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COMMERCIAL CLOSET

Avis Courts Gay Market
Puts domestic partners in the driver's seat.
By Michael Wilke


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SEPTEMBER 11, 2003. Ten years before the current fiery gay marriage debate, Avis Rent A Car resolved to recognize same-sex partner rental customers.

Their new ad campaign, which began this summer, features a gay male couple and emphasizes a point other rental agencies cannot: "Domestic partners are automatically included as additional drivers. No extra fees charged. No questions asked."

Gay Blitz
Like its well-known slogan, Avis is trying harder: to win the gay market. As the latest sign of increased advertiser interest in gays, the brand is in the middle of a multi-year blitz with customized ads for the market. It is the most any car rental company has spent on gay consumers. Last year Avis began a campaign in Britain as well.

"This is our biggest investment in a vertical (niche) marketing effort," notes Scott Deaver, executive VP of marketing for Cendant Car Rental Group, which owns Avis and Budget Rent a Car. "We made a big bet on this one, we think this is very important."

The campaign appears in national gay magazines and in program books for gay film festivals in 10 cities. Impax Marketing, Philadelphia, developed the effort, which includes a special link to their web site (http://avis.com/prouder) that offers a $1 donation to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation per rental when using a special code. Avis also was a sponsor of the GLAAD Media Awards.

Driver Spouses vs. Partners
A few competing car rentals companies have made efforts in the past to attract the gay market, though none are making attempts now, and none of the prior campaigns were on the same scale as that of Avis. Furthermore, most still do not treat same-sex partner drivers as the equivalent of spouses, instead charging extra fees for non-married additional drivers.

In general, rental companies have an unpredictable patchwork of policies for all additional drivers because many operate through franchises, and these decisions are up to the local owner. As a result, some franchises may charge for any second driver, while others may allow one extra driver free no matter who it is. Predictably, rental agency owners at the hottest gay destinations may accommodate partners without additional fees.

Because Avis agencies are 95 percent company-owned, their agencies have virtual uniformity in a gay-inclusive second-driver policy. "Avis prides itself on treating customers better than other people treat them," Deaver says.

Rental Roulette
Things are different at Avis' sister brand, Budget, recently acquired in bankruptcy. The brand ran a commercial featuring disco stereotypes last year, and has never targeted gay consumers. Budget allows spouses as second-drivers for free nationally, but has no such policy for same-sex partners.

Tulsa-based Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, which owns Dollar and Thrifty, has run business-to-business ads for Thrifty in the Australian Tourism publication, and in Gay Travel News since January 2002. However, Thrifty generally requires unmarried couples to pay an additional driver charge. Dollar hasn't done any gay marketing and has varying policies.

In 1996, AutoNation's National Car Rental System initiated a direct mail campaign to gay consumers, but even today National only specifies "spouse, business partner, employer or fellow associate" as a free additional driver. At the same time, National's Emerald Club members may designate anyone as another driver free if they share a household.

Alamo Rent A Car advertised in The Advocate in 1998. Their charges vary, but often any additional driver brings an extra charge.

The Hertz Corporation, the industry leader, has never advertised in gay media, but specifies a "spouse or domestic partner" can be added free in most locations.

Backlash Against Campaign, Little Support
The Avis campaign has been high profile enough so that the company has garnered over 100 protest letters against its campaign so far. According to Deaver, "Right wing groups are reading OUT and The Advocate, and publish to their constituencies about who's advertising." He added, "It's been more than I thought it would be, and I've been shocked and disappointed by the mean-spiritedness of it."

In contrast, Deaver says that the company has not received any letters from the gay community in support of the campaign.

The changing face of travel motivated Avis to seek out new consumers. "After 2001, corporate travel shrunk more than leisure travel." explains Deaver. "Corporate travel was not as price sensitive, but I had to find leisure travelers who also were not as price sensitive." That turned out to be people who were "experience committed," those who preferred interesting trips over cheap getaways. Deaver found gay consumers often fit that profile.

"Avis is not the cheapest of the car rental companies," Deaver says. "We're the best in terms of product and service quality. Our leisure marketing strategy is to find people willing to pay more to get more."

He realizes that won't happen over night. "I'm not spending enough to make something happen today," but he promises a multi-year effort. "One ad is not going to make everybody change their habits."

But putting gay-friendly consumer policies in place and creating innovative, high profile, lasting advertising sure is a great start.

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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