It used to be that corporations were skittish about targeting advertising and marketing campaigns toward the gay and lesbian market. But they’ve come a long way, baby.
Carmaker Subaru ran a successful print ad campaign several years back showing three different cars with gay-coded licence plates – “P-TOWNIE,” “CAMP OUT” and “XENA LVR” – with the slogan, “Different drivers. Different roads. One car.” Last spring L’Oreal Paris launched its Men’s Expert skin-care line with Kyan Douglas, the personal groomer of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy fame, as its spokesman. And PepsiCo made its presence known at Pride celebrations across the continent this past summer, the first soft drink company to do so.
Advertisers are targeting queer consumers like never before because of what they perceive to be a largely untapped market full of people with large amounts of disposable income with penchants for travel, technology and upscale products. But is this the reality — or is it a myth perpetuated by the media?
According to Lee Badgett, author of the book Money, Myths And Change: The Economic Lives Of Lesbians And Gay Men, the image of homos relied on by advertisers is largely myth, but not completely false. Besides, many gay men and lesbians don’t mind the perpetuation of some of these myths.
“We tend to like the idea that we are affluent and well-educated. It makes us look good,” says Badgett, who is an associate professor at the University Of Massachusetts, Amherst and the research director of the Institute For Gay And Lesbian Strategic Studies. “But even if we like this image, stereotypes always come back to bite you.”
Badgett points to the political arena where antigay activists often point to this stereotype as a reason to oppose antidiscrimination legislation. “They say we don’t need job protections because we already have good paying jobs. They say we don’t need the right to marry because we can afford to go hire a lawyer. They say we don’t need partner health insurance benefits because we all have good jobs. They pair this idea with ‘special rights,’ that we are already strong economically and yet we still want more.”
The research on income actually shows different results, says Badgett. Individually, gay men tend to earn less than heterosexual men do, and lesbians tend to earn less than heterosexual men but more than heterosexual women, in part because lesbians work more hours overall than heterosexual women.
As couples, gender seems to be the determining factor: a gay male couple makes the most, then a heterosexual couple, then a lesbian couple.
Another myth, according to Badgett, is that gay men and lesbians are not raising children and therefore can spend more money on themselves, another aspect that makes gay people attractive to marketers. Badgett calls this a “limited view” of the community.
“There is an element of truth there; gays are less likely to have kids. But lots of gay and lesbian couples do have kids, so to say that gays don’t have kids is to not have a full picture of gay and lesbian families.”
She points out that the 2000 US Census, which collected data on self-identified same-sex couples, showed that one in five male couples and one in three female couples have children. “That’s a lot of households, more than most people realize.”
Canadian stats show a smaller percentage of same-sex couples living with children. According to the results of the 2001 census, about 15 percent of the 15,200 self-identified female same-sex couples are living with children, compared to three percent of male same-sex couples. Critics say Canadian numbers generally underrepresent same-sex couples.
The fact that the image of the community lags behind the reality is not surprising, says Michael Wilke of Commercialcloset.org, a US-based on-line clearing-house that tracks queer images in advertising.
“Corporations are not sophisticated enough yet in how they understand the gay market,” says Wilke. “In part, that’s because they are not investing enough. So they’ll be stuck in old ideas for a while.”
Wilke says that only about 10 US corporations are investing enough capital to get a fuller picture of the community — companies like Subaru, IBM, Ford and American Express. “Most just throw an ad in a magazine and think they’ve done the work.”
Although homos have been shown to be “early adapters” of new technologies — everything from satellite radio to digital video recorders — that image is likely to change.
“In the future, you will see a downscaling of the gay and lesbian market in such a way that you will start to see more everyday products marketed to us. You could also see more children included in ads targeting the gay market.”
Canada has its own particular rewards and challenges when it comes to targeting gay consumers, according to Shane Wagg of Toronto-based Wilde Marketing, a gay-specific communications and marketing agency. On the plus side, more than 50 percent of queer consumers live in three markets — Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — and the cost of targeting gay consumers in these markets is relatively low. These two facts make advertising to queers very attractive to marketers.
Many companies, however, are still not advertising in gay venues in Canada. Wilde says that this is, in part, out of fear and trepidation. Another issue is the fact that companies looking to advertise in print on a national scale have no place to go. (Pink Triangle Press, Canada’s largest lesbian and gay media group, publishes only in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto — the paper you’re reading.) The gay community in Canada does not have a strong national publication, such as The Advocate or Out in the US, where many gay-targeted ads run.
“There’s also no major data profile available in Canada for gay consumers,” Wagg says, “so the numbers we have to use are estimates of the US market.”
(Xtra commissioned a survey conducted by Ipsos-Reid in 2004. It found Xtra readers to have above average incomes and to be responsive to gay-targeted advertising.)
Wagg adds that as a community, gay men and lesbians are still not trumpeting their buying power enough. And for those who are not troubled by consumerism, these corporate images of gay life will not be a bother.
“I don’t have a problem with being commodified,” says Wagg. “In fact, I’m offended that we haven’t been commodified. It’s about time we were. If companies want my money, they have to earn it.”
But for those like Badgett, the warning flags are up. “This is leading to our community being defined more and more in terms of money, which reinforces an image that the gay community is only middleclass, white, well-educated and largely male. This will lead to further divisions within our community. Those who do not fit that image will not feel a part of our community. It’s just not a strong political strategy.”