Money Talks

I have to confess. I experience guilty pleasure from ostentatious displays of American consumerism. Mall of America? Fabulous. Las Vegas? Love it. Advertising? I watch the Superbowl for the commercials. If I had disposable income I would be an advertiser's dream.

I wish I could admit to at least mixed feelings about companies that market to the lesbian and gay community. I might feel ideologically pure if I railed against corporate greed, manipulation, and consumerism, but I can't. Instead, when a major company targets its advertising to the gay community, I turn into Sally Field at the Academy Awards: They like us--they really, really like us! I'm such a sucker.

On the cusp of the conspicuous-consumption, er, holiday season, two local events have put the spotlight on the lesbian and gay dollar. The first Rainbow Community Expo was held at the Minneapolis Convention Center this year. I strolled past exhibits for gay- and straight-owned companies, hawking everything from eyeglasses to cars. I visited all the booths, signed up to win fabulous prizes, and bought my dog a fashionable rainbow kerchief. It reminded me of a home and garden show, except the last time I went to one of those, the big draw was Jerry Mathers, who as a child starred in "Leave it to Beaver." At the Rainbow Expo we were entertained by the comedy troupe Hot Dish and a children's choir. Straight people may have more power and money, but we have more fun.

Then in October, Twin Cities Quorum, the lesbian and gay chamber of commerce, sponsored a seminar called Effective Marketing to the Gay and Lesbian Consumer, during which approximately 75 ad-agency representatives, small-business owners, and employees of large corporations listened to experts talk about how to capture those gay dollars.

Among the seminar's featured panelists was Michael Wilke, a reporter for Advertising Age magazine. Wilke covers the growing area of marketing to gay and lesbian consumers and has compiled a video of both the good and the bad gay imagery in television commercials. Many of the commercials--particularly those created for American audiences--fall into the latter category, with gay men and drag queens used as comic relief for straight consumers. Wilke also includes a section on what he calls "gay vague" commercials--those ads that could be interpreted as having gay characters. Some of these can be fun, but I've spent way to much time trying to read the subtext in that Quaker Toasted Oatmeal ad with the two men at the table discussing their breakfast. Roommates? Lovers? What is the relationship here?

Wilke says advertisers who use images of gays and lesbians have an impact on the community. "They're validating us," Wilke says. "We're going to love them and give them our money." There's that Sally Field thing again.

Scott Mayer, owner of SM & Associates and the organizer of the marketing seminar, says in addition to watching where companies spend their advertising dollars, lesbians and gays should pay attention to how companies respond to anti-gay attacks. American Airlines, Disney, and Apple have all been targeted by conservative groups for supporting their lesbian and gay employees, and all have withstood the pressure. "That deserves our community's respect and patronage," Mayer says.

Despite the lack of reliable research on lesbian and gay spending, straight companies are pouring millions of dollars into advertising in gay media--and that means primarily magazines. If you drew a picture of the gay community by looking at advertising in gay magazines a few years ago, you would have to conclude that our community is made up primarily of men who smoke, drink, take lots of medication, sell their life insurance, and call up phone-sex lines. Today's advertisers include fashion designers, airlines, computer companies, toothpaste, and financial services. Advertising, that enormously powerful shaper of images, is finally recognizing our existence.

But not every gay person looks to advertising for validation, and some actively oppose the targeting of gay consumers. Protests marred this year's Pride festivities in San Francisco when people objected to corporate sponsorship of gay events. Author Sarah Schulman, in her new book, Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, decries what she calls a fake public homosexuality, which "has been constructed to facilitate a double marketing strategy." Fake public homosexuality is used to sell products to gay people by capitalizing on our need for acceptance, while at the same time allowing straight people to see an acceptable--if distorted--image of gay people and deny their own dominance and homophobia. When you put it like that, those American Express ads and gay sitcom characters seem a little less benign.

Although Schulman's book, which is primarily about the co-opting of gay culture by mainstream artists, is a fascinating read and makes a persuasive argument about the negative aspects of selling gay culture, I intend to support companies that support our community--whether it's through advertising or company policies that benefit lesbian and gay employees. Schulman's point is compelling on an intellectual level, but I still have to buy toothpaste and I'd rather give my money to a company that gives something back to us.

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