Madison Avenue Recognizes Same-Sex Couples as Key Market Sector

Greg DiNoto hadn’t set out to change the course of Madison Avenue. He just wanted to get some attention for his client.

In 1994, DiNoto and a team of executives at Deutsch, an advertising agency that was developing a reputation for using brash humor in commercials, created an ad that was eyebrow-raising: In one of a series of new spots for Ikea, two men talked about how buying a new dining-room table was a sign of their deepening commitment. The ad was the first on mainstream U.S. TV to depict a same-sex couple as consumers whose tastes and wallets mattered.

The ad ran only on local stations in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. — and only after 10 p.m. But DiNoto, who now heads his own advertising agency, remembers the reception for them. “The reverberations were significant,” he recalls. “There was a lot of press, and a lot of attention paid, both good and bad.”

These days, advertisers ranging from satellite broadcaster DirecTV to giant retailer Target to jeweler Tiffany & Co. know that ignoring gay consumers means cutting themselves off, potentially, from millions of dollars in discretionary spending. All have run commercials in recent years featuring same-sex couples.

The effort to include lesbian and gay couples is part of a broader industry effort to embrace a greater number of potential buyers in ads, ranging from interracial couples (General Mills’ Cheerios) to a family in which the father is an amputee (Procter & Gamble’s Swiffer).

“Some brands want to clearly communicate with younger audiences that they are contemporary, and the LGBT storyline is one of the most powerful things advertisers can use to demonstrate a contemporary point of view,” says Bob Witeck, who heads Witeck Communications, a D.C. consulting firm that helps companies communicate with gay and lesbian consumers.

Disposable personal income for the U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adult population in 2014 was estimated at $884 billion, according to an analysis commissioned by Witeck. The fear of backlash by other segments of the population has declined somewhat, say marketing executives.

Honey Maid, a brand of crackers owned by Mondelez Intl., last year ran an ad depicting a family comprised of two adult men and their children, along with other clans of differing backgrounds. “No matter how things change … what makes us wholesome never will,” says a narrator as the ad show various scenes of family life. The company also produced online documentaries about the people featured in the ad — a same-sex family, a mixed-race family, a military family, and a single dad. “We, like others, are recognizing the changing family dynamic in society,” notes Mondelez Intl. exec Gary Osifchin.

Deciding to feature same-sex couples in commercials does not come without risks. Wells Fargo launched a heartwarming spot earlier this year depicting a lesbian couple practicing sign language in preparation for their adoption of a deaf girl. “Hello, beautiful,” one of the women signs to the young girl. “We’re going to be your new mommies.”

Wells Fargo devised contingencies in case of negative comments on social media or even customer defections, says John Lake, LGBT segment manager for the financial-services firm. Some negative reaction did surface: Franklin Graham, chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn., urged people to pull money from the company. But Wells Fargo held its ground in statements emphasizing years spent working with LGBT customers and their desire for inclusion. “When you put work out like this, stand behind it strongly,” Lake says. “Don’t throw it out there and duck.”

Wells Fargo offers an accreditation program for financial advisers working with same-sex couples and their financial-planning needs, lending ballast to its marketing, Lake explains. Indeed, consumers are likely to gravitate to marketers whose outreach is authentic, not manufactured.

Pernod Ricard USA’s Absolut has advertised to gay and lesbian consumers for decades, says Jeffrey Moran, a vice president of public relations for the liquor concern. “You want to be spoken to in a language that you appreciate and understand,” he adds. Absolut vodka appeared in print ads aimed at gay consumers in 1979, and has sponsored “pride” and “coming out” events. Of the top 100 Absolut accounts in the U.S., he said, at least 15% are bars and restaurants catering to LGBT customers.

Ad executives expect more commercials to embrace these consumers. “Midcentury brands that have stuck to the same formula have lost relevance and lost an audience, and are becoming quite old and dated,” says Chris Garbutt, chief creative officer at the New York office of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, which worked with Tiffany on a recent campaign featuring a real New York-based gay couple. “The world moves on,” he adds.

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