This week, Gay Star News announced that after eight years it is closing down, with the loss of 20 jobs. The reason, according to founders Tris Reid-Smith and Scott Nunn, is that brands were being tokenistic in their support for the LGBT+ community and not enough were investing in queer campaigns and on queer sites.
As a gay man, I think this is unfair to the advertising industry and to queer people in general. It also ignores the fact that 2019 marked a high point in brands addressing sexuality in their mainstream advertising.
This isn’t to say Gay Star News didn’t provide a service. It offered stories from across the globe and spearheaded programmes such as digital pride – a global pride event for those living in countries that still criminalise LGBT+ sexuality. However, while Gay Star News will be missed, its closing down has more to do with the state of today’s news industry than a lack of brand support. You only need to look at places such as The Guardian to see how challenging the market is – after years of heavy losses, The Guardian only broke even for the first time in 2019. The reality is that no matter how you identify yourself – gay, straight, bi or trans – people just don’t like paying for news.
Yet the news landscape is only one piece of the pie. The other has to do with the shift taking place in LGBT+ consumption behaviours. To put it another way, being LGBT+ is only one facet of my personality. I’m not defined by my sexuality, nor are my purchasing decisions any different to those of straight people. As Linda Riley, owner of Diva, once said: "Lesbians buy toothpaste too." And as queer culture has become part of the mainstream, I’m just as likely to hear about LGBT+ issues in The Atlantic or The New York Times as I am on Gay Star News. So what role do these specialised publications play? It’s unclear.
As a strategist, I also couldn’t and wouldn’t advise brands to target LGBT+ people as a niche consumer or use niche publications. That approach seems to go in the face of the great work done by people like Byron Sharp, Les Binet and Peter Field. Reach builds a brand and as marketers we need to be going after the biggest audience if we want to drive growth. That stance should be extended into the ways we target consumers. After all, LGBT+ people are still people; they read and consume media in the same ways as straight people. In addition, by branding us as the "pink pound", marketers are instead doing more harm than good – setting us apart from the normal or the every day.
So do LGBT+ titles still have a role to play? Surprisingly, after my bashing of LGBT+ targeting, the answer is yes. I want to see advertisers on these sites, but only when there is a business case behind it – when these sites can prove they have the readers and show the distinct value they’re bringing. What I don’t want to see is a premium on targeting LGBT+ people as a niche audience when I can target them in any other place. It simply does the community and the industry a massive disservice to be seen to be propping up websites merely to be hitting the LGBT+ advertising box. Which, after all, is the greatest example of tokenism.
Lee Menzies-Pearson is a senior strategist at Collider.