Perfectly Queer

As the sun rises on a Manhattan morning, it's just another day for the Fab Five of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the hit TV show screened on both NBC and the Bravo cable network. The Five: Carson Kressley, Thom Filicia, Jai Rodriguez, Kyan Douglas and Ted Allen, are rushing to the aid of some helpless hetero shlub in flannel plaid who has no idea what the difference is between zhushing and schussing

Christie Schweinsberg, Senior Editor

May 1, 2004

8 Min Read
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As the sun rises on a Manhattan morning, it's just another day for the Fab Five of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the hit TV show screened on both NBC and the Bravo cable network.

The Five: Carson Kressley, Thom Filicia, Jai Rodriguez, Kyan Douglas and Ted Allen, are rushing to the aid of some helpless hetero shlub in flannel plaid who has no idea what the difference is between zhushing and schussing — but is about to find out. (For the uninitiated, it's messily styling your hair vs. a skiing term).

And their mode of transportation for attending to this fashion SOS: A GMC Yukon XL Denali. That's right, GMC, as in General Motors Corp., maker of the “Like a Rock” Chevy trucks Bob Seger sings about and vehicles most Americans think are as straight as Bob Lutz's tie.

This is the auto maker associating its large, meat-and-potatoes SUV with five openly gay men who regularly joke about kissing their more attractive straight charges and proposing marriage to them?

Yes, and GM says it's darn proud.

GM, like the many other companies with gay-marketing initiatives, is eyeing the estimated $485 billion in buying power that some 15 million gay, lesbian and bisexual adult consumers brought to the U.S. market in 2003, according to polling firm Harris Interactive Inc.

Clark Sanford, brand promotional manager-GMC, says the idea to include the XL Denali in Queer Eye was spawned by an executive at a product-placement firm who sent Sanford the pilot for the show.

“He said it may be a little risky by GM standards, but it's an opportunity, and you really need to think about it,” Sanford says. “We showed the pilot here to a cross-section of the staff — and the staff, broadly and generally, liked the show.”

The show now is a hit and GM is in product-placement heaven.

GM officials say the biggest draw for them to Queer Eye is that it features top-shelf brands, such as Thomasville Furniture and Ralph Lauren, and GMC, with its “professional grade” image, fits nicely into that mold.

“You look at all of the finished products, when they get these guys all dressed up, and they've got the finest clothing and the neatest furniture and the artwork and the food and the wine and shoes; it is all definitely top-drawer,” says Tom Beaman, manager-communications, Pontiac-GMC. “And the association the Denali has with all of that top-drawer merchandise is what is significant to me.”

Today, every major auto maker, including GM's similarly conservative Japanese competitors Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp., is pitching to the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) demographic.

Dedicated creative ad campaigns are being employed by auto makers, such as Subaru of America Inc. and Ford Motor Co. for its Premier Automotive Group (PAG) brands, while others run general mass-market ads in gay publications and on popular websites, such as Many auto makers, such as Chrysler Group's Dodge brand, even sponsor GLBT events.

Other findings about the market allure of the GLBT segment by Harris Interactive:

  • While possessing less consumer clout last year than African Americans ($688 billion, pop. 36 million) and Hispanic Americans ($653 billion, pop. 41 million), gays, lesbians and bisexuals' buying power exceeds Asian Americans' ($344 billion, pop. 12 million).

  • While gay affluence may be a myth, Harris Interactive says same-sex couples, as well as single gays and lesbians, do tend to have fewer dependents than their heterosexual peers and are apt to have more discretionary spending power.

  • In 2000 some 40% of gays polled planned to buy or lease a new vehicle in the next 12 months, vs. 18% of non-gays surveyed.

Companies pitching to the GLBT segment are hoping to boost their market share in an increasingly fragmented and crowded marketplace.

Auto makers say the strategy is paying off. Just ask Subaru, which fancies itself the industry pioneer in courting the GLBT market with tailored ads.

“We started marketing about 10 years ago, and it was based upon research we had done,” says Rick Crosson, Subaru vice president-marketing. “The gay and lesbian community had already found us — particularly the lesbian community. They had already selected us as a car that they used, that fit their lifestyle and that they used to be able to fulfill their lifestyle.”

