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Orbitz Travels to Gay Cable TV
A gay twist to reach the gay market.
By Michael Wilke


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JULY 17, 2003. In a unique effort to reach the gay market, the travel company Orbitz has customized its mainstream commercial with a gay twist for gay-themed shows on cable TV networks.

Going Direct
The ad features marionettes as characters, with a "man" and "woman" enjoying a South Beach hotel terrace overlooking the pool. In the mainstream version, the guy comments on the great view from their room and the woman agrees — while she admires the pool boy with binoculars.

In the gay twist, the man also eyes a stud through the binoculars. Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford Coppola, directed the spot from Young & Rubicam, Chicago.

It is the first-ever customized commercial meant to speak directly to a gay audience, and it will begin airing on gay-themed programs on Bravo Network and BBC America, running through the summer. It will appear on BBC's, "So Graham Norton," a racy talk show with a gay host, the gay-friendly, "Absolutely Fabulous," as well as two new Bravo shows, the dating program, "Boy Meets Boy" and a fashion makeover show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," debuting July 15.

"I'm trying to show Orbitz is a gay-friendly company, not just bring traffic to our site," says Jeff Marsh, the Chicago-based company's openly gay director of marketing strategy and promotions. "The genesis of this ad idea came when I read the storyboards. It was immediately apparent I could put a gay twist on it and make a gay ad."

Queers Big Business
Orbitz, a joint effort by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United, created a dedicated gay travelers section a year ago that is now big business. "We always suspected they were our best customers, now we have proof," says Marsh, who cites numerous impressive statistics, including: 100,000 visits monthly to the section, and more purchases than general travelers overall. During the U.S.-Iraq war, gay travelers were up to 50% more likely to travel than general travelers, and are 20% - 30% more likely in non-war times.

Because of its popularity, the Gay Travel section (known as a microsite) landed a link on the home page, along with high volume links including Disney, Las Vegas, Europe, and others.

"Because the microsite is so successful, the commercial was a no-brainer," explains Marsh, who spent six years in marketing at Quaker Oats Co. "When Bravo was launching those two programs, it made the media plan possible."

Finding Homes
The gay-targeted ads make up a small part of Orbitz $25 million annual ad budget, but Marsh laments the lack of places to take his gay commercial. He says "Will & Grace" is too expensive because it's broad-based network TV, but he adds that Lifetime, often jokingly known as "The Network for Women... and gay men," may be next. The much-anticipated Viacom gay cable network, Outlet, still has no launch date.

Bravo received a lot of attention for its shows debuting in July. "Boy Meets Boy" features a 32-year-old from Southern California looking for love among 15 potential male mates, some of whom are just pretending to be gay. The six-episode program was shot in Palm Springs and only kissing was allowed. On "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a team of gay males guide fashion-challenged straight men.

Last summer, the NBC-owned Bravo network featured "Gay Weddings," in 2001 "Gay Riviera" and "Fire Island" in 2000, all reality series. It also featured "Out of the Closet," its annual June festival of gay programming. "Gay Weddings" did particularly well, bringing the network its highest ratings ever when aired against the Super Bowl, obviously reaching a different audience.

Travel advertising continues to grow in the gay market. Reservations company Worldspan has recently begun a relationship with Gay.com and Planet Out to offer up a "private label" search engine for airfares on those sites, part of the company's new strategy for affiliate programs.

Flying the Flag
Orbitz has advertised in gay media since last year, with the launch of its microsite, featuring a rainbow of giraffes. Its competitor, Travelocity, has carried an image of a beach with a rainbow. Online banner ads have run on Gay.com and Planet Out as well, featuring musclemen and campy, mustachioed cheerleaders.

Across the Atlantic, Travelocity broke a campaign in the UK featuring interviews with stereotypical male flight attendants delivering sexual innuendoes, but the ad was not intended to appeal to gay viewers. The clip is presently being furiously passed around the Internet.

While Bravo has not officially tried to pitch its new programs to companies seeking the gay market, it's in a unique position to solicit them, though it will take some work.

Advertisers have little experience in seeking gay TV viewers, with hurdles including a lack of research on gay viewing habits, greater cost of TV production and media, and small gay marketing ad budgets. But the benefits include reaching a larger, more diverse audience than existing media. Sharp-eyed executives can achieve affordable, gay-targeted TV efforts with minor changes in creative execution and smart media plans.

Mike Wilke's Commercial Closet column covers gay issues in advertising, marketing and media. For 85 years of gay images worldwide see www.CommercialCloset.org.



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