The lead characters of NBC-TV's "Will & Grace" and Showtime's "Queer as Folk" may testify to the growing mainstream acceptance of gays. But gay-themed magazines are still struggling to stay on the radar of major advertisers' media buyers.
Those who have watched the category mature stress that selling a gay publication in 2001 is very different from selling one in 1981. Or even 1991, when Genre was launched, says one of its founders. "The only things we could get were liquor, and then tobacco," says Don Tuthil, a Genre founder and current president-publisher of gay lifestyle magazines QSF and Passport.
Yet many key ad categories remain elusive to such magazines. An analysis of 2000 ad pages at Liberation Publications' The Advocate and Out-the only gay-oriented publications with pages audited by Publishers Information Bureau-show the top single brand advertisers were DuPont Pharmaceuticals' AIDS drug Sustiva, Merck & Co.'s hair-loss drug Propecia and PlanetOut Online (which, after a still-undecided merger is completed, would share the same corporate parent as Out and The Advocate).
Despite the changes of the past decade, pharmaceuticals, alcohol brands and community-related advertising continue to drive the titles.
Not all the ad news is bad, or merely stagnant. A spokesman says General Motors Corp.'s Saab Cars USA will continue to advertise in the pages of The Advocate, even in a year when the carmaker is yanking print ads from all but a handful of magazines. And publishers expressed confidence the fashion and travel categories would continue to grow.
The magazines could use it. In 2000, when the average audited magazine saw ad pages increase 10.1%, The Advocate's ad pages fell 3.2% and Out's dropped 14.8%.
"There's still a lot of resistance," says J.R. Pratts, publisher and founder of the 3-year-old Maxim-esque title Instinct. "MY experience is a lot of companies want to go after the gay market, but they're afraid to talk about gay sexuality."
A former editor at a leading gay-themed title suggests that such concerns have hurt the magazines' content as well. "There's still a real nervousness about 'Are you going to accept us?' " the former editor says. "Like the idea is: 'If they just see us as upstanding, red-cheeked, white, white-collar citizens like everyone else, then they'll accept us.' "
Others in the category bang a different gong. Peter Cummings, publisher of gay youth-targeted XY, wrote an impassioned 6,000-word article for his magazine blasting advertisers by name, including The Gap, Levi Strauss & Co. and Calvin Klein Inc., for avoiding his title.
"People automatically call anything associated with a gay youth magazine porny," read one passage of Mr. Cummings' rant. "It is 100% homophobia, pure and simple."
"That's not what the issue is," counter Joe Landry, publisher of Out and The Advocate, dismissing Mr. Cummings' concerns. "The issue is he doesn't have the circulation." Mr. Cummings did not return calls seeking comment.
Like most gay magazines, XY's circulation is unaudited. Currently, The Advocate, Genre, and Out are the only gay magazines audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
"Any book that's not audited is suspect," says Ruby Gottlieb, senior VP-director of planning and affiliated media services for Horizon Media, New York.
"We consider [non-audited publications] in the mix," says Melissa Pordy, senior VP-director of print services at Zenith Media, New York. "But you begin to question why they're not audited" if others in the category are.
Auditing is a catch-22 for some publishers. Gay-themed titles, like many emerging from lifestyle sub-cultures, are launched on a shoestring, and publishers conclude the cost of an ABC audit is an unaffordable luxury.
"We've had plans to be audited," says Francine Stevens, founder and publisher of lesbian magazine Curve. "We're trying to make the budget."
At agencies, gay media buys are frequently not broken out into special budgets or typically handled by agency staffers specializing in them. Given the wave of cutbacks and layoffs hitting agencies this year, that seems unlikely to change.
The market segment "doesn't get an ethnic budget," says Valerie Muller, senior VP-director of print services at Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York. "It may get a special consideration budget, whenever a client wants to create buzz."
Indeed, gay magazines frequently present themselves as providing readers prone to early adoption of new products and technologies.
Another media buyer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says agencies' stance of not separating gay media budgets was linked to how well such buys fit in with what's considered mainstream media buying. The buyer adds gay consumers do not wish to be spoken to in the way ethnic consumers do. And, as gay publishers point out, being gay cuts across multiple ethnic lines.
True enough, but it also means such publications lack in-house champions at major media agencies. The market segment in 1999 lost one of its most visible specialty shops, New York gay-oriented agency Mulryan/Nash, though Rivendell Marketing, Westfield, N.J., which reps gay media, continues to thrive.
One media buyer suggests the key to success is rethinking gay magazines' place in media plans.
"If you look at these books, and don't simply think of them as magazines for people who are gay, then they're amazingly effective vehicles to reach an audience that's very fashionable and trendy with a lot of double-income households," says John Frierson, president of Frierson, Mee & Partners, New York. "It's an excellent target for luxury style brands, and for everyone trying to reach a smart, cutting-edge audience."
Jon Fine, Advertising Age. February 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Crain Communications, Inc.. All rights reserved.