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What portion of the people who watch TV's "Ellen" are gay?

Advertisers have no idea. And not knowing may have already determined whether the show returns next season.

No organization -- not Nielsen Media Research, which counts TV audiences; not Arbitron Co. or Scarborough Research, which count radio audiences; not any general-interest magazine or newspaper -- measures the number of people watching, listening or reading who are gay or lesbian.

And so the data that inform and affect the behavior of networks, programmers, advertisers and agencies -- the same data that is available sliced and diced for such groups as teen-agers, women, African-Americans and middle-income households -- are not broken down by sexual orientation.


Gay men and women have become highly sought after by marketers of fashion, music, investments, air travel and automobiles. And there is a new category of advertisers whose success depends on reaching as many gay men as possible, wherever they are: pharmaceutical companies selling HIV medications.

Over the last couple of years, they and other marketers have flooded more than 140 gay magazines and newspapers across the country with ads, more than $100 million worth last year, an increase of more than 35% over 1996.

And why not? The recent Simmons Gay Market Survey found gay consumers have higher household incomes than their mainstream counterparts, high levels of education and brand loyalty to advertisers that reach them in places like the gay media.

Obviously the gay press is read almost exclusively by gay people, and reader surveys confirm that. And the gay press reaches more than 5 million people. It's a large and accessible group, but it's not all of this country's estimated 10 million to 14 million gay men and women. Therefore, many marketers are also interested in reaching the "missing mass" of gay people who do not regularly read the gay press.

But no one in the mainstream media knows which programs and publications have significant gay audiences. Instead, hunches and stereotypes govern media buying decisions, techniques that would never be acceptable for other market segments.

One pharmaceutical company is trying to reach gay men through dance and alternative radio. Another is using men's fashion, health and music magazines. And Hartford Financial Services Group is advertising its new Diverse Household Auto Insurance in local mainstream newspapers and outdoor and transit ads ("Insurer places gay-themed ads in mainstream media," AA, March 2).

None of these media yet measure their gay audience. None.


It has always been presumed gay men listen to dance music, read publications such as Men's Health, Details and Spin, newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and see urban bus shelter and transit media. But there are presumably lots of heterosexuals who listen to dance music and read these publications, too. Without the data, we won't know.

In yielding to stereotypes, agencies run the very real risk of making inefficient media buys and giving the misleading impression that gay-targeted programs don't work.

With real data on gay audiences, any program or publication that could show a rich composition of gay men might have fashion and pharmaceutical companies fighting to advertise in it. ABC might even raise ad prices for "Ellen" based on this valuation of its viewers, compensating the network for the show's lower ratings. We've seen a premium similarly attached by advertisers to male viewers and younger viewers.


Some researchers may be concerned that privacy issues will suppress response rates. While this could conceivably happen, I don't think it poses a serious problem. Most gay people we've contacted, whether for qualitative or quantitative information, have been enthusiastic about participating and response rates have been high.

Companies targeting any other demographic segment wouldn't dream of buying advertising without reliable data on a program's or a publication's audience.

The number of advertisers trying to reach gay people will only grow. It is time for the organizations that measure TV, radio and publication audiences to measure the gay people, too.

Mr. Poux is VP, Mulryan/Nash, New York, an agency specializing in reaching gay and lesbian consumers.

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