Rogers, a Ford employee in the UK who is chair of Ford Pride, also appeared in the launch video.

Charlie Martin, a British racing driver and transgender rights activist talked about the challenges she faced transitioning within a male-dominated sport. Martin was featured putting the “Very Gay” Raptor pickup through its paces on a hill climb.

The “Very Gay” Raptor truck was created in response to a social media comment deriding the vehicle’s blue color as “very gay.”

Support of gay rights isn’t the only instance of Ford taking a controversial stand and refusing to back down in wake of protests and boycotts.

Although it’s well known that company founder Henry Ford was a rabid antisemite, less well known is that his grandson Henry Ford II was a major supporter of Israel and Detroit’s Jewish community, which I’ve written about previously (see second item).

In 2014, Ford named Mark Fields, who is Jewish, CEO. The Ford family also has given generously to Jewish causes, including donating a rare 500-year-old Torah scroll to a suburban Detroit synagogue.

Nevertheless, Ford isn’t without some serious corporate faults. It has been successfully sued multiple times for age discrimination, it has a poor environmental record (see herehere and here), and the company has been accused of knowingly selling vehicles with faulty transmissions and roofs that couldn’t withstand rollover crashes.  Ford’s shoddy manufacturing is such that it was forced to issue 67 recalls in 2022, and more than two dozen already this year, including recalls on previous recalls.

Still, Ford’s longstanding commitment to gay rights is formidable and admirable — a rare instance of a U.S. company acting on its corporate conscience and remaining true to its stated values even at the expense of profits.

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