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U.S. corporations bolstering gay pride

Despite boycott threats from anti-gay groups and perception of a backlash from the public, corporate sponsorship of gay pride festivities held around the U.S. in June remains strong this year, according to event organizers.
Jessie Gray, senior producer of creative services for Wells Fargo, examines the bank's float on June 23, part of the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. John M. Harris / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

If it takes a queer eye to notice that the cast of Bravo cable network’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” ride in Volkswagens during New York’s gay pride parade, that’s just what the car maker intends.

Similarly, Wells Fargo hopes the crowds attending San Francisco’s gay pride parade get a good look at its employees singing show tunes atop the stagecoach-themed float the bank entered in its hometown event on Sunday.

Despite boycott threats from anti-gay groups and the perception of a gay marriage backlash from the American public, corporate sponsorship of gay pride festivities held around the country in June remains strong this year, according to event organizers and advertising agencies that specialize in reaching gay and lesbian consumers.

From Anheuser-Busch to Bank of America and Avis-Rent-a-Car to Aetna Insurance, mainstream businesses that might have once thought twice about flying their logos alongside the rainbow flag are actively courting a market they consider beneficial, if not essential, to their bottom lines.

‘A great demographic’
“This is a very good, loyal customer base,” said Benet Wilson, a spokeswoman for Delta Airlines, which is sponsoring gay pride festivals in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, San Francisco and its Atlanta headquarters this month. “It’s a great demographic and we think it’s foolish not to cater to that.”

Like Delta, Wells Fargo and Anheuser-Busch — which is one of the biggest supporters of gay pride events through its Bud Light brand — Absolut Vodka, Ford Motor Co., Washington Mutual Bank, PepsiCo Inc. and the Showtime and Bravo cable networks show up in multiple cities during pride season.

Besides contributing cash or products, some corporations get involved by setting up booths where they hand out brochures and prizes or hire rovers to distribute samples along parade routes.

Other companies limit their support to local events, responding to requests from gay and lesbian employees. Minneapolis-based Best Buy, for example, is a sponsor of Twin Cities Pride, while Coca-Cola has participated in pride events in Atlanta, where it’s based.

The Stonewall incident
Held every June, Gay and Lesbian Pride Month marks the June 27, 1969 anniversary of a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The event — later known as the Stonewall Riots after the bar’s patrons resisted the police — is a touchstone in the gay rights movement.

Sivan Schlecter, of New York-based Out of the Blue Marketing, said the slice of corporate America represented at gay pride events has broadened dramatically during the last five years.

“Cable operators are doing this, airlines are out there marketing (as well as) finance, insurance, automotive,” Schlecter said. “The categories have expanded from the givens — the spirits and the beer.”

Risk-reward considerations
Although most companies that participate in pride events are reluctant to discuss it, they have to evaluate the risks as well as the rewards of so visibly entering the lesbian and gay market. That was a lesson Ford learned earlier this month when the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., called for a Ford boycott because of the car maker’s decision to donate to gay rights organizations for every Jaguar and Land Rover it sold.

The American Family Association suspended the Ford boycott until December after the group heard from some local Ford dealers. But the AFA has an active boycott against Kraft Foods because of the company’s decision to sponsor the Gay Games being held in Chicago next year.

“It doesn’t surprise us that more companies are doing this become we are becoming a more socially liberal country in many respects,” said Tim Wildmon, the group’s president. “Where 10 years or five years ago they would have seen something inherently wrong with putting their product at a gay pride event, today they are not even considering the moral question.”

In a survey commissioned last year by FH Out Front, Fleishman-Hillard’s gay public relations unit, two-thirds of the American adults surveyed said that knowing a company markets to gays and lesbians had no effect on their feelings about the company. The overwhelming majority, 81 percent, said it didn’t matter to them if the products they used regularly were promoted to the gay community.

On the subject of an anti-gay boycott, 45 percent of the respondents said they wouldn’t change their purchasing habits if an organization launched an action against a company that reached out to gays and lesbians.

Deep pockets
The purchasing power of the U.S. gay and lesbian population will hit an estimated $610 billion in 2005, according to a 2004 study by Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based marketing firm specializing in the gay marketplace.

Michelle Scales, director of Wells Fargo’s division of “diverse growth segments,” ticked off a list of attributes that makes the gay and lesbian market a natural fit for the bank: the U.S. gay population is estimated to include 15 million people with a combined $610 billion in purchasing power. Gays and lesbians are twice as likely to own a small business as non-gays, and 75 percent have incomes above the national average. Seven of every 10 gay couples own a home.

“In terms of purchasing power and how much they absolutely want to be heard for their needs, they are really a powerhouse,” Scales said, explaining why Wells Fargo has a corporate presence at gay pride events in far-flung cities including Phoenix, San Diego, Denver, Des Moines, Portland, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City as well as San Francisco.

For some advertisers, a chance to connect
Michael Wilke, who runs a Web site devoted to gay and lesbian-themed advertising called The Commercial Closet, said that while many advertisers are aware of the backlash associated with being seen as gay-friendly, “they are not necessarily backing off” and view the events as “an opportunity to connect more directly with an audience.”

“Pride events are something that is a political statement for some people still and harkens back to our history as a community where we were previously hated by the outside world,” Wilke said. “To have a presence at something like that can create a very emotional connection, but it’s also something that in the past was considered somewhat risky.”