GAY MEDIA REPORT: WHY ADVERTISERS ARE STILL FRIGHTENED OF THE G WORD - Major advertisers are still reluctant to tap into gay media and their high-spending audience. Belinda Archer asks, what’s their problem?

They have a high disposable income, they’re predominantly ABC1, they’re trend-setting, renowned for conspicuous consumption and, crucially, there are lots of them. So what’s the problem? You guessed it: they’re gay.

They have a high disposable income, they’re predominantly ABC1,

they’re trend-setting, renowned for conspicuous consumption and,

crucially, there are lots of them. So what’s the problem? You guessed

it: they’re gay.

It’s more than three decades since the decriminalisation of

homosexuality and gays are increasingly accepted in mainstream society,

yet many blue-chip advertisers are still reluctant to associate their

brands with them.

Great strides have been made, via political lobbying and energetic

campaigning, to overhaul the image of gays in the eyes of the general

public. The climate is such, now, that many celebrities think nothing of

’coming out’, TV soaps have begun writing gay characters into their

storylines, and it has even become fashionable to be a ’lipstick


In short, homosexuality is an accepted part of everyday life. But

big-name advertisers seem to have lagged behind this spirit of

broad-mindedness, preferring to channel their budgets into the more

tried and tested, supposedly risk-free ’heterosexual’ press than

experimenting with the gay media.

Theories abound as to why this should be so. Kim Watson, marketing

director of the leading paid-for publications, Gay Times and Diva,

believes it is because clients are old-fashioned and conservative by


’Marketers are more conservative than the general public. We find there

is still a reticence among them towards the gay media, partly because a

lot of our advertising is for telephone lines and sex shops which they

find off-putting. Cosmospolitan has more sex in it than Gay Times but

the type of sex that we portray is still seen as taboo by them.’

Aside from the ads, a glimpse at the editorial content of most of these

titles would suggest that advertisers really are being overly cautious

Gay Times, for example, is distributed by John Menzies and WH Smith and,

since 1995, has been brought down from the top shelf to nestle alongside

such infinitely acceptable lifestyle bibles as FHM and Loaded. The

publication reads like a monthly Time Out, and the latest issue carries

a Hello!-style profile of Ivan Massow, the top gay financier. Shots of

smouldering, moist young men in provocative poses and unbuttoned jeans

are almost non-existent.

Chris Payne, a director at Chronos Publishing, the force behind most of

the leading weekly free-sheets, such as the Pink Paper and Boyz,

believes it is ’fear of the unknown’ which is keeping away top


’Primarily, advertisers do not feel that they have enough information to

make the choice to use the gay publications,’ he says. ’They’ve got the

product and know it is bought by the gay community, but they are not

sure how to target the audience. The problem is that we haven’t sold

ourselves to agencies and brand guardians. We’ve got to educate people

and make them realise that advertising with us will not devalue their


The arguments in favour of using this niche sector are, on the surface,

indisputable. First, gays are affluent consumers and have a higher

disposable income than their heterosexual counterparts. According to a

survey carried out for Gay Times in December 1997, 34 per cent earn

pounds 16-30,000 per annum (23 per cent above the national average),

while 15 per cent earn more than pounds 30,000. The same study found

that 77 per cent are ABC1, which is also dramatically higher than the

national average of 43 per cent. Given that estimates suggest one in ten

of the UK population are gay or lesbian, around 5.6 million people, then

the pink economy - with an average annual wage of pounds 17,000 among

those in work - is worth up to pounds 95 billion in income terms. A 1995

Diva survey showed lesbians earning pounds 4,000 per annum more than the

national average.

In addition to all this, however, the gay community has expensive tastes

and is extremely brand loyal. According to a survey by independent

research company, Overlooked Opinions, the average expenditure on

clothes per month, for example, is pounds 160, while 34 per cent take at

least two holidays abroad each year and 40 per cent regularly drink

premium bottled lager. Many gays also have a Peter Pan mentality,

meaning they are active consumers of ’youth’ products well into their


Indeed, the case for using the gay media has proven irresistible for

several smaller advertisers. Record, theatre and film companies have all

come to appreciate the value of targeting this particular community, but

it is the big-spending fashion, fragrance, travel and alcohol

advertisers which remain broadly unconvinced, despite the barrage of

statistics demonstrating the huge uptake within the gay community of

their products.

Watson comments: ’Things have improved dramatically over the last ten

years. Before, we were lucky to get through on the phone to these

advertisers and their agencies, never mind in the door for a full

presentation, but many clients, such as fashion houses, just do not see

us as ’the right sort of vehicle’.’

The situation in America is far better. There, the very different social

fabric and taste for extremes has meant that the leading gay

publications, such as Advocate and Out, enjoy hefty support from a wide

range of advertisers, including the fashion companies and drinks giants

that are proving so elusive over here. The trend began in the late 70s

when Michel Roux, then chief executive of the US drinks distiller,

Carillion, placed a series of ads in gay magazines for such mainstream

brands as Grand Marnier, Bombay Gin and Absolut Vodka. The move was

considered very risky at the time but, as Roux famously put it, ’nothing

bad happened’, and Absolut went on to become the premium brand for many

vodka consumers.

