For decades, advertisers and agencies have used sports to appeal to the mass consumer market. For a far shorter time, advertisers and agencies have run campaigns aimed at the gay and lesbian market.
Now, much as peanut butter and chocolate formed a serendipitous union in commercials for Reese's candy, those previously disparate elements are coming together as campaigns aimed at homosexuals begin to feature athletes and sports imagery, and campaigns intended for the general market begin to feature gay and lesbian athletes.
The nascent trend is indicative of efforts by marketers to sharpen and freshen sales pitches, particularly during tougher economic times when they seek to spend limited ad budgets more effectively and efficiently. Indeed, the increasing interest among mainstream marketers in the so-called pink dollar can be traced to the recession a decade ago.
"It's a recognition that accomplishment has a lot of different faces," said Bob Witeck, a partner at Witeck Combs Communications in Washington, which specializes in corporate communications campaigns aimed at the gay and lesbian market for advertisers like the Coors Brewing Company division of the Adolph Coors Company.
One example of this new face of sports marketing is a print advertisement for Coors beer featuring Bruce Hayes, who has won medals swimming in the 1984 Summer Olympics and the 1994 Gay Games. Mr. Hayes is the first openly gay athlete included in the campaign, created by the Chicago office of FCB Worldwide, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies. Among the other athletes featured in the campaign, which carries the theme "Be original," are Joe Montana, Magic Johnson and Hank Aaron.
"The universe of corporations doing this is still pretty small, but progress is progress," said Mr. Hayes, a public relations executive in New York. "It's a good sign."
"I hope I'm not seen as an Olympic gold medalist who happens to be gay," he added, "but someone active in the community who's tied to sports."
Another example is a campaign appearing in mainstream media for the 2002 Subaru Forester, sold by Fuji Heavy Industries, featuring the tennis star Martina Navratilova, who had long expressed concern about losing endorsement contracts because she is a lesbian. Ms. Navratilova is one of three female athletes in the television and print campaign, carrying the theme "What are you made of?," by Temerlin McClain in Irving, Tex., also owned by Interpublic.
Two Major League Baseball teams, the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants, are starting to aim ads and promotions at homosexual fans. At least six teams in the Women's National Basketball Association are taking similar steps, to encourage lesbians to attend games and to thank those already buying tickets for doing so.
Then there's a print ad for the furniture sold by the Mitchell Gold Company, running in mainstream publications as well as magazines read by gay men and lesbians. The ad shows Corey Johnson, who attracted national attention after identifying himself as gay while playing football for a high school in Massachusetts. Mr. Johnson, now 19, peers from the ad, by Luquire George Andrews in Charlotte, N.C., as if poised for a big game, wearing a football uniform, shoulder pads and eye black.
"I've had people come up to me and say `Did I see you in a furniture ad?,' " Mr. Johnson said, laughing.
"Gay professional athletes talk about a large reason why they don't come out is because they'll lose their endorsements," he added. "Here, you have an athlete who is gay, and the reason he is in the ad is that he's gay."
In a recent poll taken for ESPN, reported by Outsports.com, a Web site for gay and lesbian sports fans (www.outsports.com), 17.5 percent of respondents said that an endorsement by an openly gay or lesbian athlete would make them less likely to buy a product. But 79 percent said it would have no effect - and 3.5 percent said they would be "more likely" to buy the product.
"When the economy is difficult, the brand and the connection people have to it become more important," said Mitchell Gold, president at Gold in Taylorsville, N.C., owned by the Rowe Companies. "I want our brand to stand for style, and for doing the right thing."
"If someone doesn't want to buy our furniture because of our use of gays and lesbians in advertising, that's O.K.," Mr. Gold said. So far, he added, supportive letters and e-mails have outweighed the few "nasty" ones. The responses came to the Johnson ad and another recent ad centered on a family composed of a child and two fathers.
"The stereotypes are breaking down, and that's a breath of fresh air," said Todd Evans, president and chief executive at Rivendell Marketing in Westfield, N.J., which sells ad space for newspapers and magazines read by gay men and lesbians.
Using sports to market to them makes sense, Mr. Evans said, when you consider "that one of the biggest categories of advertisers in local gay publications is health and fitness clubs."
The editorial coverage in those publications devoted to health, fitness and sports topics also makes them "a great place" to advertise related products, he added. For instance, the Coca-Cola Company plans to advertise KMX, a new energy drink aimed at men ages 19 to 29, in the magazines and newspapers represented by Rivendell.
One reason for the trend is that "the traditional stereotype of gay men as `sissies' is being replaced with more athletic-looking images" as many of them become "very involved in sports and fitness, just like the rest of society," said Michael Wilke, executive director of Commercial Closet in New York. He operates a Web site (www.commercialcloset.org) offering an archive of marketing materials devoted to advertising for and about homosexuals.
Many episodes of television series with gay and lesbian characters, like "Will and Grace" and "Queer as Folk," include scenes set in gyms and fitness clubs, he added, depicting the main characters working out.
However, "some of this advertising is still pretty subtle," Mr. Wilke said, adding: "People looking at the Corey Johnson ad, unless they're well-read, might not know who he is. Though obviously Martina is much more familiar, and there's more awareness of the implications of her being part of the Subaru campaign."
And while "there remains quite a dearth of openly gay and lesbian athletes," Mr. Wilke said, "I would expect to see more, which would mean more depictions of athletes as part of the community."
Also abetting the trend, he added, laughing, would be "an increased willingness on the part of gay sports fans to be openly gay - and openly sports fans."
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. July 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.