Surviving to Live, to Love, to Learn--and to Spend

Marketing to the Forgotten

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Jonathon Feit Jonathon Feit
This post is about a different kind of diversity -- the forgotten kind.

Considering that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is teaming with independent GLBT television station HERE! to promote HIV/AIDS awareness at the 2007 Ribbon of Hope Celebration this Saturday in Los Angeles, it seems perfectly timed.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the disabled community's dire need for publicity--and moreover, the disservice that the marketing community does itself by neglecting this cohort in fear of political incorrectness. Every type of engagement will step on someone's toes (recently, the entire city of Fresno got offended), so smart marketers opt for subtle considerations, like ensuring that ad spots with a visual component (which is helpful to the deaf) also have sound (in service to the blind).

(The only category that doesn't accommodate the disabled in this way is, understandably, automotive. After all, no matter how inclusive, progressive, and technological we strive to be, cars for the blind are a long way off.)

Yet even among the disabled there exists a tragic hierarchy of "sexiness" in the public eye. No one with a beating heart would purport that one disability is more severe than any other, but certain disabilities are more easily relatable in the media. For example, we feel better empowered to help a blind person than a quadriplegic one; and although both Alzheimer's and Huntington's diseases condemn loved ones toward wretched senility, the latter is far less in vogue.

That said, despite a blinding spotlight around the developed world, HIV/AIDS patients languish near the bottom of the disability hierarchy, for a number of reasons:

First, a generalized lack of understanding about the nature of HIV and AIDS -- how the virus is contracted and its associated syndrome develops, for instance -- turns even the most innocent victims into social pariahs.

Second, despite the First Amendment, we live in a Puritan country that continues to be pocked by powerful conservative mentalities. The sexual stigma associated with HIV/AIDS devolves it quickly into a "dirty little secret," even though the disease need not be contracted through any form of deviant behavior. Modernity is finally changing this outmoded conception.

Third, from a marketing perspective, HIV/AIDS patients quickly lose their consumer attractiveness. The reasons are almost understandable, if you suspend any sort of compassion and just look at the numbers: if you're going to die soon, you don't make a particularly attractive long-term consumer. Plus, anti-retroviral drugs are so expensive and debilitative that patients' discretionary income vanishes like so much optimism.

But this meager picture just isn't true any more; it's an ignorant holdover from the days when HIV/AIDS was a condemnation to a short, suffering life. (Remember "Philadelphia"?)

Medicine hasn't eradicated the disease, but it is decreasing suffering and extending lives. As groups like the Los Angeles-based HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance get HIV/AIDS patients back on their feet and fight discrimination tooth-and-nail, these men and women are rebuilding their consumer power as quickly as their immune systems. And they harbor a fierce loyalty to the companies that kept them in mind.

According to William "Trip" Oldfield III, executive director of the Los Angeles-based pro bono organization, "People with HIV disease are living longer and more productive lives."

Not only are they surviving, they're also living, loving, learning -- and spending. If there has ever been a case for market specialization, it's the HIV/AIDS community -- and that opportunity goes far beyond the medications with which they are already being targeted.

Think about it: Medicine has stepped up its pursuit of terminal illnesses like HIV/AIDS and cancer with mind-blowing results. If my doctor just told me my life-threatening disease had been knocked down to undetectable levels, do you think I'd stick around to wallow in glee?

No way! I'd go on vacation, buy a new watch, savor a profound bottle of wine! And so goes the age-old truth: The early bird into the marketplace earns the whole of the worm. In the case of the disabled, that bird gets a hearty helping of thanks, to boot.

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