Advertisers slowly edge out of the closet

We've come a long way since Jack Tripper's over-the-top antics to convince his landlord he was gay in Three's Company. Recently, many popular TV shows like Will & Grace, Ellen and Queer As Folk have incorporated gay characters and, in many instances, without falling back on stereotypes.
In the last five to 10 years, the ad industry has begun to follow pop culture's lead out of the closet. But while more conservative brands are addressing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) consumers in their own niche media, few North American companies dare to depict homosexual couples in mainstream advertising, and virtually none do in Canada.

We’ve come a long way since Jack Tripper’s over-the-top antics to convince his landlord he was gay in Three’s Company. Recently, many popular TV shows like Will & Grace, Ellen and Queer As Folk have incorporated gay characters and, in many instances, without falling back on stereotypes.

In the last five to 10 years, the ad industry has begun to follow pop culture’s lead out of the closet. But while more conservative brands are addressing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) consumers in their own niche media, few North American companies dare to depict homosexual couples in mainstream advertising, and virtually none do in Canada.

CommercialCloset.org, a Web site that monitors gay-related advertising, reports 2000 saw the highest ever number of homosexual-themed ads, with 106 having aired globally.

In Canada, there has been slow, but steady progress in targeting this community over the past few years, according to David Walberg, publisher and editor-in-chief of Xtra magazine, which is distributed by Pink Triangle Press in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa.

National advertising sales at the GLBT-skewed publication, which has a total audited circulation of 174,800, has increased by about 50% in the last three years. And while beer and alcohol manufacturers have supported the GLBT segment for years, Walberg says, ‘we’re now seeing companies that are more conservative, that you may not expect to see in the gay community.’

Among Xtra’s new clients in 2001 are Jaguar, Procter & Gamble and Royal Bank. Still, Canadian firms lag behind their U.S. counterparts in marketing to the GLBT population. ‘The American business class has been more daring,’ says Walberg. ‘The Canadian business class isn’t so bold. We wait for other people to try things and if they work, we’ll try them too.’

In part, marketers may be slow to recognize this group because there is little demographic information on it, especially in Canada. South of the border, however, Rockville-Md.-based research firm Packaged Facts recently suggested that 7% of the adult male population is gay, and 6% of women are lesbians. Meanwhile, other American figures indicate that this group is extremely loyal to those labels that speak to them. For example, in its 2001 Gay/Lesbian Consumer Online Group, which surveyed 6,000 GLBT Web browsers, Syracuse, N.Y.-based ad agency OpusComm Group, discovered that eight out of 10 respondents were likely to buy ‘gay friendly’ brands.

Here in Canada, Xtra’s latest readership survey, conducted by The Angus Reid Group in 1998, has piqued the attention of several ‘mainstream’ marketers due to its promising results, according to Walberg. The 1,000 analyzed responses indicated that 51% of the pub’s readers have a postsecondary degree, while 21% have household incomes in excess of $100,000, by far beating the national average of 9%.

In fact, Xtra’s data persuaded Procter & Gamble to advertise its Downy Wrinkle Resistant Spray when it launched a year ago. ‘They gave us numbers on the community that Statistics Canada doesn’t provide,’ admits Jeff Straker, brand manager for fabric enhancers at P&G. ‘[We found that] gays and lesbians are image conscious, and make up a high disposable income target group, which … seemed like a great fit.’

The two-page spread stars a male couple in bed, with clothing strewn messily around in the foreground. The headline is ‘you were more concerned with taking them off, then folding them up,’ and additional text describes how the product can make you presentable for brunch after the tryst.

Straker says the company chose a gay-specific image, which ran in both Xtra and Toronto-based Fab magazine, in order to break through the clutter in these niche publications. ‘Gay consumers are attuned to the fact that they’re being targeted by big corporations right now. They know we’re trying to capitalize on them, but think we don’t understand them as consumers.’ Although P&G can’t break down sales in this segment versus others, the strategy seems to have paid off, as the spray reached its sales target for 2001.

In the digital TV arena, brands have also responded favourably to PrideVision, which came out of the gates on Sept. 7. It already has about two dozen advertisers, according to director of sales Jason Hughes, including Sony, Warner Music Canada and Diet Pepsi. And while none of the ads are gay-centric yet, Hughes expects that to change. ‘I think as people are introduced to our medium more, advertisers will do something specific, and they will reap rich rewards because people will talk about it in the community.’

