A decade ago, the list of mainstream advertisers willing to court the gay and lesbian market had only a few names -- Subaru, Absolut vodka and American Airlines among them.
These days, corporate America is increasingly willing to risk boycotts from religious conservatives to gain favor with what many believe is a lucrative market. Some of the more recent companies to target gay and lesbian consumers include retailers Office Max and Neiman Marcus, Alamo rental cars and Hartford Insurance.
"There is a mainstreaming phenomenon going on,'' says Stephanie K. Blackwood, a partner in Spare Parts Inc., a New York-based company that helps companies market to gays. "The fear is eroding faster than I ever thought imaginable.''
Opening minds and easing comfort levels aside, experts say the Internet is also helping the trend along by making it easier for advertisers to target consumers who frequent gay Web sites.
The sites are proving to be popular because they allow even closeted gay people to socialize, check information archives and even shop "without fear of repercussions from the guy at the hardware store, the guy at the bank or even the people they see at church on Sunday,'' says Jeffrey Newman, chief operating officer of gfn.com, the Gay Financial Network, a new investing Web site.
"Someone once said that the Internet is the best place to be openly closeted,'' Newman says.
While many Web sites track the surfing habits of their customers and share the information with marketers, users of gay oriented Web sites are afforded a higher measure of privacy because most of these sites refuse to share such data.
Early statistics on the use of gay oriented sites show a trend that advertisers like.
The two leading sites, Gay.com and PlanetOut, attracted more than 700,000 people, combined, in February, according to Media Metrix, a research firm that tracks Internet usage. Gay.com says its own research puts its monthly visitor count in the millions.
By comparison, the Advocate -- a leading twice-monthly national gay magazine _ has a total paid circulation of about 86,000.
"In the gay and lesbian world, you've never been able to reach 100,000 at one time,'' says Lowell Selvin, CEO of Online Partners, the parent company of San Francisco-based Gay.com. "The reach and ability to target a mass audience has changed dramatically _ and forever.''
It's an audience that while sometimes difficult to quantify, appears to be well worth finding for advertisers.
Recent surveys conducted by Greenfield Online, a Connecticut-based Internet research company, found that the average annual household income for gays and lesbians is $57,000, compared with an overall household average of $53,000. Spare Parts estimates there are 15 million to 23 million lesbians and gay men nationwide.
The income and Web numbers have been enough to get the attention of Cleveland-based Office Max, which is hoping gay consumers will click on its ad on Gay.com and order office supplies.
That the consumers might be gay is secondary, says Office Max spokesman Steve Baisden.
"We're here to serve our customers,'' he says. "We don't care whether they're white, black, yellow, gay or lesbian.''
Experts say advertisers are also noting that companies that took early chances _ American Airlines, for example, established a gay marketing division in 1994 _ not only survived boycotts but gained considerable market share.
That sentiment and an increasing comfort with gay issues in general has even caused some members of the religious right to throw up their hands, says Bob Witeck, another marketer who helps companies reach gay consumers.
"Many people -- even deeply conservative people -- will say, 'It's just business,''' says Witeck, partner in Washington-based Witeck-Combs Communications, whose clients include Coors Brewing Co. and American Airlines.
Such an atmosphere of comfort has seen Subaru using lesbian tennis star Martina Navratilova as a spokeswoman in one of its latest mainstream TV ads. "Who says girls don't know about cars?'' Navratilova says as she turns to the camera with a sly smile.
Still, while many companies are advertising to gays, many prefer to keep their intentions in the closet.
Michael Wilke, a gay marketing and media historian based in New York, says he's often gotten the cold shoulder when trying to get companies to talk about the campaigns.
"It shows that companies are willing to do this,'' Wilke says. "But they're still not fully comfortable with it.''
MARTHA IRVINE, April 12, 2000, CHICAGO (AP) via NewsEdge Corporation
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