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Why marketing targeted at gay and lesbian consumers often misses its mark

Technology & Data

Why marketing targeted at gay and lesbian consumers often misses its mark


Dr Tom McNamara and Dr Irena Descubes’ ‘Practitioners Guide to Targeted Marketing and the Lesbian and Gay Community’ reveals a cynicism and dissatisfaction from members of the gay and lesbian community around its depiction in targeted marketing.

Photo Tom copyGay and lesbian individuals are an important and valuable consumer segment, relatively little is known about this group from a consumer behaviour standpoint.

This article provides a brief overview of the history of targeted marketing efforts towards gay and lesbian members of the community. Marketing targeted at these individuals is a relatively recent phenomenon and one that is not fully understood. Some guidelines are offered to marketing professionals wishing to reach this dynamic group of consumers.

Gay consumers are seen as one of the last frontiers in terms of marketing and advertising, but have been the focus of relatively little research. As a result, information that is publicly available about targeted marketing efforts, especially as it relates to the community, is sparse.

Photo Irena copyWhether they have meant to or not, companies have been advertising to homosexuals for at least a century. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that advertisers became aware of the economic potential of the gay community, with exclusive gay ad campaigns starting only in the 1980s.

The phenomenon grew, and by 2004 it was believed that an estimated 35% of the top 100 US companies directly targeted gay and lesbian consumers with ads. That said, it’s still relatively early days when it comes to targeted marketing towards gay and lesbian consumers.


The value of targeted marketing

Sub-cultures (i.e. cultural niches within a larger overall national culture) have been known to exhibit extreme loyalty towards brands that they identify with or which they believe speak to them personally.

The same has been found to exist within the gay community. Furthermore, the prices for these brands are seen as being inelastic, since people buy these products as a result of a bonding effect or perceived close association.

But many companies are still hesitant when it comes to direct marketing that uses the mainstream media to reach the community, the fear being that there will be a negative backlash from the larger (and therefore more financially valuable) heterosexual market. This fear is not totally irrational in that studies have shown that under certain conditions, mainstream consumers can have a negative reaction to ads that they feel are gay themed.

Fortunately, with high risk can come high reward, in that brands that take part in targeted marketing initiatives tend to be more visible and have more support from gay consumers.

Like any niche market, the gay and lesbian community are seen as appreciative of brands that make an effort to engage with them specifically. Almost 70% of homosexuals (male and female) admit to being positively influenced by ads that contain gay and lesbian imagery, and say that they would most likely buy these products.

Importantly, a knock-on effect has also been observed in that people who say they are accepting of homosexuals usually have positive attitudes towards brands that use ads depicting homosexuals or a homosexual lifestyle.

So what is the best way to engage in targeted marketing?

For the faint of heart, one strategy for mitigating the risk of a backlash from mainstream consumers is something known as ‘gay window’ advertising. Here, advertisers use special cues, signals and markers that allow their ads to be specifically noticed by gay consumers, but pass more or less unnoticed by consumers in general.

A closely related strategy is something known as ‘gay vague’. Here, the relationship or sexual orientation of the people appearing in an ad is not 100% clear.

Encouragingly enough, some studies have shown that gay men are more receptive to gay window ads than mainstream ones.

However, it is still not clear if it is better to use a subtle approach or an explicit approach when targeting the community. Studies have shown that almost 50% of ads found in the gay press have no gay markers or signals at all.

This would reflect the strategy of ‘standardisation’ in which the exact same ad is used in both mainstream and gay media.

Some companies go to the trouble of creating two versions of the same ad (one heterosexual and one homosexual), with the appropriate ad being placed in the appropriate media outlet.

Some believe that the best way to reach gay consumers is through the sponsorship of gay events and charities, as well as by giving away free samples. Cigarette companies have been shown to be extremely proficient at marketing in this way.

That said, studies have shown that a large number of gay men and lesbians would still like to see themselves depicted in mainstream advertisements.

Targeted marketing and gay and lesbian consumers: trying to hit a moving target?

Targeted marketing initiatives are made even more complicated by the absence of what one could call a monolithic gay market, with research showing that are several sub-strata of ‘gay’.

The complexity only increases when you take into account a gay/lesbian consumer’s ethnicity, age, religion, and many other factors. This would appear to make a ‘one-size-fits-all’ marketing strategy ineffective. As if this weren’t enough, some argue that we are entering a ‘post-gay’ period in which those within gay and lesbian communities are is not even given a second glance.

More troubling for advertisers, interviews with members of the community have shown that there is a high level of ambivalence, if not cynicism, towards targeted marketing efforts aimed at them.

But encouragingly, gay and lesbian consumers, like almost all consumers, have shown an innate desire to look for people like themselves when presented with print media (even when there is no overt LGBTIQA+ content), with evidence that gay males prefer ads showing male couples.

We have also seen that, in general, gay consumers (male and female) prefer ads that use overtly gay male and lesbian images rather than those that use hidden signals and codes, with each group exhibiting bias towards its own gender. Research has shown that members of the community have a strong desire to see themselves being represented as normal and not outside of the mainstream.

Currently there is a high degree of dissatisfaction with their portrayals.

Some of the main complaints are that ads targeting gay and lesbian members of the community are seen as ‘shallow’ or obsessed with sex.

Some advertisers explicitly target gay males in the hopes that there will be a ‘spill over’ effect in terms of a positive reception by lesbians. Unfortunately, the evidence supporting this strategy is mixed, especially in terms of fashion advertisements.

Some research has shown that lesbians are not particularly receptive to fashion ads that are clearly targeted to gay men, while other studies show that both gay men and lesbians prefer gay male images in fashion ads.


Managerial implications

The main take-away for those wishing to engage in targeted marketing initiatives focused on the gay and lesbian community would be to stop thinking of this consumer segment as a uniform entity. While the community of individuals may very well present a united front when it comes to fighting for their political, social and economic rights, differences have been found in their respective consumer behaviour and reception to advertising.

This means that advertisers might be better off thinking in terms of ‘L’, ‘G’, ‘B’, ‘T’, ‘I’, ‘Q’ and ‘A+’ as opposed to one grand LGBTIQA+ cohort when planning their marketing and advertising efforts.

Also, those advertisers wishing to avoid ‘controversy’ by focusing on specialised media outlets to reach LGBTIQA+ consumers are advised that this is not always the most efficient platform in terms of targeted marketing, since some studies have shown that their reach into this demographic can be limited. It appears that for an ad campaign to be effective, it must be mainstream.

For companies wishing to hedge their bets, and avoid not catering to heterosexual consumers in their marketing communications, codes and images that are easily recognised by gay and lesbian individuals can be used. One can also purposely make the gender or sexuality or the people in an ad vague.

Once touched by a brand, members gay and lesbian communities have been known to do extensive background searches on a company’s internal policies and history regarding the treatment of their community.

If your company is not genuinely gay- and lesbian-friendly you would be advised to not present yourself as such.


Authors’ Note: This article is an edited version of an extended technical paper which can be accessed here.


Dr Tom McNamara is an assistant professor at the ESC Rennes School of Business, France, and a former visiting lecturer at the French National Military Academy at Saint-Cyr, Coëtquidan, France.

Dr Irena Descubes is an assistant professor at the ESC Rennes School of Business, France, visiting lecturer at the University of Economics in Prague and a former visiting lecturer at the French National Military Academy at Saint-Cyr, Coëtquidan, France.



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