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NEW YORK — Gay marketing efforts have been slow to take off — and lesbians have been left out of most of the action to date, which has focused primarily on gay men.

Despite the annual disposable income of $485 billion controlled by the country’s 15 million lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, and the group’s slowly rising profile, gay-specific marketing has yet to reach critical mass, let alone a consistently authentic appeal. “Gay marketing is the Olympic-sized wading pool,” asserted Michael Wilke, executive director of The Commercial Closet, a nonprofit project, based here, that educates marketers and the media about inclusion and better representation of the gay community in mainstream advertising.

This story first appeared in the January 28, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

One indication of how much deeper marketers can plumb is reflected in the world-leadership status accorded to U.S. business for its attempt to court gay consumers, in spite of the fledgling nature of those very activities, according to a variety of sources. “Australia is number two to the U.S., and Europe is third, where Germany and England are the leaders,” Wilke offered.

Although business for the most part has failed to communicate openly and honestly with gay men and women, media and marketing executives specializing in the gay audience waxed optimistic over the prospects for an improved climate over the next 10 years. The primary reason: A widening search for new niche markets to develop may spur more energetic and savvy efforts to appeal to a market (lesbians and bisexuals,) with annual buying power of $485 billion. It’s a group that’s particularly promising given its higher-than-average income and education levels; more discretionary time than heterosexuals because of fewer households with children, and a stronger-than-average propensity to spend on luxury goods, fashion, travel, entertainment and financial services, among other things.

“The core motivation will be money,” acknowledged Michael Lamb, publisher of Echelon magazine, a new bimonthly business magazine for lesbian and gay male professionals. Indeed, average household income of the country’s gay households is $61,300 annually, or 8 percent more than the $56,900 annual average in heterosexual households, found Forrester’s Consumer Technographics 2003 North American Benchmark Study. Further, Forrester determined 19 percent of both gay men and women possess post-graduate degrees, versus 12 percent of heterosexual women and 14 percent of heterosexual men.


Echelon, for one, will try to profit from those demographics when it publishes its first issue during the week of Feb. 9, with a cover price of $3.99 and a rate base of 5,000 subscribers. In addition, 40,000 copies will be distributed in bookstores and newsstands in the country’s 10 largest markets, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit, and 10,000 copies will be offered free at roughly 50 local Gay & Lesbian Chambers of Commerce and in some gay and lesbian community centers in those markets.

“A number of companies are ready to jump on the bandwagon and market to the gay community via conventional media vehicles, which don’t offer explicit sexual content,” Lamb posited, though he declined to cite advertisers in Echelon’s first edition. “There’s now a [one-year-old] National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce certifying gay male- and lesbian-owned businesses,” he added in referring to the activity that’s expanding a pool of potential advertisers for gay-specific media to cultivate.

In fact, 72 Fortune 500 brands advertised in the gay consumer market in 2001, up nearly fourfold from 19 in 1994, according to the 2002 Gay Press Report, the most recent data compiled by Prime Access, a multicultural marketing agency based here, and Rivendell Marketing, a lesbian and gay media representative in Mountainside, N.J. Those 72 brands included Gap Inc.’s Banana Republic, Levi’s and, although it’s Paris-based, Louis Vuitton.

While most of those efforts have been devoted to winning the wallets of gay men, there’s widespread agreement among marketing sources that wider media exposure will be crucial in spurring more ad campaigns and grassroots promotions courting gay women.

“Who?” Travis Pagel, co-founder of gay and lesbian ad specialist Osmosis Media Lab, said archly when asked to assess the state of marketing specifically to lesbians.

Even the most recent wave of TV shows portraying gay characters and lifestyles has focused on gay men — from Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which will air a marathon this Sunday as an entertainment alternative to the Super Bowl, to Showtime’s “Queer As Folk” and NBC’s “Will & Grace” — with the notable exception of Showtime’s new series, “the L word.” A lesbian couple will also emerge on TV this Sunday in Bravo’s premiere of “Gay Weddings Marathon,” an eight-part documentary following the trials and triumphs of four lesbian and gay male partners. And MTV’s newly rejuvenated effort to launch a gay cable channel, tentatively called Outlet, may also help bring lesbians more into the public’s consciousness.


