Listen: Ads featuring same sex couples not yet common in mainstream

MPR’s Annie Baxter looks at why advertisements featuring gay couples are still few and far between. Although many companies try to cater to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender customers, those efforts are generally not obvious to the general public.


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SPEAKER: Same-sex marriage, as you know, is legal in Minnesota and 11 other states, but mainstream ads featuring gay couples are still few and far between. As reporter Annie Baxter found out, a lot of companies try to cater to LGBT customers, but it's still pretty rare for those efforts to be obvious to the general public.

ANNIE BAXTER: Kate and Louisa are touring the Twin Cities this summer. An ad running on Metro Transit buses features the lesbian couple who are in real life an actual couple. They're pictured taking a break from some house painting, and they're holding hands. The ad reads, "Health care that starts with Kate and Louisa."

DAN NESS: Our brand's tagline is health care that starts with you. It's not health care that starts with some of you.

ANNIE BAXTER: Dan Ness is the Marketing Director at UCare. It's a nonprofit, community based health plan that serves folks in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Ness says, UCare's transit ad campaign started running in July, and it depicts a wide variety of people besides Kate and Louisa. But Ness says it was a deliberate decision to appeal to potential customers like Kate and Louisa from the LGBT community.

DAN NESS: We know we have members that are in the community, and we have prospects out there that we'd like to be UCare members.

ANNIE BAXTER: Other Minnesota companies are also courting gay customers, but their efforts tend to fly below most people's radars. Target has depicted gay couples in its wedding registry marketing for several years now. The company wouldn't say whether same-sex couples had popped up in its more mainstream ads, and they declined an interview.

General Mills also didn't want to talk on tape, but the company has been engaging with gays and lesbians over breakfast. General Mills set up a blog site promoting its Lucky Charms cereal brand. The web page abounds with gay-friendly rainbows and a photo gallery that includes photos of same-sex couples.

This peppy music sets the tone. But this particular marketing campaign only launched over social media, not over a mass marketing medium like TV. A lot of companies take a similar approach.

BOB WITECK: It is lower risk.

ANNIE BAXTER: Bob Witeck is a communications strategist. He helps Fortune 500 firms market to LGBT consumers, whose spending power, he estimates, is as much as $800 billion. But Witeck acknowledges there are costs in catering to those consumers. The group 1 million moms, boycotted JCPenney and Urban Outfitters when those retailers featured gay couples in catalogs. Witeck says if marketers really want to speak to gay couples, they may get more bang for their advertising bucks if they place their ads in, say, the gay voices section of the Huffington Post, in other words, in places where gay and lesbian people hang out.

BOB WITECK: When gay couples or same-sex images are incorporated into a strategy, they're almost invariably focused in channels where there are higher proportion of gay people seeing them.

ANNIE BAXTER: Executives at ad agencies around the Twin Cities seem to agree that most marketing to gays and lesbians is done in this very targeted manner. And they say the legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota is not likely to push those efforts more mainstream yet. Mike Lescarbeau is the Chief Executive of the ad agency Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis. He says the world of advertising is more conservative than you might think. He says, it follows culture, but typically doesn't lead it.

MIKE LESCARBEAU: We love to think of ourselves as trailblazers and pioneers, but the fact is, particularly as it relates to mainstream products, our responsibility is to reflect the sensibilities of the overall population. We're trying to find mass markets for our client's products, and we have to appeal to people across the board.

ANNIE BAXTER: Lescarbeau thinks same-sex couples will eventually appear regularly in mainstream ads, but from his perspective, that won't happen yet for years. Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio News, Minneapolis.

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