Girl Meets Ploy
November 06, 2007
By Eric Newman
"No one is advertising to me," she said flatly. (Danielle was, in fact, unable to recall seeing a single lesbian-specific advertisement in the mainstream media.) "Most advertising for gay consumers is directed at gay men," she continued. "I mean, there are ads in Go that are obviously for lesbians, but even in that magazine, there aren't any ads for the professional lesbian. It's all just T-shirts and stuff. You can't be taken seriously if you wear that."
That Danielle is not taken seriously as a consumer stands in sharp contrast to larger social and economic trends. In the 15 years since Newsweek took the controversial step of putting a lesbian couple on its cover, lesbian Americans are highly visible and knocking on the door of the cultural mainstream, buoyed by the success of network programs such as The L Word and openly-gay female celebrities including Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres.
What's more, new research on brand loyalty and spending power is showing that consumers like Danielle represent a tremendous, untapped opportunity for marketers. Their consumer behavior is clearly distinguishable from the historically more publicized discretionary spending of gay men, a demographic umbrella that lesbian consumers have historically found themselves stashed beneath, even though few brands would use the same marketing strategy on heterosexual men and women.
"There's always been this sense that lesbians were considered 'also-rans' alongside gay men, and that's reflected by the fact that they're not featured or focused on in advertising," said Stephanie Blackwood, partner and co-founder of the New York-based, gay-directed marketing agency Double Platinum.
For starters, lesbians represent a little less than half of the estimated $690 billion buying power of the homosexual population in America, a number that's expected to reach $835 billion by 2011, according to New York research firm Packaged Facts. In addition, while marketers have long salivated over the high average incomes purportedly enjoyed by professional gay men, lesbians are hardly scraping for pocket change. A 2002 study published in Contemporary Economic Policy found that they earn 30% more than their heterosexual counterparts. A 2007 study conducted by Community Marketing, San Francisco, revealed that single lesbians averaged annual incomes of $52,000, and that lesbian couples living together brought in just under $100,000 annually.
In addition, despite prevailing stereotypes of exaggerated frugality, recent studies demonstrate that lesbian-fueled domestic consumption patterns are, in many cases, as vigorous—if not more so—than any other. A survey of 10,000-plus self-identified lesbians, conducted by Community Marketing, San Francisco, revealed that 96% of respondents carried at least one credit card (the average for all American households is 76%). Lesbian consumers also drop around $2,000 each year on vacations and 64% patronize a "fine-dining establishment" at least once a week.
Right Makes Fright
Most marketers insist that, in creating messages aimed at lesbian consumers, they're making what's purely a business decision to boost their brand's customer base. Their ads, they maintain, shouldn't be taken as a statement about gay and lesbian civil rights and related political issues. But what the marketer intends and what the public perceives can, of course, be very different things. An ad directed at a lesbian couple can, to some viewers, appear tantamount to a social endorsement of that couple. Which is why an unspoken concern seems to exist among many marketers over the possibility of a backlash against their brands from a conservative or religious group.
That's not an idle threat, either. Back in 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention joined forces with the American Family Assn. and began a boycott of Disney for what the groups maintained was the corporation's openly gay agenda, evinced by Disney's inclusion of domestic-partner benefits in its employee healthcare package. The boycott ended in 2005, with the Mouse apparently no worse for the wear.
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