Indeed, most marketing observers contacted by WWD concurred that lesbians’ lack of visibility, in the media and elsewhere, is the biggest stumbling block for marketers who might otherwise target the group. “Lesbians haven’t had as big a presence in mainstream TV as gay men,” observed Lee Badgett, an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts and research director at the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies in Amherst, Mass. “This is where the difference between gay men and lesbians matters.”

There are two ways in which broader media exposure will make it more important to aim marketing at lesbians, reasoned Jed Kolko, a San Francisco-based principal analyst at Forrester Research. “First, it means there will be more clear media buys, like ‘Will & Grace’ and ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,’” Kolko said. “They will be an instant way for marketers to find an audience of gay women. In another sense, it’s a way to create more icons — and spokespeople — in popular culture for [lesbians] to identify with.”

Addressing the notion of lesbians’ visibility in a Jan. 22 review of “the L word” at PlanetOut.com, Paula Martinac wrote, “The big question to ask of ‘the L word’ isn’t whether the actors are too pretty, but whether the series speaks to [lesbians’] humanity. If ‘the L word’ can do that, it will be a boon, since for years lesbians have been off everyone’s radar screens but our own.”

Currently, the gay community itself spends more time on the Internet than reading or watching any other media, followed by national gay magazines, such as Out, The Advocate, Girlfriends and the recently launched lesbian title Velvet Park, and local gay newspapers, according to various sources. Market research further shows the gay community, more than heterosexuals, favors lifestyle publications, home decor and design titles, news magazines and premium cable networks, such as Showtime, HBO and Cinemax.

Despite its leadership status with lesbians, the Internet is underexploited as a means to reach the group, as are direct mail and local gay media, sources said. “Not enough major advertisers look at local gay media,” advised Wesley Combs, president of Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based gay and lesbian marketing specialist. “It’s probably the biggest missed opportunity.” Local gay media is a cost-effective way to market to lesbians, ad agency executives said, and one that reaches 20 percent of the group, found the Witeck-Combs/Harris Interactive, September 2003 study, “Why Market to the Gay Community?” Too, Out is the only national gay magazine that carries a significant number of fashion ads, most of which appear in the September issue, coinciding with the fall fashion season, and in the June issue, coinciding with national gay pride month, sources noted.


As for the Internet’s potential, from March through May 2003, 76 percent of lesbians used the Internet, versus 69 percent of straight women, and 80 percent of gay men were online, against 70 percent of straight men, according to Forrester’s Consumer Technographics study. At the same time, 63 percent of wired homosexuals made a purchase online, compared with 53 percent of heterosexuals.

Content, community and commerce site Gay.com led the list of 10 Web destinations drawing the most gay users last spring, followed by PlanetOut, Evite, AOL Chat, Men’s Fitness Online, Salon.com, TowerRecords, NeimanMarcus, HBO and Yahoo!Groups, according to a joint report by Forrester Research and Nielsen/NetRatings. The next most popular fashion e-tail sites among lesbians and gay men were Abercrombie & Fitch, ranked 14th, and Banana Republic, 16th.

“The Internet will continue to play a major role both in building a gay community and as the place many people come out for the first time,” projected Forrester’s Kolko. “The anonymity of the ’Net is part of it, but it also gives people a chance to join a community if there isn’t a rich gay culture where they live.”

The latter condition is more likely to exist for lesbians than gay men, as a larger share of those women are more widely dispersed — more likely to live in suburbia and in a wider variety of urban neighborhoods, and less likely to be concentrated in gay-centric urban areas, observers noted. The metropolitan areas with the most densely populated lesbian and gay male communities, according to Urban Institute demographer Gary Gates, are: San Francisco/Oakland; Santa Fe; Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vt.; Seattle; Miami/Ft. Lauderdale; Austin, Texas; Madison, Wis.; Albuquerque, N.M., and Atlanta. (New York City’s Manhattan County is the county with the country’s sixth-highest concentration of lesbian and gay male enclaves, but the city’s five boroughs together do not rank among the top 10 metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of those groups.)

Though the geographic concentration of at least some of the lesbian market and a healthy portion of gay men make them a relatively easy group to reach, it’s only since the Nineties that gay-tailored marketing efforts have started to gain some traction.


