More companies pitching products to gays, lesbians


By DIANNE SOLÍS / The Dallas Morning News

A sleek Jaguar whizzes past a curve, with the advertising tag line: "Life is full of twists and turns. Care for a partner?"

It's Ford Motor Co.'s latest Jaguar commercial pitch – one where the word "partner" is a double entendre. Gays and lesbians are the target market here.

In this sluggish economy, more and more companies are fighting the competition by going after select market slices, from Hispanics to blacks to Asians.

An increasing number are pitching products and services directly to gay and lesbian consumers – in both the gay press and the mainstream media.

In doing so, Ford and other companies – including the purveyors of Miller beer, Mitchell Gold furniture, Absolut vodka, Tylenol PM and John Hancock financial services – are breaking ground in pop culture.

Other recent events suggest that the rift in Americans' feelings about homosexuality is closing. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in Texas and other states last month. And cable channel Bravo will start airing the first gay dating series, Boy Meets Boy, next week.

"Advertising has the power to change not just our brand preferences but how we think about each other," said Mike Wilke, the executive director of the 2-year-old Commercial Closet, a New York-based firm dedicated to tracking and improving the image of gays and lesbians in Commercial America. "Advertising comes in uninvited and has the ability to reach the unconverted both positively and negatively."

The Jaguar print ads are noteworthy because they come from one of America's biggest corporations and are gay-specific, rather than simply a general-interest ad running in a gay publication.

"We believe in messaging that connects with the consumer," said Jan Valentic, vice president of global marketing for Ford.

Ms. Valentic notes that the automaker was one of the first to have same-sex partner benefits and that it regularly contributes to the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

"The point of our doing this is that the consumer believes in values reciprocity," Ms. Valentic said. "So when they buy one of our products, they know that we are giving back to their community."

Some of the advertising is now taking on the issue of adoptions among gay men and lesbian couples. For example, Ford's ads for its Volvo cars in the gay press feature same-sex couples embracing each other, or in one case, an infant. The tagline reads: "Whether you're starting a family or creating one as you go. Volvo for life."


North Carolina furniture maker Mitchell Gold Co. was one of the first to break ground by featuring gay couples in mainstream publications such as Metropolitan Home, Elle Décor and House Beautiful. The company is known for trendy leather seating sold at Pottery Barn and featured on such shows as HBO's Sex and the City.
The print ads frequently feature buff men. But other ads have also featured children, including a barefoot little girl in a kid-size Mitchell Gold leather chair with two barefoot men behind her on a Mitchell Gold couch and the text, "A kid deserves to feel at home."

Mitchell Gold, the openly gay owner of the furniture company that takes his name, says the gay and lesbian community is largely untapped as a consumer market. And corporations are missing out on profits, he says. The furniture company has seen its revenue consistently climb 10 percent to 15 percent above industry numbers, and that includes 2002, when the economy was even more sluggish.

The ads with children are among his favorites, Mr. Gold says, because they break the stereotypical portrayal of gays and underscore his family-friendly company ways.

"It shows a shift," Mr. Gold said. "The gay community is much more family-oriented as adoption becomes more prevalent and there are more committed relationships."

Another mainstream television ad came from Miller Brewing Co. of Milwaukee. Called the "Switcharoo" campaign, it featured two women attempting to attract a man in a bar by buying him a Lite. When a second man enters the scene, the women grow even bubblier. Then the two men lock hands.

The humor of the ad, via the disappointment of the straight women, was "a real home run," said Howard Buford, of Prime Access Inc., an advertising and marketing firm that created the Jaguar and Volvo campaigns for the gay and lesbian market. "Women enjoyed it and gay men really liked it. Straight men really enjoyed it."

Buying power

Measuring the size and buying clout of the gay market can be tricky because so many gays and lesbians prefer discretion about their sexuality. But ad spending, as measured through the gay and lesbian press, has grown to about $210 million in 2001, according to Prime Access and Rivendell Marketing Co. While that's small for a niche market, the spending has quadrupled in less than a decade.
Some estimate that those who freely identify as gay and lesbian are 5 percent to 6 percent of the U.S. population, or 14 million to 15 million people – slightly bigger than the U.S. Asian market. Others believe gays represent as much as 10 percent of the U.S. population of 288 million, using the 1948 sexual behavior study by Alfred Kinsey.