In fact, Absolut Vodka appears to have learned from its US success and

became one of the first drinks brands to provide support for the UK gay

press, with Smirnoff following on swiftly.

Benson & Hedges has also gingerly experimented, lately becoming the

leading big-name display advertiser in the paid-for gay press here, but

these are the only household names in a portfolio of generally less than

blue-chip clients.

Most success with advertisers has been enjoyed by Attitude, the Northern

& Shell monthly. Its editorial content is the least overtly gay of all

the titles and it has managed to pull in such names as Estee Lauder,

Jigsaw, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Hugo Boss, Rotary Watches and Calvin


Payne argues that Attitude has attracted such advertisers because it is

not a truly gay product, but Andrew Creighton, ad manager on Attitude,

hits back: ’Yes, we are a coffee-table publication for gays for whom

being gay is not an issue. Unlike the others, we are not issue-led or

politically driven. We are about fashion, health, music and life-style.

But it really annoys me how the other titles try to claim they don’t get

these advertisers in simply because their editorial is so overtly gay.

What do they expect? They are printed on crap paper and they carry 100

pages of classified advertising including mail-order ads, pages of

contact ads and ads for pornography. It is too easy to be emotional

about this and accuse clients of homophobia.’

Whatever their reasons for not advertising in the gay press, big UK

companies are not foolish enough to alienate this lucrative market. In

1990, for example, Bass shrewdly launched a network of gay bars in

London, signalling its tacit support of homosexuality and providing key

outlets for the numerous gay free-sheets, while other top names have

also sponsored gay events such as Gay Pride, the annual event in London

which attracts around 250,000 gays and lesbians each year, plus Mardi

Gras, the four-day Manchester extravaganza which straddles the August

bank holiday. Both events enjoy the sponsorship support of such

companies as Bass, Citroen, Holsten and Smirnoff.

Gay Pride also produces an official guide each year which all the

sponsors advertise in, but they are conspicuous in their absence over

the rest of the year from the regular gay press.

Payne comments: ’Many advertisers are just dipping their toe in the

water with sponsorship, but we are going out to them saying that they

shouldn’t just do this once a year in a below-the-line way. They should

back it up with regular above-the-line activity.’

The dividends certainly seem to be impressive. The gay community is

famously brand loyal, and as Tom Konig Oppenheimer, a gay director of

the PR company, the Communications Store, insists: ’If you advertised in

the gay press you would be instantly liked.

All fags would rush out and buy the product because it would look like

you supported gay rights.’

It seems, however, that there are numerous, legitimate objections to

using the gay media, beyond a simple knee-jerk homophobic reaction. Some

media planners and buyers say none of the gay publications or broadcast

options deliver a big enough audience, making coverage small and

cost-per-thousand high. Aside from the gay press, of which only Boyz and

the Pink Paper are audited, there have so far only been experimental,

one-off or late-night TV and radio strands, such as Channel 4’s Queer

Street and BBC 2’s Gaytime TV. The UK’s first dedicated gay lifestyle

satellite TV channel, Gay TV, launched this January, but it broadcasts

for less than two hours in the middle of the night.

Radio has not enjoyed much more success: a bid for one of the London

radio licences by the gay satellite radio station, Freedom FM, was

turned down last year in favour of the indie station, Xfm.

Rupert Pyrah, an associate director at CDP Media, has placed ads for

Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges in the gay press, but he admits that

coverage is a problem for most. ’None of my other clients have either

the budget or the requirement to pick off any particular sector or small

community or special interest group in this way,’ he says.

Other objections include the worry that association with the gay media

could alienate non-gay consumers by making them think the product is a

’gay’ brand, while most of the gay titles’ somewhat erratic distribution

raises further eyebrows.

Adam Smith, a senior planner/buyer at BMP Optimum, comments: ’I treat

the gay press like I would a division of the trade press, where it is

the quality of circulation and distribution that counts. Distribution is

key, and you often see bundles of gay titles on the street which makes

you worry about wastage.’

Attitude’s Creighton sums up the problems: ’Sometimes the managing

director or marketing director can be homophobic, and sometimes the

young, laddish media buyers who love Loaded and FHM very obviously have

a problem and it can get emotional, but if that happens, we try to talk

to their bosses. We have to realise that we are not going to get on a

lot of schedules because we are only selling 55,000 copies per


Despite the struggles, the gay media market appears vibrant. Diva, the

leading lesbian title, is doubling its frequency to monthly in April, in

response to both reader and advertiser demand, while Chronos Publishing

is investing in heat-set colour reproduction technology from the end of

January which, hopefully, will remove that particular quality barrier to

mainstream advertisers.

Chronos is also launching a new weekly free-sheet, Velocity, in March,

aimed at London’s 18- to 26-year-old mainstream gay and straight

clubbers, and Gay Times is set to apply for its first ABC certificate

for the July-December 1998 period.

Watson remains convinced that the US experience is achievable over here.

’It will be a long, hard slog,’ she says, ’but the last ten years have

proven that we can make progress. We need to get not only the advertiser

but the media buyer and planner to feel secure with the product, and we

will continue to target those people.’