“The vast majority of gay marketing activity has emerged since 1997, even though there are gay images in advertising that go back to 1917,” added Wilke, who coined the phrase gay-vague at Advertising Age seven years ago, to describe ads that covertly seem to imply gayness — an intention often denied by the advertiser.

Ad milestones that have popped up, from time to time, in conveying lesbian and gay themes, whether tailored to that audience or vague, as critiqued by commercialcloset.org, include:

  • 1917: Ivory soap’s ad features an illustration of men showering in a locker room, as men just outside the shower stalls appeared to be casting glances at the nude bathers. The Ivory ad was drawn by an artist himself considered to be gay, J.C. Leyendecker, who created the Arrow Collar Man and illustrated hundreds of Saturday Evening Post covers.
  • 1991: A Kmart national TV spot that portrayed two men in suits, one of whom puts his arm around the other as they walk through a Kmart store, after having bought gifts for their fathers. Kmart denied the couple was gay but pulled the commercial, created by Ross Roy, when it caused a stir.
  • 1992: Pfizer’s Lucilla vitamins commercial in Japan, which showed a woman running her fingers along the neck and chest of her sweaty squash partner, almost to her cleavage, and saying, “You are truly beautiful. You look so young. It’s all right with me if you become fond of me.” It is one of the earliest known ads with female same-sex appeal.
  • 1995: A Nike TV spot that was the first and only one yet to focus on HIV, by following real-life, openly gay, HIV-positive athlete Ric Muñoz of Los Angeles as he ran in a park. The Wieden & Kennedy effort, which aired nationwide and in Japan and the U.K., was an acclaimed part of the Just Do It campaign, “though it might have been seen as exploitative.”
  • 1995: In an unusually controversial Calvin Klein campaign some saw as child pornography, male youths were asked revealing questions by a man off camera. After a storm of public criticism and a Justice Department investigation into whether the models were under age, Klein issued a statement of apology for the in-house effort.

  • 1996: Subaru became the first major marketer to target lesbians in an ongoing manner and the first auto maker to launch gay-tailored ads. The Mulryan/Nash national print, outdoor and TV campaign featured Martina Navratilova, among other professional women athletes. Navratilova has also appeared in ads for Apple and The New York Times.
  • 1996: TJ Maxx briefly aired a commercial depicting a stereotyped, flamboyant apparel designer throwing a tantrum. Surprisingly, the spot ended with him playing the notes F, A, G on a piano. Protests by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ensued and the regional ad, created by Ingalls Advertising, was pulled after just a few days.
  • 1998: A Unilever Impulse perfume spot is one of England’s first with an overtly gay couple. As a man helps a woman pick up groceries he jarred loose when he bumped into her, they catch each other’s eye. At that moment his male partner taps him on the shoulder and they walk away, arms around each other. The cheeky tag line: “Men can’t help acting on Impulse.”
  • 2002: Despite it’s reputation as a gay-friendly advertiser, Ikea ran an ad in The Los Angeles Times showing a predatory lesbian convict, putting the moves on her cellmate. The lecherous stereotype drew the ire of the gay community and the half-page ad was pulled.
  • 2003: Absolut, the earliest major brand to advertise in gay media, back in 1981, launched its most overtly gay campaign ever, portraying a series of nine gay and lesbian closets on billboards in San Francisco in June and New York in October, National Gay History month. The closets featured a lavender door with a shoe rack on it and a gay pride flag, among other items.

One measure of how far gay marketing efforts have come is illuminated by the outcome of the uproar that greeted current media darling Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out episode on the ABC sitcom “Ellen” in 1997, versus the effect of an ABC “thirtysomething” episode in 1989, which contained a scene with two gay men merely talking in bed. ABC lost more than $1 million in ads over the “thirtysomething” program. In contrast, the network lost some advertisers for the widely publicized “Ellen” episode but was able to charge replacement advertisers twice the regular rate. Advertisers that pulled out of the “Ellen” episode, now considered a watershed in gay TV programming and, as a result, gay marketing that has followed, included J.C. Penney, Chrysler, Mazda and Wendy’s.


The next big step forward will come, said Prime Access chief executive Howard Buford, “When there’s more for marketers to lose by standing still; when the do-nothing approach becomes risky enough that people overcome their fear.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on gay marketing. Part one appeared on Jan. 14.

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