Consumer Responses to Gay-Themed Imagery in Advertising
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Consumer Responses to Gay-Themed Imagery in Advertising
Abstract

This experiment examines how exposure to gay and lesbian images or textual references in print advertisements influences attitudes toward the ad and brand, and how attitude toward homosexuality serves as a moderating variable. Results indicate that while homosexual imagery in advertisements may elicit disapproval from those less tolerant of homosexuality, higher levels of consumer approval and improved attitude toward the brand may result from gay-themed ads for those more accepting of homosexuality.

The amount of gay-themed advertising is increasing, and there is much speculation about its effects on consumers, both gay and straight. But there has been very little empirical investigation of the effects on individuals’ attitudes toward the brand advertised or toward the issue of homosexuality. This study attempts to fill that void by examining how exposure to gay and lesbian images and textual references in print advertisements influences attitudes toward the ad and brand and how an individual’s attitude toward homosexuality serves as a moderating variable.

An Explosion in Gay-Themed Advertising

In 1980, Advertising Age noted that most large companies were reluctant to feature sexual minorities in advertising for fear of being identified with such a controversial out-group. But during the 1980s, publishers of gay newspapers and magazines began to argue that a lucrative gay market did exist and was grossly underserved. Market research firms and advertising agencies specializing in a gay niche market were formed, with media consultants claiming that “Gay men and women may be America’s most affluent and least understood market.”1 Sexual minorities, especially gay male couples, were promoted as the ultimate consumers, “guppies” with double incomes and no children. The hype worked, at least to a limited extent. By the late 1980s, several corporations—primarily travel, alcohol, fashion, and automobile companies—had produced ads featuring well-known openly gay figures. These ads appeared almost exclusively in publications targeted to gay men and lesbians, however, with very few placed in more mainstream media outlets.

Sexual minorities became more visible in the media in the 1990s. Major corporations began to actively target gay men as consumers, and companies such as Miller, Coors, Absolut, Stolichnaya, Ford, Subaru, Toyota, Volvo, American Express, The Gap, Banana Republic, and Wyndham Hotels produced print advertising campaigns targeted specifically toward sexual minorities.2 The first mainstream U.S. television commercial featuring openly gay individuals was produced and aired in April 1994 by the Swedish furniture chain Ikea.

Although the 1990s saw a growth in the number of companies targeting their advertising to sexual minorities, there was also a growing challenge to the idea of the “golden” gay consumer. Lukenbill, noted that early data touting gay men and lesbians’ higher income levels were collected only from those people who subscribed to newspapers and magazines.3 Because these individuals tend to be more educated and have a higher disposable income than those who do not subscribe to periodicals, a new stereotype emerged about the wealth of gay Americans. Subsequent analyses have shown that the majority of lesbians and gay men in the United States earn slightly less than heterosexuals.4 The wealthiest segment of gay and lesbian Americans is restricted to a minority of older, dual-income, white male households in the country’s largest urban areas, which actually represents only a fraction of the overall gay and lesbian population. Difficulties in accurately quantifying the size and wealth of the market remain; the U.S. Census does not collect data about sexual orientation, and researchers speculate that the size of the market continues to be underestimated because it is a self-identifying minority with some members still reluctant to be identified as such.

Regardless of discrepancies in claims about the actual size of the gay and lesbian market, the new century has seen enormous growth in the amount of advertising targeted to gays and including gay celebrities. 2004 ad spending in gay and lesbian publications was up 28.4% from the previous year, reaching $207 million, and the number of gay-specific ads, which feature messages directly aimed at gay and lesbian consumers through their copy or art direction, jumped...