Ford's gay ads stand not seen as retreat

Market too important to ignore, experts say

December 09, 2005|By ANDREA K. WALKER | ANDREA K. WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Ford Motor Co.'s decision this week to stop some advertising in gay publications doesn't necessarily signal a retreat by corporate America from marketing to this demographic because many of these companies have a lot more to lose by not doing so, advertising experts said.

"We're at the most comfortable place we've ever been in terms of gay advertising," said Michael Wilke, executive director of Commercial Closet Association, a nonprofit that educates corporations on how to avoid stereotypes in gay advertising. "The taboo has fallen dramatically in the past 10 years."

Ad spending in gay publications increased 28.4 percent last year to reach $207 million, the highest since 2000, says a report by Rivendell Media Co. Inc., a gay media placement firm in New Jersey, and advertising firm Prime Access Inc. The report also found that more than 150 Fortune 500 companies did some form of marketing geared to the gay community, up from 72 companies in 2001 and 19 in 1994.

The trend has been fueled by a number of factors, including the rising buying power of gays and lesbians, which is expected to reach $610 billion this year, according to Witeck-Combs Communications. The growth has paralleled developments in pop culture and politics that brought gay issues to the forefront.

Those include comedian Ellen DeGeneres' coming-out in 1997 and the popularity of television shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will and Grace, as well as the debate over same-sex marriage.

Further demonstrating the growth of the niche audience, media conglomerate Viacom recently introduced Logo, the country's first 24-hour gay programming channel. It is supported by advertising or sponsorships from some of the country's biggest corporations, including American Express, Dell, Eastman Kodak, Motorola and eBay, according to Commercial Closet.

But the situation with Ford shows there are still risks in targeting a gay clientele.

Ford said its decision to stop advertising its Jaguar and Land Rover brands in gay publications was a business decision, but many gay advocacy groups suspect the company bowed to pressure from the American Family Association. The group had boycotted the second-largest automaker because of what it called the company's "homosexual agenda," which included giving large donations to gay rights groups, offering benefits to same-sex couples and marketing to gays.

"Jaguar and Land Rover have been streamlining marketing and making reductions across the board," Ford spokesman Michael Moran said in a telephone interview yesterday. "The decisions on advertising were made for business reasons and not as a social statement one way or the other."

Still, Ford's decision raises the question of whether other companies will be influenced by movements against the gay community.

"I imagine that one of the consequences is that the religious right feels emboldened to put this kind of pressure on companies, but the question will be how do the mainstream companies respond," said Katherine Sender, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Business Not Politics. The Making of the Gay Market.

Some gay advocates worry that Ford's decision only encourages groups such as the Family Association to target other companies.

"Most companies are willing to advertise, and I don't find any stigma attached to it at all," said Todd Evans of Rivendell Media Inc. "Something like this, it empowers people with unsavory objectives."

But other gay advocates say Ford's explanation of financial reasons might well be the truth. Its Volvo brand will continue to advertise in gay publications as it has done for years.

The automaker's Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands have not targeted the gay market and there are no plans to do so, Moran said.

"I think Ford as a company is in trouble anyway," said Joe Landry, senior vice president and publisher of LPI Media Inc., a publisher of gay publications. "I'm not sure how the AFA got control of the story. Or how they managed to claim victory before Ford made any announcement about plans for advertising."

The conservative backlash isn't new, say those who follow the industry. But it has rarely been successful in stymieing an advertising campaign.

The last time a boycott directed at gay advertising issues was successful was in 1994, when AT&T pulled a direct marketing campaign featuring rainbow-colored phone cords, said Commercial Closet's Wilke, who tracks gay advertising.

"The pressure isn't anything new; this has been going on for a long time," said Mark Elderkin, president of Planet Out Inc. a holding company of gay media outlets. "Those brands that are looking at the spending and buying power of the gay community, that outweighs anything that these conservative groups are saying."

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