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Ads featuring same-sex couples not yet mainstream

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UCare ad
An advertisement from UCare recently featured a same-sex couple.
Photo courtesy of UCare

Same-sex marriage is legal in Minnesota and 11 other states. But most 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.

That's starting to change. This summer for example, an ad for the U Care health plan attached to Metro Transit buses features Kate and Louisa, an actual couple. Pictured taking a break from some house painting, the two women are holding hands. The ad reads, "Health care that starts with: Kate and Louisa."

"Our brand's tagline is 'Health care that starts with you.' It's not 'Health care that starts with some of you,' " said Dan Ness, the company's marketing director.

UCare, a nonprofit, community-based health plan, serves people in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Its transit ad campaign, which started running in July, depicts a wide variety of people, Ness said.

But the company made a deliberate decision to appeal to potential customers like Kate and Louisa from the LGBT community. A television ad UCare has run since 2011 also features a lesbian couple.

"We know we have members who are in the community, and we have prospects out there that we'd like to be UCare members," Ness said. 

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. 

One example was reported on in an article by The Huffington Post.

Target officials wouldn't say whether same-sex couples appear in its more mainstream ads.

General Mills officials has been engaging with gays and lesbians over breakfast. A blog site promoting its Lucky Charms cereal brand abounds with gay-friendly rainbows and a photo gallery that includes photos of same sex couples.

When same-sex couples are incorporated into a strategy, they're almost invariably focused in channels where there's a higher proportion of gay people seeing them,"

But that marketing campaign only launched over social media -- not over a mass marketing medium like television.

Many companies take a similar approach because it carries less risk, said Bob Witeck a communications strategist. He helps Fortune 500 firms market to LGBT consumers, whose spending power he estimates at as much as $800 billion.

But Witeck acknowledges there are costs in catering to those consumers. The group "One Million Moms" boycotted JCPenney and Urban Outfitters when those retailers featured gay couples in catalogues.

Witeck said 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, places where gay and lesbian people hang out.

"When same-sex couples are incorporated into a strategy, they're almost invariably focused in channels where there's a higher proportion of gay people seeing them," he said.

That approach, Witeck said is similar to how pharmaceutical companies place their ads on nightly news programs -- where they know they have a captive audience with older people, their target demographic.

Executives at ad agencies around the Twin Cities seem to agree that most marketing to gays and lesbians is done in that very targeted manner. They also the Legislature's decision to make same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota isn't likely to push those efforts more mainstream, yet.

That's because the world of advertising is more conservative than many might think. It follows culture, but typically doesn't lead it, said Mike Lescarbeau, chief executive of the ad agency, Carmichael Lynch, in Minneapolis.

That said, Lescarbeau notes that agencies like his nevertheless spend a lot of time encouraging their clients to take risks. He thinks same-sex couples will eventually appear regularly in mainstream ads. But from his perspective, that won't happen yet for years.

"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," he said. "We're trying to find mass markets for our clients' products and we have to appeal to people across the board."