Market Focus: Gays and Lesbians

Not too long ago, gay and lesbian consumers were considered "advertising's most elusive yet lucrative target market." Yet these days, more and more closet doors are swinging open and hitting advertisers right where it counts...on the bottom line.

The gay and lesbian market represents one of the largest, most affluent minority-marketing groups in North America. No matter what you are selling, the gay/lesbian marketplace has become a vital component in one's overall marketing plan.

"Our money is just as green," said GLAAD entertainment media director Scott Seomin. "We can no longer be ignored."

There was a time that it was nearly impossible to market to gays and lesbians simply because many were not revealing their sexual orientation. Therefore, finding solid data on this elusive target has always been difficult. Yet, thanks to an increase in secondary research vehicles such as independent case studies and surveys, new data regarding this affluent market is beginning to trickle in, and make a huge impact.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau figures show that there are over 19 million openly gay and lesbian people in North America. A published survey from the University of Georgia measured the buying power of this market to be in excess of $450 billion, with a similar marketing survey by Simmons Market Research showing an average household income of a typical gay male to be 41 percent over the national average.

In the past, many media buyers have played it safe by centering gay-themed ads in gay-friendly cities such as San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Yet, recent Census figures revealed that over 600,000 same sex couples live in nearly every county in the US.

Nearly ten years ago, Swedish furniture retailer IKEA became one of the first mainstream retailers to run a gay-themed ad during primetime television. As viewers took a collective gasp, company heads across the United States began to realize the changing definition of the mainstream media.

These days, major automobile advertisers such as Jaguar, Volvo, and Saab have all made big news by launching major advertising campaigns specifically targeting their loyal gay and lesbian consumers. Besides traditional media, these very same companies are also sponsoring gay events, awards, and causes.

The travel industry has also long seen the value of these brand-loyal and affluent consumers. San Francisco-based gay and lesbian travel communications firm Community Marketing, Inc. found that gays and lesbians travel more frequently, visit more exotic locations, and spend a lot more money once they reach their vacation destination than their heterosexual counterparts.

If a company decides to advertise to this marketplace, gay consumers say they want to see ads that reflect their life and culture. The 2002 Gay Press Report by New York-based firms Prime Access Inc. and Rivendell Marketing showed that mainstream advertisers are now using more gay-focused artwork, themes, and messages to reach these consumers, with fewer relying on generic, mass-market ads.

Yet, this sort of affiliation with the community runs much deeper than a few print ads or 30-second spots. A gay/lesbian study done by GLCensus Partners (Syracuse University and OpusComm Group) showed that eight out of ten respondents agreed that they were more likely to buy products or services from companies they knew were "gay-friendly." Almost half of all the respondents agreed that when deciding on a product or service, they attempt to find out if the company is gay-friendly.

The fact that advertisers are becoming much more comfortable with the homosexual sector as a whole has much to do with the ever-changing view of gays and lesbians as they are portrayed on television. Back in the early 1990's, groundbreaking shows such as Ellen and MTV's The Real World exposed primetime audiences to gays and lesbians who were surprisingly, just like them.

Although it continues to be a sensitive issue, gay characters and storylines on primetime TV have become commonplace. The majority of the American public has found themselves embracing characters from such shows as WB's Dawson's Creek and NBC's Will and Grace. "Will Truman is one gay man who is welcomed into millions of American homes each and every week," said Sieman from GLAAD. Even the edgy Showtime program Queer as Folk gets accolades from heterosexuals and gays alike.

"Mass media images are very powerful," says founder and CEO Howard Buford of New York-based Prime Access, an agency that serves more Fortune 500 companies in the gay market than any other agency. "It gives a sense of comfort and familiarity to this sector of people. Yet, other factors such as marketing and politics also have to be at work to really see an obvious shift in viewing," continued Buford.

Advertisers are finding that one of the best ways to directly target the gay/lesbian marketplace is via the Internet. The Internet allows gays and lesbians to socialize, buy goods and services, and do research without any sort of public scrutiny. A recent, combined study by Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs Communications shows that 32 percent of gays and lesbians are online for over 21 hours each week, compared to 17 percent of non-gay users. There are a wide variety of Internet sites that cater especially to this marketplace, with both and leading the way.

The gay/lesbian community realizes that for many advertisers, this is virtually uncharted territory. "For a company to enter into this arena of advertising it is often based on one or two people at the top having some kind of tie to a gay or lesbian individual in their own lives," says Buford. "They are also looking at overall research and what their competitors are doing in terms of advertising to this bracket of people. It definitely gives you a competitive advantage."

Tricia Despres is a freelance writer, who has worked at Starcom Mediavest and Discovery Communications.

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