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Advertising and Consumerism  
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Does being glbtq-identified make you part of a consumer group? Can you express your sexual or gender identity through your choice of a phone service or beverage? What are the politics of the idea that you are what you buy, eat, drive, or wear? This discussion examines two related issues in relation to glbtq people and the market: advertising and consumerism.


Advertisers have long directed their ads to particular people. For example, since the early days of modern mass advertising in the late nineteenth century, many ads have targeted women, who were early recognized as the primary purchasers of many products ranging from food to clothing.

It was not until a century later, however, during a period when advertisers also increasingly worked to segment the market based on other identity features such as race and ethnicity, that producers of goods and services began to seek out lesbian, gay, and bisexual consumers through advertising directed to them.

Advertisers have used several strategies to reach sexual minorities. They have advertised in gay and lesbian publications. As Dan Baker reports in "A History in Ads: The Growth of the Lesbian and Gay Market," Absolut Vodka led the way when it placed an ad in the Advocate in 1979.

Companies have also used direct mail campaigns. For example, in 1994 a mailing from AT&T, in a lavender envelope with a rainbow-colored phone cord, was directed to 70,000 people whose names were provided by Strubco, a company that specializes in brokering gay and lesbian mailing lists. The material inside included a letter about AT&T's lesbian- and gay-friendly policies and a brochure picturing people who were signalled to be gay by their groupings and the comments attributed to them. Although the characters did not actually say, "I'm gay," and the letter from AT&T was not addressed to "Dear Queer Phone User," the intended audience was obvious.

The letter, which also announced AT&T's forthcoming presence at the 1994 Gay Games IV and Cultural Festival, points to another form of advertising that is growing in popularity: sponsorship of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and events such as Pride marches. For example, the central site for speakers and entertainment at San Francisco Pride 2000 was called the "Bud Light/San Francisco Chronicle Main Stage."

In an important article about the politics of advertising called "Commodity Lesbianism," Danae Clark drew attention to another means to reach lesbian, gay, and bisexual consumers called "gay window advertising." The term refers to advertising in mainstream publications that is intended to appeal to lesbian and gay consumers without offending, or perhaps even alerting, conservative heterosexuals. For instance, an ad might show subtle touching or physical proximity in same-sex groupings that could be read in several ways. Or it might use models, clothes, accessories, or settings that are popular in queer contexts.

Significantly, appeals to people of minority sexual orientations, especially women, are often made through cross-gender expression: women depicted in "men's" clothing or ads featuring or butch models, etc.

When Clark first published the article in the early 1990s, gay window advertising represented virtually the only appeal to the glbtq market in non-glbtq venues. Today, with sexual variation and gender bending increasingly considered chic in some circles, explicit references appear more frequently, especially for haute couture clothing lines. The 2000-2001 campaign for Donatella Versace, which features suggestively posed pairs of women in fetish clothes, is a good example.

The Effects of glbtq Targeted Advertising

Is all this attention from marketers good or bad? The question is much debated.

On the one hand, ads from large companies have provided needed funds to support events and publications that had previously depended on the support of a small number of queer-identified businesses and individuals. (This support, in turn, generates brand loyalty, as most observers agree.)

Ads can also provide the pleasure of seeing oneself mirrored in culture; and, in the case of gay window advertising, the pleasures of recognizing queer codes and enjoying scenarios chosen for queer appeal. In addition, the recognition that some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have disposable income has contributed to the growing availability of some queer-friendly products and services, in areas such as tourism.

Some people argue, too, that in a world where sexual minorities are often hidden from view, the visibility created by advertising that represents or targets them contributes productively to glbtq visibility in general. This visibility, in turn, contributes to the recognition of members of sexual minorities as political constituents, which is a prerequisite for having political influence and for laws that protect people based on sexual orientation and/or gender expression.

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