Conservative groups' latest boycott target: American Girl


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!

In the past 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.

Their latest target: the popular American Girl dolls and books.

The American Family Association, 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 AFA Web site to e-mail a protest to American Girl.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-abortion group based in Chicago, announced yesterday a boycott of the brand as well. 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 conservative activist Peter LaBarbera. "It used to be the left - guys on the lawn with `No Nukes' buttons. Now, it's pro-family conservatives fighting corporate America."

Boycotts remain a time-honored tactic for the left. A national coalition of farm workers, college students and liberal ministers recently ended a four-year boycott of Taco Bell after securing a promise of better working conditions for migrant tomato pickers.

But protests from the right tend to make a more visible splash because thousands of consumers can be mobilized through online newsletters and Christian radio stations.

It's impossible to quantify the effect of such protests. Outside analysts often dismiss the impact of economic protests as minimal, pointing to the eight-year Southern Baptist boycott of Disney, which had little effect.

But even if they don't cut into the bottom line, boycotts can be a force for change.

Last fall, the AFA began boycotting Procter & Gamble, noting its "support of the homosexual agenda" - specifically, 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.

Some 360,000 people signed a vow to stop buying Crest toothpaste, Tide detergent and Pampers diapers. Thousands more clogged Procter & Gamble'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 - though Shelton said that was a coincidence, attributable to corporate concerns about the content of specific episodes.

More significantly, the company now consults advocacy groups "anytime we're thinking of doing something that we think might be a concern to a segment of the population," Shelton said.

"Our success is in our numbers," said Randy Sharp, the AFA's director of special projects. "When they get thousands of calls a day, day after day, companies can't ignore it."

But advertiser spending in the gay and lesbian press was up 28 percent last year. Viacom's new 24-hour TV channel LOGO, aimed at the gay and lesbian market, has dozens of big-name advertisers, including Motorola and Orbitz.

Stephanie Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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