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NEW YORK — The stage is set for more gay marketing plays in the year ahead.

The likely increase in marketing aimed at gay women and men stems from a confluence of conditions, including:

This story first appeared in the February 23, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

  • A 57 percent upswing in the number of fashion players with gay-targeted advertising in 2004 deemed appropriate and respectful to the gay community by the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay lobbying group.
  • A twofold increase, to 56 companies, rating a perfect score of 100 in HRC’s Corporate Equality Index in 2004 versus 2003. The index, which evaluates how major U.S. companies treat their gay employees, shareholders and consumers, is based on six criteria, including appropriate and respectful advertising.
  • Growth of 26 percent in the buying power of the country’s roughly 15 million gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered (glbt) adults to a projected $610 billion this year, according to market researcher Packaged Facts and gay strategic marketing specialist Witeck-Combs.
  • An expanding roster of gay characters in mainstream media this season, such as Patty Bouvier, Marge Simpson’s sister, who came out on Fox’s “The Simpson’s” last Sunday; bisexual Alex (Olivia Wilde), who shared a lesbian kiss with Marissa (Mischa Barton) on Fox’s “The O.C.,” and The WB’s “One Tree Hill’s” Peyton (Hilarie Burton), who has sported a “Dyke” T-shirt and kissed Anna (Daniella Alonso).

In addition, the emergence of new Witeck-Combs/Harris Interactive research indicating 24 percent of glb adults prefer the latest styles and trends, versus 17 percent of their heterosexual counterparts, and the upcoming launch this June of Viacom’s gay-targeted Logo channel, are also anticipated to boost what has been a slow, seven-year-old climb of marketers to communicate with the country’s glbt adults, who account for roughly 5 percent of the population.

In interviews with more than a half-dozen gay marketing and research specialists, Diet Pepsi’s Super Bowl spot featuring Carson Kressley of Bravo’s “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy,” and Cindy Crawford, was identified as a bellwether for a warmer gay-targeted climate in 2005. “We’re seeing a slight trend toward more gay-themed advertising in mainstream media, such as Diet Pepsi’s Super Bowl commercial,” observed Stephanie Blackwood, account director of marketing communications agency Double Platinum. “Prior to that, Pepsi had no [gay] profile, other than one print ad in the June 2004 issue of Out.”

The Diet Pepsi commercial, from DDB Needham Worldwide, shows a man walking down the street to the Bee Gees’ tune, “Stayin’ Alive,” and turning the heads of women, including Crawford — as well as Kressley, whose jaw drops.

“There’s more coming,” Blackwood forecast of marketing efforts appealing to gay consumers.

Trading on the element of surprise and popularity of “Queer Eye” among gay viewers, the Diet Pepsi spot was aired despite the conservative political and social climate reflected by President Bush’s reelection; the adoption of laws prohibiting same-sex marriages in 11 states, and the negative reaction to Janet Jackson’s breast-baring flap during her Super Bowl halftime performance in 2003.

Despite that backdrop, Logo has lured three advertisers — Subaru, Paramount and Orbitz — and when it hits the country’s basic digital cable TV packages this summer, it is likely to spark considerable commercial interest, marketing observers projected. “With the launch of [satellite channel] HereTV, and Logo upcoming, gay advertising is gaining more substance, meaning there are more vehicles,” offered Michael Lamb, publisher of Echelon, the one-year-old online magazine for glbt business professionals, which published its first bimonthly print edition with the recent December-January issue. In his role as Echelon’s publisher, Lamb said, he’s found corporate advertisers are either upping their gay ad budgets, or holding them flat.

Observed Michael Wilke, executive director of gay marketing watchdog Commercial Closet, “I expect a significant impact with the introduction of a new medium [such as Logo]. It will require more companies to up their spending.”

Further, marketers may be spurred by fresh research, such as the data mined in the Witeck-Combs/Harris Interactive national survey of 2,092 U.S. adults, of whom 107, or 5 percent, were self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Among its findings, disclosed this month:

  • The most common ways glb adults become aware of a company’s reputation for gay friendliness is by word of mouth (45 percent), gay Web sites (29 percent) and gay magazines or newspapers (29 percent).
  • 51 percent of glb consumers find ads that are informative, funny or witty, and include images of gay men or lesbians, the most important or a very important influence in their consideration of products or services.

  • 48 percent of the glb population finds gay-tailored ads most important or very important when considering products or services.