Advertisers can take advantage of a three-pronged buy with PrideVision, including airtime, Web (the site gets about 90,000 unique visitors a month), and sponsorship for its travelling street event. So far, the station is drawing a decent audience, as far as digital channels go, and it was one of the top 10 stations for the Oct. 1 to Nov. 16 time period, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But while communication with this audience is on the rise, it is fairly contained within the walls of its own community. ‘I think that a lot of marketers think tangential marketing is okay,’ says Max Valiquette, president of Toronto-based youth marketing firm Youthography. ‘Essentially, the notion is to create a campaign specifically targeted to the gay community, but only in the media where they’ll see it. That’s a step up from not recognizing it at all, but they aren’t showing it in mass media.’

This isn’t surprising to Valiquette, however, who says that some brands, particularly those in the beer category which are active in the gay scene, still resort to the banal macho male act on network TV, because they are afraid to turn off their possibly homophobic core user. ‘It doesn’t mean they’re bad, but it means that if you look at the sum total of the brand and extract its essence, it winds up being straight.’

On the other hand, ‘we’re seeing more ambiguous mainstream ads than ever before,’ he says, pointing to a Volkswagen ad where two guys drive around and pick up a chair they find on the street. ‘People wondered whether they were friends or dating.’

Valiquette believes the ambiguous route is a clever way for a larger brand to speak to both mainstream and GLBT consumers with a consistent message. ‘It lets a mainstream brand retain uniformity and simplicity, without fracturing the marketplace, but lets each individual consumer take what they want from it.’

John Kennedy, editor and assistant publisher of Fab magazine, which recently launched FabTV, a half-hour lifestyle show on PrideVision, agrees that strong heterosexual messaging doesn’t appeal to the gay community at all. ‘I’m not going to respond to a beautiful, buxom woman advertising a beer. They could advertise without alienating [and if they did] the community would buy those brands.’

And snubbing GLBT consumers in niche or mainstream media doesn’t make any more sense than disregarding other minority populations, according to Howard Buford, president of New York-based Prime Access, an ad shop that works on campaigns targeting the African-American and GLBT markets. ‘You want to communicate to gay and lesbian consumers, just like you want to communicate to African-American and Hispanic consumers, because the volume you need to maintain your market leadership will be greatly influenced by those audiences.’

Buford, who counts American Express, AOL Time Warner and HBO as clients, says some categories, like automotive and packaged goods, still virtually ignore the GLBT community altogether and are squandering an opportunity. ‘It’s especially true for products and services where the sell tends to be very personal. A message that says gay couples are welcome at a car dealership for instance [would get a response], because otherwise it could be very awkward to look at cars together [as a same-sex couple.]‘

The mind-set among GLBT consumers tends to be that they aren’t included or welcome until specifically told so, he explains. ‘Mainstream people assume it’s for them … African-Americans, gays, Hispanics wait for a message that it’s for them.’

Buford feels the rise of positive gay characters in television and film bodes well for a future of increased representation in the ad industry because it tends to emulate pop culture. ‘Advertising lagged in the acceptance of African-Americans [too.] Ultimately you’re going to see the inclusion of same-sex couples in vignettes in mainstream advertising.’

While in Canada you’d be hard-pressed to find any examples yet, there has been some progress in the U.S. recently. Boston-based John Hancock Financial Services is one company that is ahead of the curve. Last year, the firm unleashed an ad called ‘Immigration,’ featuring two women adopting a baby. ‘For years, we’ve been focusing on the key demographics that are being underserved,’ explains Roy Anderson, second VP of public relations at John Hancock. ‘Each of our ads focuses on the strength of the brand. [The idea] is to give [these consumers] the feeling that John Hancock understands them.’

However, the commercial, which ran during the Sydney Olympics, was edited after its first foray. In the original spot, one woman says to the other, ‘You’ll make a great Mom,’ and gets the response: ‘So will you.’ That dialogue was expunged, but the firm claims it was because viewers were focusing exclusively on the two women. ‘We didn’t want our sales message to be lost,’ says Anderson, who won’t say whether the company would run another homosexual-themed spot in the future. ‘Our goal was to raise awareness about what our product can fulfill. The real message was, when a child comes into a family, he’s entitled to financial protection.’

Another bold brand is Philip Morris’ Miller Lite, which in 2001 ran an ad where two women in a bar treat an attractive male to a beer, only to later see him holding hands with his boyfriend.

While Mike Wilke, executive director at commercialcloset.org, thinks these ads are a step in the right direction, he finds most mainstream ad portrayals to be exploitive.

For instance, one ad from Visa stars a man in a women’s clothing store, who gets strange looks from other shoppers, implying they are uncomfortable with his cross-dressing ways. The voiceover says, ‘no matter who you are, or what you’re into, isn’t it nice that you’re accepted?’ Then the spot cuts to the man, who is clad like a woman with a pig nose, and the audience finds out he’s a Hogette, a fanatical fan of the Washington Redskins. ‘I’d like to see them discontinue the use of stereotypes as the sole use of comedy,’ says Wilke. ‘It lacks creativity.’