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Lesbian Olympic Ad Gets Toned Down by John Hancock

John Hancock Financial Services has redone a commercial about adoption aimed at the lesbian community that first aired during the telecast of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in late July.

Chinese government policy against adoption by gay couples and protests from U.S. adoption agencies and the Christian ethics group American Family Association may have influenced the company.

The original spot featured two women cooing over a baby who looks Asian, complimenting each other as mothers and talking about finally becoming a family. The modified version, which is running during the Olympic games in Sydney, includes more neutral dialogue.

Gone are the phrases containing "mom" and "family." Instead, the two women fret about the baby's papers and tell her that she is in her new home. The theme of adoption is clear enough, but the tilt toward an upbringing in a lesbian household has been considerably straightened.

"When we previewed the ad with focus groups, we felt that they were misinterpreting what we are saying. They concentrated on the relationship between the women whereas the focus was supposed to be on the child," said Leslie Iuyeda, spokesperson for John Hancock. The company wanted to show that no matter how a child comes into a family, he or she is entitled to financial protection and it can help, Iuyeda said.

Criticism of the ad by adoption agencies in the United States has also made John Hancock nervous. Such agencies, which depend on China as a source for about 4,000 babies sent abroad each year, are aware of the Chinese government's stand since 1998 of declining applications from gay couples.

Sharon Kaufman, executive director of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, told The Wall Street Journal that Chinese officials may feel their law is not being respected by agencies authorized to do adoptions in China, and by families.

John Hancock did not have any comment regarding this issue. Nor did it say if it knew of the Chinese policy concerning adoption when it approved a campaign containing an Asian child.

The gay community, which initially gave kudos to Hancock for this non-sensational marketing campaign sensitive to their needs, is disappointed in the company's revision of the ad.

Kim Mills, educational director at the Human Rights Campaign, which works for lesbian and gay equal rights, said, "It was a real breakthrough ad and would have been a great message to convey through the Olympics." She felt the company lost its nerve, as did Ikea some years ago when it pulled a commercial about two men shopping for furniture after "getting flak". Interestingly, Ikea used the same ad recently.

John Hancock may have, knowingly or not, bypassed specific advantages that go with a more overt approach, she said.

Gays and lesbians have more discretionary income and more time in which to spend it, says Howard Buford of Prime Access, a New York advertising and direct marketing agency. They are also drawn toward companies that consider them positively.

Market researcher Greenfield Online estimates that 77 percent of gays switched over to such firms and 47 percent remained loyal despite encountering higher than usual prices.

The total purchasing power of gays and lesbians was $340 billion in 1999, according to a study by Marketresearch.com. It expects this number to increase to 30.8 percent by 2004.

Whether Hancock has backpedaled or simply clarified its strategy, it has now joins a fairly large and growing group of companies that take the "gay-vague" approach in advertising. Such ads run in mainstream media and include a visual or audio message that is discreetly presented in the larger context of the ad.

Auto manufacturer Subaru of America Inc. put the words "XENA LVR" and "P-TOWNIE" on the vanity plates in campaigns with the slogan "Different Drivers. Different Roads. One Car." The reference was to a TV show with a large lesbian following and to Provincetown, Cape Cod, Mass., which is popular with gays. A Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch ad showed three attractive men with the line, "For the last time. It's not a lifestyle, it's a life." Kenneth Cole, the leather good manufacturer, used the verbal pun, "Come out, come out, wherever you are."

Advertisers hope that the main theme will connect with the overall intended market while the subtle message within it will please the targeted group.


Anwar A. Husain, DiversityInc.com. September 14, 2000

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