Marketing the Rainbow

Case study: Orbitz

Branche: Travel



Orbitz is a U.S. company that operates a web site used to research, plan and book travel. It is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Late 2015 competitor Expedia acquired them for $1.3 billion.


“A lot of people in marketing want image. I want a brand that drives business.” So said Randy Susan Wagner, CMO of Orbitz, with the kind of frank focus that characterizes many of the strategic changes she brought to the online travel site since assuming her post in May 2005 (until 2008). Under Wagner's tutelage, Orbitz won the loyalty of travelers (her Ph.D. in educational psychology was no doubt useful to this end). For example, Orbitz.com went out of its way to personalize its services for highly specific consumer profiles - such as mothers with children, or members of the LGBT community. However, she was not the initiator of this market approach.


The beginning

In 2002 Orbitz had already launched gayorbitz.com, an extensive section of their website, dedicated to LGBT travel. The site offered a slew of LGBT-friendly destinations worldwide, contributed to LGBT charities, and, as always, offers its low price assurance. Perhaps most importantly, it features a gay and lesbian travel blog, filled with ideas for gay travelers, and caters its offerings to gay men, lesbians, and LGBT families. Only the blog has survived.

A television commercial unveiled during the July 15, 2003 episode of Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Gay is reportedly the first-ever TV spot to include unambiguously gay representations in a mainstream pitch to gay consumers.


Orbitz’ ad features male and female marionettes standing on the balcony of a hotel room booked by a travel agent. The woman comments on the beautiful view, and the man, spying a muscular male sunbather at the pool, heartily agrees.

"We didn't see it as a risk, we saw it as an opportunity," said Jeffrey Marsh, director of marketing strategy for Orbitz. "We're getting a great response. Consumers have been very supportive. Some are calling it groundbreaking."

The “Orbitz Matrix Display” video (a Thunderbirds-like animation) had a special gay version, which ran on channels like LOGO. The two ads are virtually the same, but the “straight” ad has the spokesman checking out a scantily clad woman while the LGBT ad has two men holding hands and checking out the spokesman, among other subtle differences. Although this diversification was applied by others as well (Levi Strauss for instance), some sources have criticized it for being non-inclusive, but separatist instead. I guess you just cannot please everybody.



The ad did win the GLAAD Media Award in 2004 for outstanding advertising and Orbitz received the Commercial Closet Association’s Corporate Visionary Honor in 2006. In 2009 their “golfer” spot won the GLAAD award again. The four men in the ad were allegedly gay, but might as well have been straight friends. Interesting was that one of the four did have the HRC logo on his polo shirt.

Fast Company observed: “Most big, mass-market companies won't come anywhere near social issues, for fear of the protests and counter-protests and fake controversies they spur. So it's rather amazing that Orbitz, in its current ads, makes a very subtle nod to the gay-rights movement.” Later ads were much more explicitly gay, after the Mullen agency took over the $ 61 million account (in 2006-2009).

Note: they were one of the few leading brands in the world with the word "gay" on the homepage! (sadly, no more)

Orbitz also endeavoured to ‘give back’, by supported LGBT charities via their Travel Auctions and advertising their LGBT friendliness. In 2006 Orbitz unveiled two new TV spots that featured OrbitzTLC Mobile Access - a new service that enables stranded travelers to book a hotel room in the event of weather-related flight cancellations.

A gate attendant announces to a throng of passengers that their flight has been canceled. Game show personality Wink Martindale then kicks off the Orbitz Challenge between two couples who try to book a place to stay before the other 200 people on their canceled flight gobble all the available rooms. One couple fumbles through a phone book, but the Orbitz couple logs onto www.Orbitz.com and takes just seconds to book a room by clicking one of the hotel options displayed on their cell phone's Web function. A second spot uses the same scenario and targets gay travelers by pitting a lesbian couple against a

heterosexual couple. The gay couple book their room in an instant and celebrate with an onscreen kiss. The ad concludes by showing the losing couple bunking on airport cots and flashes the tagline "Orbitz and go."

Responsibility and backlash


However, as Orbitz found out, courting the LGBT customer does come with a responsibility. In 2011 leaders from Courage Campaign, GLAAD, Equality Matters and Media Matters called for Orbitz to pull its advertising from Fox, saying that prominent Fox commentators are anti-gay and because of the network’s anti-gay content – with comparisons of homosexuality to pedophilia and drug use, false claims about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and anchor Bill O’Reilly making ridiculous claims about “dangers” of homosexuality and gay marriage.


After nearly 200,000 people signed the letter urging Orbitz to reconsider its advertising choices, Orbitz finally altered its position. “Orbitz has heard from the LGBT community about its concerns that its advertisements appear on programs which have objectionable content,” said Brian Hoyt, vice president of communications and government affairs for Orbitz. “In the coming weeks, Orbitz will conduct a review of programming on the full range of media we buy. We will also evaluate the best practices among other companies who share our core values to see what approaches they use when evaluating media placements.” In the statement, Orbitz was quick to note that for several years they’ve earned a perfect score of ‘100’ on the HRC Corporate Equality Index.


Note: the AFA affiliated NOM responded to the action to urge Orbitz to withdraw its advertising from FOX with the headline “Gay Leaders Try Bullying Orbitz to Drop FoxNews”. I have underlined the qualification “Bullying”, as the conservative group to which NOM belongs has undertaken scores of identical campaigns themselves - apparently justified, and not qualified as bullying. Interestingly, NOM also suggests that the gay community has Leaders...


Wordplay and drag queens

Of course, word play was used in a number of ads, such as "Nice package" on the left. Interestingly, the pay off "Never a drag" was more or less contradicted when Orbitz hired drag queen Ms. Richfield 1981 as the icon in a number of ads.

Ms. Richfield 1981 became the look of LGBT Orbtiz in *** and appeared in a couple of commercials, as well as print ads. You can find some commercials here from 2012, 2013 and 2014.

In 2015, Orbitz published a 'blog' called Marriage Equality and Orbitz, in which they outline the developments of same same marriage around the world (starting with the Netherlands in 2001), alongside their own LGBT highlights: from winning the GLAAD award for Hotel Matrix, via New Boyfriend (one of the 50 gayest ads, according to Adweek), the corporate partnership with HRC to the 2015 signing of the amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of marriage equality.

Negative effects


In my research survey, whenI asked if their campaigns also had negative effects, I got the response:


“Orbitz receives emails and phone calls on a regular basis from people who are not happy with the fact that the brand has LGBT-inclusive ads or advertises on LOGO, the gay channel by MTV networks. Regarding negative feedback, it is expected and we respond with the following: As a matter of policy, Orbitz does not discriminate against any person, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief. We are proud of our inclusive employee and marketing policies and practices. This inclusive stance allows us to hire and retain the most talented professionals in our industry and appeal to a broad and diverse group of travelers.”

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