In the past year, the number of apparel and accessories companies as well as department stores with gay-targeted ads considered appropriate and respectful to the gay community by HRC grew to 11 from seven in 2003: Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Donna Karan, Federated Department Stores, Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Lillian Vernon Corp., Limited Brands Inc., The Men’s Wearhouse Inc., Nike Inc., Nordstrom Inc. and Reebok International. New to the list this year are Gap, Levi Strauss, Lillian Vernon, Limited Brands, The Men’s Wearhouse and Nordstrom, while Sears, Roebuck & Co., and Estée Lauder were dropped from it because of an absence of gay-targeted ads.

Another signpost, said Arthur Korent, Blackwood’s co-founder at Double Platinum and the agency’s creative director, is the appearance of more mainstream fashion advertisers in gay publications, whose fashion ads have in the past focused more on designer brands such as Gucci, Prada and Calvin Klein. “In the past 15 months, Banana Republic has advertised in The Advocate, Out or Instinct,” Korent said.

Out magazine’s top fashion advertisers in 2004 were H Tommy Hilfiger, Puma, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Diesel, Versace and Banana Republic, according to Out publisher Joe Landry, who said the magazine’s ad pages climbed 26 percent in 2004, while ads from fashion, watch, grooming and retail companies advanced at more than double that rate, or 58 percent.

The timing of such efforts could be right: The bulge in gay buying power projected for this year may be attributable, in part, to a growing portion of the population’s move into its peak earning years. By 2020, 25 percent of the gay community, or about 5.7 million people, will be 50 or older, according to “The U.S. Gay and Lesbian Market,” published in September by Packaged Facts and Witeck-Combs. This means the cohort is currently 35 or older — in what’s typically considered a person’s peak earnings period of 40 to 55 — or no more than five years away.

For now, though, gay vague imagery, or ads that are unclear in terms of sexual orientation, continues to dominate fashion advertising — an irony, considering the business regularly serves up a sexual appeal in its marketing and the style leadership for which the gay community is known. “In the world of fashion, we’ve seen a continuation of [mostly] gay vague advertising, like the Gucci campaign in Out magazine, which pictures two men lying in bed with a woman,” said Wesley Combs, president of Witeck-Combs. “It could be taken as homoerotic, but it’s unclear.”

Surveying today’s gay marketing scene, Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director of HRC’s workplace project, said, “I think it’s an educational process; it just takes time. A lot of it comes from gay male and lesbian employees pushing it.”

Besides citing the significance of appropriate marketing messages and imagery, nearly three-quarters, or 70 percent, of glb respondents to the Witeck-Combs/Harris poll said they are extremely or very likely to consider a brand that is known to provide equal workplace benefits for employees, including their gay male and lesbian personnel.

In that regard, the apparel and department store sectors rated a 71, ranking it eight points below the average industry performance standard of 79 in HRC’s 2004 Corporate Equality Index. Among the six criteria making up the index are the inclusion of the words “sexual orientation” in their primary, written non-discrimination policy; the provision of health insurance for same-sex domestic partners, and the offer of diversity training, as well as engaging in respectful and appropriate marketing to the glbt communities.

While 56 of the 379 companies in the Corporate Equality Index rated 100, the most common score was an 86, accorded to 124 firms, including six fashion players: Federated; Gap Inc.; Limited Brands; Nordstrom; Sears, Roebuck & Co., and Target. Reebok received a 79; Abercrombie & Fitch and Sara Lee each got a 71, and Donna Karan, Estée Lauder Cos., J.C. Penney Co., Kmart Corp., L.L. Bean and Liz Claiborne scored a 57. Wal-Mart rated a 43 and May Department Stores, 29.

The same two apparel marketers were given a perfect score of 100 in the 2004 CEI as were a year earlier: Nike and Levi Strauss & Co.

Despite such strides, it won’t be an entirely smooth courtship for apparel marketers who start targeting a population that has become increasingly complex: There are approximately 1.8 million gay and lesbian households with children and 2.6 million children with gay parents — which could curtail clothing spending on oneself by at least some of those adults. As Don Montuori, editor of Packaged Facts, said in a statement, the gay and lesbian population is one in which “day care, taxes and retirement accounts occupy as much a priority role as travel, fashion and home decor once did.”

(One measure in HRC’s 2004 Corporate Equality Index)

1. Nike 100%
2. Levi Strauss & Co. 100%
3. Gap Inc. 86%
4. Limited Brands 86%
5. Nordstrom 86%
6. Federated Department Stores 86%
7. Reebok International 79%
8. Abercrombie & Fitch 71%
9. Lillian Vernon Corp. 71%
10. The Men’s Wearhouse 71%
11. Donna Karan 57%

CEI-rated apparel and accessories purveyors with gay-targeted advertising increased to 11 last year, from seven in 2003.

*CEI rankings of 379 companies were established with six criteria that rate companies for gay-friendly workplace environments and consumer practices. The most common score in the index was 86.

Source: Human Rights Campaign, September 2004