Marketers warm up to gay audience

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A certain summer will be remembered as a period of seismic shifts in attitudes toward gays, when the Supreme Court ruled against Texas' ban on sodomy, gay marriage in Canada became more widely accepted and Wal-Mart extended same sex-benefits to partners of its employees.

As if that weren't enough to spark a heated national debate, Havas' Euro RSCG Worldwide released research on the rise of a new subclass of highly groomed urban men dubbed "metrosexuals" and then "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"-the show suddenly on everyone's gaydar-exploded onto General Electric-owned networks Bravo and NBC.

"The idea that `Queer Eye' will create opportunities for advertisers to go that way is really exciting for us," said Patrick O'Neill, group creative director, Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York. "'Queer Eye' and [gay dating reality show] `Boy Meets Boy' is just the beginning."

more to come?

The ad and media world has not been shy about embracing a more gay-friendly attitude. Mid-July brought Conde Nast Publications' Bride's first gay wedding feature, and The Washington Post published its first gay marriage notice. Orbitz launched its first gay-targeted TV campaign during a "Gay Pride" rally earlier this summer. It's uncertain, however, whether other marketers will follow.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, thinks that if the programmers are comfortable with it, there's no reason advertisers won't come along, too. "This is probably the brightest moment that we're seeing since ABC ran `That Certain Summer' starring Hal Holbrook in 1972," he said, citing the TV movie credited as one of the first to address homosexuality.

`increased comfort level'

Marketers such as Volkswagen, Ikea, Absolut and Orbitz have all featured gay themes in commercials. However, Paul Poux, president of gay specialty shop Poux & Co., New York, isn't sure there's going to be any rush for other advertisers to join in, especially since marketers are so measurement-crazy. Nielsen Media Research doesn't measure gay viewing figures. But he has had calls from potential clients eager to learn more about the segment within the last few weeks.

Michael Wilke, executive director of the Commercial Closet, a non-profit organization that examines how gays are portrayed in advertising, said: "What we're seeing is an increased comfort level since 1997 when Ellen DeGeneres came out." Back then advertisers pulled out of the ABC sitcom finale, which was seen as too risky. Mr. Wilke said there's barely been any controversy about subsequent shows featuring gays, namely NBC's "Will & Grace," but also HBO's "Six Feet Under."

Jeffrey Marsh, Orbitz's director of marketing, said "the stars have aligned. We look at [the gay audience] as an opportunity, not a risk." But he warned that companies shouldn't leap on the gay bandwagon without real commitment: "We're a gay-friendly company, with non-discriminatory policies and gay staff members at all levels."

Moon City Productions, New York has worked with car manufacturer Subaru for the past 10 years to target gay consumers. "We have campaigns running now in the gay press and are looking very carefully in order to plan for 2004," said agency President John Nash, but he wonders whether Bravo's hit shows will have staying power and why there's still such an absence of gay women on TV.

beggars can't be choosers

Howard Buford, president of urban marketing agency Prime Access, New York, counts Ford Motor Co., JP Morgan Chase and Showtime among his clients. Marketers, he said, can't afford to be too fussy about whom they target. "In a time when budgets are down, everyone needs new consumers, no matter what your personal biases are. It is an opportunity to get extra sales." Washington, D.C.-based Witeck-Combs Communications estimated in May that gays' and lesbians' annual spending power is $450 billion a year.

But not all have been as brave as Bravo. Viacom's attempts to launch a gay-channel last year got mired in what some involved called "analysis paralysis." And last week President Bush said he wants to legislate a definition of marriage as only valid between a man and a woman, showing there is still a divide in public attitudes toward gay issues and culture.

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