Marketing claims about rich gays
I started this project because of a myth that somehow will not die – the myth that gays are rich.
When people tell you this, what they’re really saying is gay men are “affluent” or a “dream market.” We’re “DINKs” with scads of “discretionary income.” The gist of the argument is gays and maybe even lesbians are educated, have good jobs, and don’t have kids to drain away their buying power. We’ve got terrific taste and we demand nothing but the best, which we can easily afford. If you look at gays this way, we seem like “guppies.” We seem like a lucrative niche to whom you might advertise. Your advertising will pay for itself because we’re starved for attention and recognition. We’ll run right out and gratefully direct our ample discretionary-spending powers toward your brand.
This whole malarkey started in the early 1990s and still goes on today.
It’s tempting to turn this into some kind of academic analysis of contemporary culture, but that’s not the purpose of this project. I’m here to fact-check the asses of gay marketers or whoever tries to sell to an ostensibly well-off “gay community.” I started by reading every paper remotely related to the topic of lesbian and gay economics. As my findings show, the overwhelming consensus is that gay males are not richer than straight people. In fact, most studies in most countries find that gay males have lower incomes than straight males while lesbians have higher incomes than straight females.
But that isn’t the story we’ve been hearing.
What marketers have been telling us
This blandishment (from Hazel Kahan and David Mulryan, “Out of the Closet,” American Demographics, May 1995, quoted in Selling Out) pretty much sums it up:
The gay and lesbian market is an untapped gold mine. Because gays are highly educated and usually have no dependents, they have high levels of disposable income. And because these consumers are disenfranchised from mainstream society, they are open to overtures from marketers.
And this ad (from around 1993; reproduced in Selling Out) also tells you all you need to know about marketers’ beliefs about gays:
You don’t even need to read it to get the picture. (But it does call us a “dream market.”)
Some other claims:
1989: Overlooked Opinions, a now-defunct gay-marketing firm in the U.S., claimed the American gay and lesbian market was worth “$514 billion.” How did they arrive at that figure? They never did explain that, actually. But Grant Lukenbill, in Untold Millions (1999), reported that Overlooked Opinions “evaluated all the popular gay and lesbian research studies” and assumed 10% of the population was gay. (It’s more like 1½% to 4%.)
1990: “A survey by Simmons Market Research Bureau shows gays with an average household income of $55,430, vs. a national average of $32,144” (Elliott 1990).
1991: “Simmons Market Research Bureau of New York conducted a readership study with eight of the nation’s largest newspapers. ‘Average individual income in the survey was $36,800 – three times the U.S. average of $12,287. Average household income was $55,430 – $23,000 more than the U.S. average’ ” (Fugate 1993).
1995: “The people who went to or participated in the Gay Games” – held in New York in 1994 – “are an upscale group.... The average respondent was a 38-year-old man with a graduate education, an income of $65,000, and some recent European travel.... ne-third had incomes of $75,000 or more” (Mulryan 1995).
2004: “Witeck-Combs and Harris Interactive buying power for the LGBT community was $451 billion in 2002 and is projected to reach $608 billion by 2007” (Straight Talk About Gays in the Workplace, pp. 115–116).
Where did these “facts” come from?
From nonscientific surveys – e.g., surveys of subscribers to gay magazines; online polls; and surveys returned by customers of those gay-themed catalogue retailers that were popular in the 1990s. In short, these “facts” were derived from nonrepresentative samples, possibly dominated by people with enough spare time and enough pride in their accomplishments and their station in life to fill out surveys of this kind. (If you’re a typical lower-income gay male, would you be in much of a rush to admit that to a marketing firm?)
It was no coincidence that gay marketers seemingly “proved” the gay community was ripe for marketing. Who might profit from such a finding, you might wonder? The actual gay community, or marketers and their clients?
But even gay marketers’ own numbers disproved their claims
While they were busy peddling the myth of gay affluence to gullible clients and journalists, gay marketers’ own data from the 1990s proved the gay and lesbian market was not more lucrative.
The 1994 Yankelovich Monitor Gay and Lesbian Perspective survey (quoted in Untold Millions, p. 54) showed that gay and lesbian respondents had lower mean personal and household incomes and were overrepresented in the lowest income brackets. In fact, the only income bracket where gays outnumbered straights was the very lowest one (under $25,000 yearly). The 1998 Greenfield Online/Spare Parts/Georgia Tech study (Untold Millions, p. 77) showed higher average gay/lesbian household income but much higher incidence of low incomes. At the very highest incomes, gay and straight percentages were the same.
A very few gay marketers recognized the shortcomings of the data, like Sean Strub (1997):
Some very inappropriate numbers and data have been thrown around about the demographics of the market. Moreover, the market that’s reachable through lists is not “the community.”
For years, coming out has been a function of affluence, for the most part. That’s partly because it’s just easier for rich people to do whatever they want. But I think we have made it easier for other communities to come out of the closet as well; we’ve sold to the media and society this idea of a “gay community.” But the image that has gotten out there and that is most visible is the Fire Island lifestyle, if you will. And that has eroded our credibility on Madison Avenue and with major marketers, because they look at the demographics of a very select and economically privileged group and then extrapolate to 10% of society; they’re inevitably disappointed....
The public sees two gay professional white men with their BMWs and shar-pei dogs, or whatever, and take that to be an accurate reflection of our community.
(Then again, in the same book, Gluckman and Reed note “Strub Media group... distributes a flyer claiming that readers of gay publications have an average household income of $63,100, compared to $36,500 for all households.”)
Conclusions: Marketers told lies to boost their business
Gay marketers knew they were working with shoddy data. Some information they already had in their hands contradicted the outlandish claims they were making, but that didn’t stop them. Marketers are good at marketing, and their campaign to associate the gay community with terms like “affluent” and “a dream market” really worked.
There was of course an incidental salutary purpose – to prove we aren’t deviant or disreputable. But the people who believed that were never going to “market” to us. (In fact, homophobes and other conservatives used gay marketers’ data to “prove” gays and lesbians aren’t a vulnerable minority.) Marketers’ project was all about inflating gays’ own self-perceptions and making liberal businesses feel great about targeting the gay community with the same intent marketers themselves had – to maximize profits.
All well and good in a free society and in the free market. But this is one Modernist dream home in a gentrifying neighbourhood that turns out to be nothing more than a house of cards. It’s indefensible to distort the facts when you have the ability to learn what they are. Boosting community self-esteem is no reason to lie; selling something, including your company’s marketing services, is no reason either.
Just how lucrative was the gay market in the ’90s?
Well, if you can find him, ask Dave Mulryan of leading gay marketing firm Mulryan/Nash, which suddenly closed one day in 1999.