European advertisers are coming out of the closet with campaigns that appeal to gay consumers
By ADAM SMITH | LONDON
A ruggedly handsome man emerges from under the hood of a car, rubbing his grimy hands on white cloth. Leaning against the dark sedan, another man, young and athletic looking, gifts the mechanic a neat new watch. His reward? The man leans in and the two share a kiss. Some kind of underground gay romantic comedy? No, it's a recent TV commercial for Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana, and it's part of a growing trend in European advertising toward ad campaigns that better represent consumers' diversity. And if those consumers are gay, so much the better for advertisers, who have found a way to tap into a disproportionately affluent slice of the market.
Consider: Britain's gays — accounting for around 6% of the population, or about 3.6 million — pocket an estimated $130 billion annually, according to a recent survey. Openly gay men in full-time jobs earn $18,000 a year more than the male national average; among lesbians, the premium is $12,000. (It's a similar story in France, too.) Hence, for advertisers — whether dreaming up mainstream publicity fit for a gay audience, or appealing directly via gay media — it's cool to think pink.
"This is an important market [with] good levels of disposable income," says a spokesman for British Airways, whose ads — like the one marking its commitment to EuroPride '06 — appear in gay media both in print and online. That publicity has delivered the airline "good success in terms of driving revenues," he adds. "And that will continue."
Commercial Closet Association, a New York City-based group that counsels firms on smarter representation of gays in advertising, logged 436 gay-themed ads in global gay and mainstream media last year — around a fifth of which appeared in Europe — versus around 350 in 2003. "What might seem a very brave step to make isn't that brave, really," says Jon Howard, strategy director of London ad agency Quiet Storm. He suggests gays are on average "more affluent, more interested in style and brands, and travel more" than their straight counterparts.
Moreover, some research indicates that merely delivering a gay-tailored message is enough to create a long-term relationship. According to the Outright 2006 survey, more than one-third of British gays and lesbians claim that tailored advertising in gay media will foster their loyalty to a brand — regardless of the quality relative to other brands. Gay consumers react kindly to companies "speaking to a part of their identity that is usually ignored," suggests David Muniz, commercial director at QSoft Consulting, which operates a string of gay media sites online.
Little wonder, then, that advertising in gay-oriented outlets is flourishing. Beverage companies like Anheuser-Busch, holiday firms including Travelocity and automakers such as Ford helped nudge advertising spend in the U.S. gay and lesbian press to $212 million last year, up more than a quarter since 2003, according to research carried out by Rivendell Media and Prime Access. Europe's markets might be more modest, but the gap is closing. Ad revenues at Diva, Britain's top-selling lesbian magazine, have ballooned 73% in the last five years, a period which saw overall British magazine advertising spend dip.
About half of all branded advertising in gay media in the U.S. is tailored for that market, and that, says Ian Johnson, managing director of Out Now Consulting, is "what European companies are not yet getting right." Some brands hit the right note: ads for the German National Tourist Office appearing in Britain earlier this year had a separate message for gays and lesbians. Others simply strike out heterosexual references for a gay audience. Ads in mainstream media in Britain last year suggested that without L'Oréal's moisturizer for men, "she thinks you look overworked"; for similar ads in gay publications, "she" became a "he." Others are less careful. One recent advertiser in Britain's gay press tried to pass off a cropped wedding snap of the groom and best man as two grooms.
Of course, targeting the same-sex market can still risk alienating some other consumers. The American Family Association (afa) this year reinstated a boycott on Ford autos, protesting the firm's product-focused ads in U.S. gay media. Randy Sharp, a director at afa, condemns Ford's ads for "giving credit to [homosexuality] as being a normal lifestyle." Ford says its decision last year to scrap publicity for its Jaguar brand was commercial, unrelated to pressure from afa.
The U.K. Advertising Standards Authority (asa) in recent months received 19 complaints that the gay kiss featured in Dolce & Gabbana's TV spot was "unacceptable" (asa dismissed the complaints upon investigation). Brewer Guinness didn't even get that far. In the mid-'90s, the company created a TV commercial featuring a man dashing to get ready for work; when he kisses his partner on the way out — to the tune of Tammy Wynette's Stand by Your Man — it becomes clear that his partner too is male. A veteran clean-up-TV activist panned the clip, and the ad was never aired.
While tolerance for gays and lesbians seems to have increased since then, Britain's asa received dozens of complaints — deemed not worthy of an official probe by the watchdog — about a female-on-female kiss in a recent British TV ad for fashion label French Connection. The company denies it set out to make a "gay-themed" commercial and says it was intended "as a visualization of the debate between fashion and style." Still, the watchdog upheld complaints involving the retailer's long-running (though now-pared-back) FCUK campaign. Getting consumers' attention — gay or straight — is an imprecise science, and what makes a brand cutting-edge will likely make it hands-off to others.