OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

If 1967 brought the Summer of Love to America, then 2003 has brought the Summer of Gay Love - and Madison Avenue is paying ardent attention.

A skein of swift, startling shifts is shining a bright rainbow spotlight on gay life as never before, from the US Supreme Court's decision striking down state sodomy laws to the national Episcopal Church's confirmation of its first openly homosexual bishop to the introduction by the Bravo cable TV network, owned by NBC, of two homophilic reality series, Boy Meets Boy and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

"It's a pop culture tremor," Peter Arnell, the CEO of the Arnell Group, whose discerning eye has served advertisers from Donna Karan to Reebok to Samsung, says. One Arnell client, the Jose Cuervo tequila brand marketed by Diageo, is running ads in magazines read by gay men and lesbians that proclaim: "We're here. We're Cuervo."

Among the other major companies now targeting the pink dollar, joining pioneers such as Absolut vodka, are Avis Rent a Car, Beiersdorf, Colgate-Palmolive, Earthlink, Ford Motor, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Target Stores, Visa and Volkswagen.

Some, such as the Orbitz travel website, are adding gay-themed ads to the mix of pitches they run in general-market media.

The "maelstrom of gayness", as it's called by Jonah Disend, the president of Redscout, a strategic consultant, has its stormy elements, too. President Bush and the Vatican are vowing to fiercely fight proposals to legalise gay marriage. And public opinion polls since the Supreme Court ruling in June are signalling an unexpected backlash on gay-rights issues, reversing recent long-term trends toward acceptance.

That may put at risk the advertisers and agencies "out there" in terms of marketing to out lesbians and gay men. Though it has been eons since anyone aiming ads at the gay market has paid serious attention to boycott threats from fundamentalist and right-wing forces - in fact, the movement in the past couple of years has been in exactly the opposite direction, with companies such as P&G refusing to run commercials in programmes perceived as anti-gay - the spectre of serious damage that might be inflicted if attitudes change again looms in the long run.

In the short run, though, the story of the summer has been the surprising success of, and subsequent publicity bonanza for, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. In each weekly episode, a quintet of gay experts in subjects including grooming, clothing, interior design and entertaining makes over - or makes better, as the "Fab 5" insist on describing their ministrations - a hapless hetero male. Parent NBC has been quick to cash in on Bravo's bonanza, scheduling rerun specials as part of its own Thursday "Must See TV" primetime line-up, right after, appropriately enough, the gayest sitcom ever, Will & Grace. The Fab 5 are even scheduled this week to try their luck at improving Jay Leno and his Tonight Show set.

Forget about the homophobes. It seems the only force powerful enough to derail the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy juggernaut would be a scandal more shocking than the notorious quiz-show deceptions that rocked NBC in the 50s: the mavins are exposed as, gasp, straights passing for gay. Imagine the plaintive wail from the average made-over, er, made-better viewer: "Say it ain't so, Joe. Say you're a 'mo!"