Two powerful conservative groups hope to extend indefinitely an election-related boycott of Procter & Gamble Co. (search), contending that the consumer products giant is too supportive of gay rights and urging customers to stop buying Crest, Tide and Pampers.

Procter & Gamble, while proud of its reputation for recruiting and supporting a diverse work force, says boycott organizers have deliberately distorted the company's positions by suggesting incorrectly that P&G has endorsed same-sex marriage.

According to the Mississippi-based American Family Association (search), more than 287,000 people have signed onto the boycott since the AFA and the Christian ministry Focus on the Family (search) announced the campaign in mid-September. They asked supporters to stop buying P&G's top-selling brands of toothpaste, detergent and disposable diapers.

The boycott was sparked by P&G's support of a campaign in its home city of Cincinnati for a ballot measure to repeal Article 12, a 1993 city charter amendment prohibiting gay-rights laws. A P&G executive has taken leave to run the repeal campaign, and the company — according to spokesman Doug Shelton — has donated $40,000 to the effort. Voters decide the issue next Tuesday.

The repeal campaign has numerous mainstream backers — Cincinnati's mayor, its Chamber of Commerce, the local Roman Catholic archbishop and several major corporations, including Federated Department Stores Inc., owner of Macy's. They believe Article 12, the only ban of its kind in the nation, has tarnished the city's image and driven away business.

Only P&G was singled out for a boycott, however, because it has a high profile nationally.

"Companies with a large consumer base should be in the business of offering quality products," said Randy Sharp, the AFA's director of special projects. "When they become politically involved in an agenda opposed by a majority of the American people, they're alienating their consumers."

A boycott Web site run by the AFA asserts that Procter & Gamble "supports homosexual marriage." However, Shelton said the company has never made such an endorsement, nor has it taken any position on a statewide ballot measure in Ohio that would ban same-sex measure.

"We're not going to change our position on the repeal — we believe Article 12 is bad economic policy for Cincinnati," Shelton said. "Everything else is something we need to manage, to converse with our consumers who call us, and talk to them about what's the truth and what isn't."

Sharp defended the claim that P&G supports gay marriage.

"They may not come right out and say it," he said. "But it's quite clear and apparent that Procter & Gamble is seeking to support the homosexual agenda, and the number-one goal of the homosexual agenda is gay marriage, so I don't think it's a stretch to say they support gay marriage."

Both Shelton and the company's critics said it was too early to gauge the financial impact of the boycott, which is intended to last far beyond Election Day.

"A good consumer boycott takes two to four years to be felt," Sharp said.

Focus on the Family's vice president for public policy, Tom Minnery, said the boycott was worthwhile even if it didn't inflict serious financial damage.

"We don't measure the success by decline in sales — we measure it by the rise in controversy," he said. "P&G has traditionally stood for conservative values, and their turnabout is shocking to us. They have a lot of mending fences to do with Americans."

Laura Randall, a spokeswoman for the coalition seeking to repeal Article 12, said many corporations were part of the effort, "but for some reason, the Christian right is out to get Procter & Gamble."

The boycott organizers have compiled a list of P&G policies and actions which they denounce — including such relatively common corporate practices as offering domestic partnership benefits.

However, one of the conservatives' grievances concerns a 4-year-old advertisement that the company indeed regrets commissioning. The ad was for P&G's Downy anti-wrinkle treatment, and was illustrated by an out-of-focus photo of two men in bed, their clothes scattered on the floor.

"We freely admit it was a mistake," Shelton said. "Even if the ad had featured heterosexuals, it never should have run — it was in violation of our advertising guidelines."