Gay marketing comes out of the closet: Advertisers are recognising that the 'pink pound' is undervalued. Mark Simpson tests its strength

Mark Simpson
Monday 21 September 1992 23:02 BST

'THEY are easy to define and reach. Their income level is higher than the average and they travel enormously,' said a spokesman for the Netherlands tourist board, explaining its decision to target this group.

He might have added that they have the best education and highest disposable income of any group in the US, prompting the New York Times to acclaim them as the market of the Nineties. Who are these dream consumers?

Finally, and quite literally, homosexuals have earned respect - for their cheque books at least. Benetton, Viking Books, Remy Martin and Rizzoli to name just a few are all queuing up to tap gay spending power by advertising in the burgeoning gay press. Even Philip Morris, a longtime supporter of Senator Jesse Helms, who has spoken out against homosexuality, is buying space in the gay press to push one of its brands. It would seem that the grind of recession has sharpened business sense and blunted prejudice.

There are signs that market-hungry British advertisers may follow this pragmatic American example. In the past few months, advertisements for Absolut vodka have begun to appear in the British gay press, particularly Gay Times, a news and arts magazine, and Boyz, a gay scene and lifestyle newspaper distributed free at gay clubs and pubs.

Terry Smith, advertising manager at Gay Times, describes this development as a breakthrough. 'We've had ads from record companies and the occasional gay-related film promo but this is the first of its kind and it seems to have provoked some inquiries from others.'

Oliver Peyton, Absolut's UK distributor, denied that he was specifically chasing the 'pink pound'.

'It's just another market,' he said. 'We're not targeting gay consumers, we're just not ignoring them as others have tended to do in the past.' He is unworried about any chance of Absolut being branded a 'gay vodka'. 'Frankly I don't care. We're after a stylish, tasteful, young image - not Sun readers.'

Mr Peyton said he had never felt it necessary to seek permission to run the ads from the parent company in Sweden, but he was fortunate in that Absolut in the US has been a solid advertiser in the gay press for years. The June issue of the leading lesbian and gay magazine the Advocate carried six pages of Absolut advertising in support of the annual Gay Pride celebrations.

What is surprising is that the Absolut campaign stands alone in Britain. The expanding commercial gay scene of pubs and clubs is a significant market for beverages and tobacco. The artwork for a new gay disco in central London, Village Youth, says it all: two idealised men, both with cigarettes and beer cans, are embracing.

Many breweries, such as Whitbread and Charrington, already profit from strings of pubs primarily frequented by gays (Charrington has six in central London alone), but neither has yet placed a single ad in the gay press.

Frazer Thompson, of Whitbread's marketing division, explained his company's low profile. 'We just don't know enough about that community and besides no one from the gay press has contacted us,' he said. 'But I wouldn't rule out placing ads in the gay press if it could be shown to be good value.'

Nevertheless he seemed concerned that such an ad should not be seen by straight men. Fragile male egos apparently still have to be nursed by breweries. Flowers beer, a Whitbread brand, was promoted last year with the slogan: 'Not all Flowers are pansies.'

Adam Lury of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, who was behind a campaign for Fuji Film that incorporated social issues such as racism and disability, considers this kind of anxiety outmoded and believes the public is nowadays sophisticated enough to realise that a product might be bought by more than one type of consumer. 'I don't think that people would make the mistake of thinking that only gay people drank a lager that had advertised to gay men.'

The benefits to advertisers in the US gay press would seem to be considerable. Market research shows that more than 90 per cent of gay men and 82 per cent of lesbians read magazines. William Tragos of TBWA Advertising, which represents Absolut in the US, believes that gay magazines are 'among our best buys because the readers have shown a much greater than average loyalty to our product'.

This might be due to a conscious decision to support a product that acknowledges its gay consumers and puts money into the gay community via the gay press.

At the root of the market's attractiveness, of course, is a lifestyle that tends to generate more disposable income. According to Adam Briggs, lecturer in advertising at the City of London Polytechnic: 'Gay men, and to a lesser extent lesbians, tend to have more money to spend on going out because they don't have families; and because they don't have families they tend to be inclined to go out more.' Mr Briggs also considers that their fashion consciousness and concentration in urban areas makes gay men and lesbians a kind of walking billboard. 'One of the best forms of advertising you can have is trend-setters adopting your product.'

John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which made the legendary 501 campaign, agrees: 'Gay men and blacks tend to be fashion leaders and sensitive to style-led advertising, so we keep half an eye on what they're doing.'

In November, advertisers will get a chance to gauge the size of the market more conclusively when a two-day Gay Lifestyles exhibition will be staged at Olympia in London. There will be about 100 exhibitors, mainly from gay-owned businesses that are also aimed at gays.

Brian McLaughlin, who is organising the show, believes that the gay market in Britain has come of age: 'It's no longer hiding - it's very open. All that's needed are one or two companies to start the process and the others will scramble after.'

(Photograph omitted)

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