Not so fast, Subaru

However, Cynthia Price, GM's marketing manager-diversity strategy dept., says Saturn was the first automotive company to market to the gay/lesbian community. “We're nine years into this commitment to the marketplace,” she says. “What you are seeing now is an acceleration of that support, more marketing, more PR, more communication outreach effort, to the gay/lesbian market.”

Ford Motor Co. has a large-scale GLBT tailored advertising effort in America with its PAG brands: Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover, although Volvo ads are the only ones currently running.

Ford hired Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington-based consulting firm that specializes in GLBT marketing practices, to look at all of its brands and select the ones most liked by the GLBT consumer.

Surveyed were 1,000 gay and 1,000 straights to gauge their automotive likes and dislikes.

“There was definitely a preference for import brands and a higher consideration for GLBT consumers, than non-gay counterparts, for an import brand, especially a premium import brand. So there was definitely an opportunity there,” says the project's manager, John Butler.

That led to ads with taglines such as: “Life is full of twists and turns. Care for a partner?” (Jaguar); and “Whether you're starting a family or creating one as you go” (Volvo); that ran in national GLBT publications such as The Advocate and Out.

Butler says gays and lesbians, just as other minorities — African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and women — “are paying attention to how somebody is going to advertise to them, and we paid a lot of attention to how the advertisements were crafted.” Several ads were tested in concept form with GLBT consumers before final approval was given, he says.

However, that doesn't mean auto makers haven't stumbled a few times as they gear up to cater to this emerging market. Critics complained that one of the ads, specifically the Jaguar “twists and turns” pitch, was too understated for the GLBT customer.

John Nash, president of Moon City Productions, Subaru's GLBT ad agency for the past 10 years, tells Ward's the Jaguar ads were “confusing and missed the mark.”

Although not new to the GLBT market, auto makers have been viewed as less progressive than other Fortune 500 companies that have aggressively pitched to the market. Nash considers the top three “golden brands” in GLBT advertising as Subaru, American Express and Absolut Vodka. He says surveys most often find Subaru to be the No.1 or No.2 brand most respected by gay and lesbians.

Backlash: Myth or Reality

Subaru says that, when it first began targeting that market, it got a few complaints from displeased conservative groups.

“I can remember a box of letters that was delivered 10 years ago from a church, for example,” says Crosson.

Then there was the prison inmate who wrote, saying he'd never buy a Subaru.

“Over the years we have explained to everybody that we're not saying anything about lifestyle,” says Crosson. “We're including them in our marketing efforts.”

GMC's Sanford says, despite the current furor over gay marriage, he hasn't “had an executive say we shouldn't do this,” referring to the Denali appearing on Queer Eye.

But in 1995, when a Saturn ad appeared in Out magazine, GM executives, who learned of it after it was in print, reportedly pulled it from future publications.

“I'm sure on a day-to-day basis, somewhere within the company, we've had to deal with (a backlash from conservative-minded customers),” says GM's Price. “The bottom line comes down to the fact that GM is in the business of selling cars and trucks, and we have cars and trucks to fit everyone's lifestyle and needs.”

Meanwhile, GM has come under fire by gay activists for a Chevrolet Colorado TV commercial, which shows a group of male friends driving along, with one in the back seat singing along to the Shania Twain song, “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” His friends slowly move away from him and give him strange looks.

GM says it is aware of criticism of the ad and is looking to change it.

Other companies, such as Volkswagen of America Inc., have perfected “gay vague” advertising, says Michael Wilke, executive director-Commercial Closet Assn. that monitors and critiques gay marketing efforts.

“The VW ads typically shows two guys together, and it's never really clear what the nature of their relationship is,” says Wilke.

Auto makers say it is difficult to track how effective advertising efforts are in drawing GLBT consumers to showrooms. After all, no one is asked to identify his or her sexual orientation when buying a car.

It's hard to say how much Queer Eye has helped GMC. It hasn't hurt, says Beaman. Yukon sales were up 52% in February over last year, and Yukon XL sales rose 20%. Loyalty rates for GMC have risen as well.
with Drew Winter and Katherine Zachary

See also Drew Winter's column on page 48.

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