In such urban markets as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston, the concentration of gays can boost the representation even higher. That's because gays and lesbians prefer to live where there is greater social tolerance, says Wes Combs, president of Witeck-Combs Communications Inc., a Washington-based public relations and marketing firm that specializes in the market and whose accounts include Ford, American Airlines and MTV.

Much has been made of the affluence of the gay market.

Witeck-Combs goes as far as to estimate that the gay, lesbian and bisexual community has a buying power of $450 billion. Buying power is generally defined as after-tax disposable income for goods and services.

The highly educated Asian community is estimated to have buying power of about $300 billion, according to the Selig Center for Economic Research at the University of Georgia.

Some view the buying power claim with skepticism and call gay affluence a myth. In June, the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said that among full-time employed men ages 25-54, the median earnings of partnered gay men was $3,000 below the income of men partnered with women. It also noted that 36 states don't prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Most researchers agree, though, that this is a highly politicized market.

'Loyal and affluent'

While U.S. prejudice against gays and lesbians has lessened in the last 20 years, "there are still a lot of hate crimes inflicted on gay people," said Mr. Combs, a former IBM marketing executive who openly declared his sexuality. And that is why the gay and lesbian market responds quickly to corporations that have favorable employment and marketing policies toward gays and lesbians, he says.
"Get the loyalty of this segment, and it is in the form of dollars," Mr. Combs said.

As a result, it's a market that more and more companies want to court.

Avis – the car company with the "We Try Harder" slogan – dedicated about 5 percent of its advertising and marketing budget to the gay and lesbian community in 2003.

In May, Avis came out with a print ad campaign that features two young men, one with his arm resting on the other's shoulder. The campaign highlights its policy for domestic partners to automatically be included as additional drivers.

The text reads: "No extra fees charged. No questions asked. That's been our policy for the past 10 years. So, why have we waited so long to tell you? Well, let's just say we came out in our time."

Avis, a unit of New York-based Cendant Corp., hopes to expand its leisure-travel vehicle rentals with the campaign.

"It is a loyal group and an affluent group, and one that our research shows will respond to marketing that speaks to their consumer needs," said Ted Deutsch, an Avis spokesman. "It happens that we were the first rental-car company that treated domestic partners the same as spouses in terms of additional rental fees."

Avis' marketing strategy also includes the sponsorship of gay and lesbian pride festivals, including such events in Texas, and the placement of coupons noting that for every rental, Avis will donate a dollar to the nonprofit Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

AMR Corp., operator of American Airlines Inc., also is actively courting the gay and lesbian market. It is one of the first Fortune 100 companies to dedicate a marketing team to the segment – called the Rainbow Team, after the rainbow flag that symbolizes gay pride.

American reaches out to the market with a variety of initiatives, says Tim Kincaid, part of the Rainbow Team.

"We don't ask window, aisle or straight when they walk in," he said. Instead, American has highlighted its policies, lined up sponsorships and become the official airline for many gay and lesbian conferences.

The airline offers discounts for many gay and lesbian organizations. It regularly has a float in Dallas gay pride parade in September. Last year, for example, the float carried two American vice presidents, who threw beads to the crowd.

Last year, the Human Rights Campaign gave 13 corporations, including AMR, Nike Inc., and Xerox Corp., exemplary records in their treatment of gays and lesbians as employees and consumers. Among the issues it looks at are whether a company has domestic partner benefits and includes gender identity on nondiscrimination policies.

Jesus Chairez, a Dallas disc jockey who is openly gay, says that he prefers companies that "support who I am."

That could be a big corporation such as American Airlines, or a gay-owned moving company found through the gay and lesbian yellow pages, he says. "To me, it is important to keep my money in the family."