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NEW YORK — The L word is fashion’s catch-22.

Despite their station among the country’s population of 15 million self-identified lesbians, gay men and bisexuals — who have a combined buying power of roughly $485 billion annually — lesbians as a group are generally harder to identify, while at the same time, they’re still stereotyped by some as uninterested in style. Subsequently, few major corporations are willing to fund market research on the group, which includes approximately 6.3 million lesbians, with spending clout of approximately $200 billion annually, according to Washington, D.C.-based gay and lesbian marketing specialist Witeck-Combs Communications and

This story first appeared in the January 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

As a result, those women are left out of marketing plays staged by most of American industry, including the vast majority of fashion brands. The climate is only slightly sunnier for gay men, observed marketing executives who focus on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities.

“Lesbians are the truly untapped market,” declared Todd Evans, president and chief executive officer of Rivendell Media Co., a Mountainside, N.J.-based gay and lesbian media representative. “The big problem is there is still a lot of stereotyping,” said Evans, whose company represents 200 local gay and lesbian publications in the U.S. and Canada, including Gay City News, HX and Next in New York; Bay Windows in Boston; The Philadelphia Gay News; The Washington Blade; The Weekly News in Miami; Frontiers in Los Angeles, and The Gay & Lesbian Times in San Diego.

Indeed, there’s still an air of flannel shirts and Birkenstocks, baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts, tool belts and pickup trucks as defining currents in the public’s predominant perception of lesbian style, marketing executives acknowledged. And that picture is part of a broader misconception that gay women are a group with homogenous tastes, rather than a conglomeration of various subcultures and sensibilities, from lipstick lesbians to bois, a young, aggressive subculture, which has appropriated some attitudes and behaviors signaling a throwback to sexist male roles considered the norm in the Fifties.

Of course, some savvy fashion brands are making a tailored marketing appeal to lesbians and gay men. Those taking a direct route to the hearts, minds and wallets of gay women and men include Kenneth Cole, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein, Diesel, Sisley, Benetton, Banana Republic, Levi’s, 2(x)ist, Ron Chereskin and Abercrombie & Fitch, which, in its final magalogue this past holiday, portrayed two women in a commitment ceremony.

“Among the most visible brands to use same-sex couples in their advertising,” said Witeck-Combs president Wesley Combs, “certainly have been Kenneth Cole, Dolce & Gabbana, Benetton and Diesel.”

Other industries comprising clusters of major corporations that have been leaders in establishing gay-specific marketing campaigns include entertainment, travel, financial services, automotive, pharmaceuticals, liquor, beer and cigarettes, according to marketing experts. The pioneering efforts were made by liquor, beer and cigarette advertisers, in a nod to the gay bar and club scene, and as an alternative following TV’s decades-old ban on liquor commercials.

“Absolut was the only major corporate advertiser for years,” Combs said of the widely recognized groundbreaker in gay-tailored ads.

Such forays notwithstanding, a generally unfavorable marketing climate continues to prevail despite lesbian-gay-bisexual, or lgb, annual buying power, or disposable personal income, that exceeds the $344 billion expended by the nation’s 12 million Asian Americans by 41 percent, based on Asian-American income data researched by the Selig Center of Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. In fact, Asian Americans themselves, among other groups, comprise a share of lgb consumers, a group estimated to account for about 6 percent of the country’s overall adult population.

On a per-capita basis, lgb annual spending power becomes still more compelling. By that measure, the group has roughly $32,300 per person in aftertax income to spend annually on personal consumption, personal savings and interest payments. By comparison, Asian Americans command buying power of $28,700 annually, or 11 percent less than the lgb demographic, followed by African Americans, with $19,100, or 41 percent less, and Hispanic Americans, with $15,900, or 51 percent less, according to the Witeck-Combs and Selig Center figures.

In addition, gay women are less likely to have children in their households than heterosexual women and thus have a greater share of discretionary income. For the same reason, partners in same-sex couples tend to have more discretionary time than those in traditional marriages — another impetus to spend discretionary dollars. These dynamics, in turn, suggest a likelihood that lesbians without children will purchase various high-end products and services, such as travel, entertainment, financial services, cars, jewelry and apparel, gay marketing specialists noted. Inside Gay Households, a special forecast published by American Demographics in May 2003, found there are children under age 18 in the homes of one-third of the country’s gay women and in nearly one-quarter, or 22 percent, in those of gay men.

It’s an economic picture rendered slightly more complex, however, by discretionary income differences in households of single lesbians and those with women partners. “Lesbians as individuals in single-person households earn more than single heterosexual women in comparable jobs,” said 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. She and others declined to specify the income comparison, saying such research is proprietary; the Census Bureau does not ask respondents about sexual orientation.

“But when you put a lesbian couple together in a household,” Badgett added, “they earn less, on average, than heterosexual couples.”

That gap is relatively small, however. Analysis of Census 2000 data shows median income in households of same-sex female couples is $54,600, or just 5 percent less than the $57,530 median income in households of married couples, said Gary Gates, an Urban Institute demographer specializing in the gay and lesbian population. “Unmarried female partners tend to have higher educational levels than the broader population,” Gates said in delineating a trend that closes some of the earnings gap between men and women overall. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, women earned approximately 77 cents for each dollar earned by a man in 1999.

