An extensive campaign to promote a new series on the pay- cable network Showtime is probably the most elaborate ever aimed by a mainstream marketer at gay audiences and probably the most elaborate ever with gay themes aimed at mainstream audiences.
The campaign, with a budget estimated at more than $10 million, is for the series "Queer as Folk," which begins on Sunday night and is scheduled to run for 22 episodes. The series is adapted from a popular British show and its sequel that drew large audiences last year with a titillating plot centered on the relationships - sexual and otherwise - among a tightknit group of gay men and lesbians, which included a seductive advertising executive.
The promotional blitz, ranging from print advertisements and parties to direct-mail brochures and giveaway items like paper fans, is the biggest for any series on Showtime, which competes furiously for subscribers and attention against the Home Box Office pay-cable network owned by Time Warner Inc. It is also emblematic of two trends that are helping to reshape the way advertisers reach potential customers.
On one hand, the campaign is indicative of efforts to appeal to the general audience by first generating positive word of mouth among niche markets deemed to be trend setters, like gays, blacks and urban residents.
"There's an opportunity to get a `buzz' going in the gay community for `Queer as Folk' and move outward from there," said Howard Buford, president and chief executive at Prime Access in New York, an agency that worked on the campaign and specializes in ads aimed at gay men and lesbians.
"It's relevant to a broader audience if you convince them the show is an authentic slice of gay and lesbian life," he added, "and the elements of storytelling and character are compelling enough that everyone can enjoy and relate to them."
The promotions also reflect the growing realization among traditional marketers that they need to keep up with the segmentation of the general audience into niches, each with its own interests and appetites. That is particularly true amid mounting signs of a slowdown in growth in consumer spending in the general market; campaigns focused on gay men, for instance, thrived during the last recession because of perceptions they spend more freely than their heterosexual counterparts.
"We wanted to cover all our bases," said Len Fogge, executive vice president for creative and marketing at the Showtime parent in New York, the Showtime Networks division of Viacom Inc., which has long presented TV series for specialty audiences like gays ("Brothers"), blacks ("Soul Food") and Hispanics ("Resurrection Boulevard").
" `Queer as Folk' really speaks to our brand promise of `No limits,' " he added, referring to the theme of Showtime's image ads. "We wanted to make sure everybody in the gay community knows about it and we get the buzz there."
Most of the campaign was created by an in-house unit at Showtime named the Red Group. Viacom sibling units like TDI, the outdoor advertising company, are being used along with independent media outlets and of course copious amounts of time on Showtime itself, including a "making of" infomercial.
The campaign focusing on gay viewers started in April. It uses with a knowing wink the phrase "coming out," which connotes declaring one's gay or lesbian sexual identity. For example, ads intended to stimulate Showtime subscription sales carry a special telephone number, 1-800-COMINGOUT. (Coincidentally, a study issued last week by Better World Advertising in San Francisco showed that 66.8 percent of the gay, bisexual and transgendered respondents said they subscribed to cable TV, but Showtime was not listed among their 12 most-watched networks, broadcast or cable.)
Other specialized elements of the "Queer as Folk" campaign include parties in gay clubs; posters on telephone kiosks and bus shelters in gay neighborhoods; the mail brochures, created by Triangle Marketing Services in New York; ads in magazines and newspapers aimed at gay readers like The Advocate, The Blade, HX, Out and XY; banner ads on gay- oriented Web sites like Gay.com and Planet Out; mints, coasters and postcards in gay bars; and the giveaway merchandise, which in addition to the fans include T-shirts and boxer shorts.
"The idea is to keep the integrity for the initial core audience while going after a more general audience," said Daniel Lipman, an executive producer of "Queer as Folk" along with Ron Cowen and Tony Jonas.
"It's a very hard call," he added. "There's no right or wrong way."
Mr. Lipman said he and the other producers were pleased with the campaign, adding that they had been involved in making decisions "for the key art and various promotional" elements.
"Showtime is trying to make an effort to include as many different kinds of audiences as possible," Mr. Lipman said. "Our job is to be as truthful to characters as you can.
"By doing all that, we hope we will find our audience," he added. "Within the specific, there's the universal."
While some aspects of "Queer as Folk" are being adapted for American viewers - for instance, the locale was shifted to Pittsburgh from Manchester, England - many of the plot lines are intact. The ad executive is still a central character and he is still seductive.
His name, however, was changed to Brian from Stuart.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. November 28, 2000
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