Marketing the Rainbow
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A survey by the International Journal of Consumer Studies had as a primary objective to provide a better understanding of gay consumers' clothing involvement and fashion consciousness. Surprise: participants indicated that, in general, gay men tend to be more fashion conscious than heterosexual men. However, the study did not provide strong evidence of gay consumers’ involvement in cutting-edge fashion trends.
Many advertisers, among them a lot of fashion brands, use sexy models to sell their products. Some take a controversial approach (like Benetton), others a more neutral stance. The activities in the LGBT market, be it via sponsoring, advertising or otherwise, is not always directly aimed at sales or a branding effort, but often also carries a political message of support, like in the case of American Apparel.
Despite their omnipresent use of sex to sell its merchandise - sometimes even "forgetting" to include the very clothing they're trying to sell - few fashion brands actually used overtly gay imagery. Designers including Calvin Klein, Gucci, Versace, Abercrombie & Fitch and even Benetton itself have teased consumers with so called gay vague imagery (Are they gay? Are they brothers? Are they friends? Are they colleagues?Are they team mates?).
A number of brands have used the gay market to break through, considering the gay consumer to be trendy, perceptive for new hypes and styles, and having a role model function. These advertising campaigns are hardly ever only targeted at the gay or lesbian market: these consumers are just ‘used’ to launch a brand, after which the company hopes to breakthrough in the mainstream market. Some succeeded (Abercrombie & Fitch), some have become successful in the gay market only (2(x)ist, C-IN2) - either by choice (Ginch Gonch) or because they could not reach a wider audience. Shoe brand Timberland allegedly made their breakthrough in the ‘70s and ‘80s thanks to the gay scene, not in the least because the members of the Village People wore them - the brand subsequently crossed over to mainstream in the ‘90s, witnessed by the macho rappers Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and 50 Cent sporting the brand.
Although fashion campaigns are often run with (super)models who attract more attention than the product, this is even more so the case with underwear: it gives advertisers the opportunity to show (near) naked (wo)men, all in the name of Fashion. The use of supermodels is not very usual, nor necessary, as a super body is more important.
Echelon magazine explains: “Ever since Calvin Klein’s men’s underwear ads were plastered all over Times Square, in numerous fashion magazines and on television in the 1990s, fashionable men’s underwear has taken a shift from being associated predominantly with the gay community and has found its rightful place within the mainstream men’s market.”
As we will see, Calvin Klein is often credited with being the first to - successfully - target the gay market. Many followed. Over the last decade, underwear brands such as /baskit/, Andrew Christian, 2(x)ist, Undergear, Hugo Boss, Armani, C-IN2 and Ginch Gonch have gone just as far as Calvin Klein by appealing to both the gay and straight male sensibilities. By creating mainstream advertisements with a gay undertone, or by first building a foundation within the gay community and then branching out into the mainstream men’s market, these companies have seen sales ebb and flow over the last several years.
Since those early days in the 1990s, perhaps fueled by the bold sexuality of CK’s underwear ads, men have been much more comfortable embracing their sexuality in any way they desire to express it. It was Klein’s initial foray into underwear as “out” wear that catalyzed in younger American men a greater self-awareness of the male form and a newly defined sense of masculinity.
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