Still, the power of lesbians’ buying clout is being trumped by the fear that stereotypes of the group can sully the images of fashion brands. It’s a fear that pervades whether the people calling the shots are themselves straight or gay, asserted Michael Wilke, executive director of The Commercial Closet, a nonprofit project, based here, aiming to educate marketers, ad agencies and the media about inclusion and better representation of the lesbian and gay community in mainstream advertising.

“We openly gay people are often our own worst enemies,” Wilke conceded. “Gay executives in positions of power often underestimate the world’s ability to deal with gay- or lesbian-tailored marketing so they don’t take a chance.”

It is a reality fraught with irony. For one thing, lesbians and gays have long been perceived as trend-starting groups. For another, more than a few fashion designers and fashion models themselves are openly homosexual. And although gay male imagery is generally perceived by the broader population as more threatening than lesbian imagery — largely because of the lipstick lesbian fantasy appeal for some straight men — homosexual images of women in ads are far more scarce than those of men.

“Despite the greater acceptance of lesbians by straight men, I believe advertisers are seeking shock value — and gay men are more shocking than gay women,” posited Wilke, a former business journalist who founded The Commercial Closet around two and a half years ago.

Oddly, this dynamic is being perpetuated even as momentum for gay content in mainstream TV is beginning to build. Showtime is poised to debut its new show, “The L Word,” this Sunday, bringing a group of stylish, professional lesbians from Los Angeles into America’s living rooms. MTV’s on-again, off-again project to launch a gay cable channel, first announced in January 2002, is currently on. Comedy Central is slated to air a three-episode spoof of Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” beginning Feb. 17, called “Straight Plan for the Gay Man,” led by a group of advisers dubbed The Flab Four. And Ellen DeGeneres now finds herself with one of network TV’s hottest talk shows, NBC’s “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” seven years after she stirred considerable controversy and conversation when she came out in her own life and as the Ellen Morgan character in her former sitcom.

Also likely to raise lesbians’ profile among the broader public this year, observers predicted, is the growing debate over the national legalization of gay registered partnerships or marriage — particularly within the context of this year’s presidential campaign — as well as possible action by individual states to legally sanction registered partnerships, as have Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California and Hawaii. In addition, the Massachusetts courts have ruled the state must remedy the inequity between same-sex couples who want to marry and their heterosexual counterparts within six months.

“Within 10 years, I expect a lot of states will have some sort of recognition for same-sex couples; not full-fledged marriage, but I do think it will be a lot closer [to marriage] than gay people are now,” Badgett projected. Not coincidentally, she added, “within 10 years, the idea of marketing to the gay community will be ho-hum. It will be more about finding upper-middle-income lesbians in their 40s, without kids, to target.”

For now, though, there’s a dearth of marketing that is authentic and sincere in its dialogue with gay women, if it recognizes them at all. Much of the advertising aimed at the group is gay vague, flirting with imagery that is vaguely homoerotic, but failing to convey a message recognizing gay consumers for who they are and how they live their lives.

“There is nothing more offensive than to have a heterosexual-specific ad in a gay publication,” asserted Travis Pagel, co-founder of osmosis medialab, a four-year-old advertising and promotions firm here, focused on the gay and lesbian market. The good news, observers noted, is that the consciousness of gay consumers themselves has been raised: Gay-vague ads, or the use of general market ads in mainstream media — the standard approach in the Eighties and Nineties — are now unacceptable to most gay consumers, as a growing share of the group is open about their sexual orientation and enjoy more job benefits and legal protection than was the case as recently as 10 years ago. That, in turn, spells the possibility of influencing change.

In their September 2003 report, “Why Market To The Gay Community?” Witeck-Combs and Harris Interactive found 72 percent of gay women and men prefer products whose advertising is tailored to the gay market and 77 percent switched to buying brands of companies with a positive stance toward gays, such as Apple, IBM, AT&T, American Airlines and The Walt Disney Co.

In the Nineties, a range of big brands got such efforts off the ground. Major companies with notable gay marketing strategies, marketing executives said, include Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Naya, Crate & Barrel, Barnes & Noble, HBO, MTV, Showtime, America Online, American Express, Visa, Wells Fargo, Wachovia, John Hancock, E*Trade, American Airlines, United Airlines, Avis, IBM, Philips, AT&T, Verizon, SBC Communications, Subaru, Volvo, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover, Saturn and Ford. American Airlines ranks number one in lesbian, gay and bisexual customer loyalty, according to the joint findings of Witeck-Combs, which counts American as a client, and Harris Interactive.

“Gay-specific ads will always win out over gay-vague ads with gay consumers,” said Commercial Closet’s Wilke. “The only reason to do gay-vague ads is to avoid alienating mainstream consumers,” he continued. “What an advertiser does and admits to are often two different things — and fashion seems to do this as often as any other category.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on gay marketing. Part two will examine the media’s role in such marketing efforts and gay consumers’ media consumption.