On Ad-Less 'L Word,' Brands Become Part of the Plot

Series Will Allow Marketers to Get Into Storylines to Reach 'Affluent, Avid Consumers'

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Memo to Nike and Mars: The best place to kiss and make up with the gay and lesbian community might just be on Showtime's "The L Word."
'The L Word'
'The L Word' Credit: Showtime

While the premium cable TV network doesn't air commercials, its commercialism is coming out of the closet: Ilene Chaiken, the creator of "The L Word," has obtained something unprecedented among Hollywood's writers -- the power to control all brand integration for the show's final season, as well as for a spin-off series launching on the network next year.

Ms. Chaiken's newfound authority could be good news for Mars, the world's largest chocolate maker, and to Nike, the world's largest sneaker manufacturer. Two weeks ago, both companies found themselves in the awkward position of having to yank TV ads deemed offensive to gays. But it also appears to be good news for any consumer brand looking to connect with the show's demographically desirable average of 312,000 well-heeled -- and mostly female -- prime-time viewers between the ages of 18-49 every week.

"They recognize there's a market out there, but that they don't understand it," said Ms. Chaiken of her pay-cable network's willingness to let her take control. She added, "They're letting us sell it as if it were a unit."

Ourchart opportunity
Those with knowledge of the matter say that for $300,000, consumer brands can buy an "integration package" that will either incorporate a brand into existing "L Word" storylines or allow the brand to work with the show's writers to create customized storylines, participating in one episode or across several. Ms. Chaiken is also offering brands opportunities for integration around Ourchart.com, the largest social network for lesbians on the web.

While Ms. Chaiken wouldn't comment on the $300,000 figure, she did say that pricing is being kept flexible to allow the maximum number of potential partners.

The "L Word," she notes, isn't just about and for gays and lesbians; it's about "affluent, avid consumers plugged into pop culture," which Ms. Chaiken said makes the series "a rare, perfect opportunity for showcasing brands" to women, lesbian or not.

That, it turns out, is not hyperbole -- especially when it comes to reaching lesbians.
Ilene Chaiken, the creator of 'The L Word,' has obtained the power to control all brand integration for the show's final season.
Ilene Chaiken, the creator of 'The L Word,' has obtained the power to control all brand integration for the show's final season. Credit: Lisa O'Connor

Gerry McHugh, senior research director at Community Marketing, a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender consumer-research company, said that among lesbians, Showtime, with only 16 million subscribers, is the most-watched network after NBC, ABC and CBS.

According to Community Marketing's Lesbian Consumer Index -- a survey of buying and viewing habits culled from 10,000 lesbian respondents -- 39% of lesbian women said they watched Showtime, vs. only 18.7% of gay men.

Successfully reaching that lesbian viewership means a brand is reaching a decidedly educated, affluent and brand-conscious audience.

Better education, higher incomes
In a separate annual lesbian tourism study published last September, Community Marketing found that lesbian women are also better educated and earn more than their heterosexual counterparts, Mr. McHugh notes. Almost 40% of lesbian boomers have master's degrees; just more than a quarter of Gen X lesbians do, too.

Additionally, the median household income for lesbians is almost double the national norm: According to the Lesbian Consumer Index, a lesbian household had a median income of $80,000 last year -- almost twice the $48,201 that makes up the median income of the average U.S. household, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With eight more episodes of the final season remaining to be shot, Ms. Chaiken declined to say which brands were integrating, but many gay-friendly brands, such as former integration partner Orbitz, may want to return.

Jeff Marsh, marketing consultant to Orbitz and CEO of Chicago-based Marsh Partners, said that after Orbitz integrated into episodes in the last season of "The L Word," the online travel company's lesbian travel microsite saw a 25% increase in traffic. Ms. Chaiken said other pay-cable ventures, such as HBO and Starz, may soon follow suite, given the rising costs of TV production.

"They may be purists," she said, "but they'll get over it if they need to."
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