Our Movement Goes to Market
|by Mubarak S. Dahir|
The lesbian and gay movement's extreme left has created new boogey-man to beat up on: Business people who pay attention to their gay and lesbian customers.
There's even the requisite accompanying slogan that purist, got-to-have-something- to-scream-about radicals can chant as they march in the streets to protest the latest oppressors. "We're a movement, not a market," proclaims the new mantra.
In recent weeks, we've heard the incantation over and over again, mostly with respect to the Millennium March on Washington (MMOW). The Ad Hoc Committeea small group of gay and lesbian leaders who let themselves get sucked into a cesspool of infighting over what amounted to little more than an ego-bruising battle about what groups are supposedly "in charge" of the gay and lesbian movementrepeatedly used the charge that MMOW organizers "sold out" to corporate America as a way to demean the event and discourage gay and lesbian people from attending it.
But even before the MMOW debacle, the weird notion that a business community that caters to its gay and lesbian customers is somehow evil has been gaining momentum for several years.
Naysayers charge that the business community's relatively newfound interest in gay and lesbian people is a totally selfish one. Businesses, they say, are interested only in selling their products, and care little about us as a group other than the fact that we are perceived to be a population of brand loyalists who spend a lot of money. Businesses, these purists sternly warn us, are not interested in the political message of our cause.
It doesn't take an MBA from Harvard (or Berkeley) to figure out that businesses are interested foremost in what will make them money. That's why it's called b-u-s-i-n-e-s-s.
But being courted by businesseswhich, yes, are fueled by the desire to have us spend our gay and lesbian bucks at their cash registersis not something ominous or immoral. In fact, it is a sure sign of the success of our movement.
If businesses have finally realized we are an economic forceeither because of our numbers, or because of our alleged spending powerthen I say, good for us, it's about time we got some credit. The fact that many businesses now feel free to target gay and lesbian consumers simply means we have won a significant level of social acceptance.
Leftist agitators are quite right when they shake their heads and cackle that the business community tends to be conservative. Businesspeople are not going to market to gays and lesbians in order to be swell guys or to satisfy their altruistic social consciences. Businesses will market to gays and lesbians only when it is advantageous for them to do so. In short, when it makes them money.
The fact that several house-hold name corporations such as American Express and Subaru and Budweiser feel comfortable enough to spend the time and money to get our time and money means they now are less likely to suffer and more likely to profit from recognizing their gay and lesbian customers.
To understand what a social breakthrough that is, you have to look at the entire market out there, not just gay and lesbian buyers. If you are a business, two things can happen to you when you target the gay and lesbian community. The obvious, of course, is that you might pick up some lesbian and gay spenders. But the second thing that could happen is that you could so offend and alienate your straight spenders that you lose them as customers.
So it becomes a matter of weighing the balance. How many customers might a business gain vs. how many customers might it lose with a gay-specific ad campaign? Until the past few years, businesses have always believed they would lose more customers than they would gain if they were seen as catering to homos. The fact that the balance is now shifting in our favor is a sure sign of the social progress we have made in the past twenty years. To an increasing portion of the population, gays and lesbians are no longer seen as freaks, misfits, mental cases or sexual deviants. We've become just another group out there. It isn't offensive to advertise to us.
In fact, it is a political feather in our movement's cap when advertisers single us out as a group of people they'd like to target.
Look at it this way: If Absolut Vodka designed an ad where their famous bottle appeared on the hat of a Ku Klux Klansman, would you put down money for it? Of course not, because by marketing to that group, the advertiser would be giving their message legitimacy.
We do not need advertisements to tell us our message of equality for gay and lesbian people is legitimate. But the fact that gay-specific ads are now appearing more frequently is a sign that the business community is finally acknowledging what we have been saying for more than 30 years. Shouldn't we applaud their arrival, rather than attack it?
Of course, there's plenty to protest when it comes to gays and lesbians in advertising: Why don't more businesses support the gay and lesbian community with advertising or sponsorship dollars? Why do most gay-specific ads play on stereotypes by trying to sell us beer or booze or theater tickets or dinners at fancy restaurants? Where are the ads that sell us cat food or wrenches or telephones or bagels? Why aren't there more ads with drag queens? Or that depict gay people of color? Why do some companies still use ads with heterosexual couples, even when they buy space in a gay publication?
These are just some of the things our activists should be asking. Instead, too many of them, particularly from the left, are caught up in selling us the conspiratorial theory that the business world is out to co-opt our political message.
I'm not buying it.
Mubarak Dahir receives e-mail at MubarakDah@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 10, No. 5, May 19, 2000.