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IBM: Beyond Gay Vague
Big Blue's first overtly gay ad hits magazines.
By Michael Wilke


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JAN. 5, 2004. Seven years after IBM first began pitching to the gay market with a series of "gay vague" ads, it has introduced a print ad for gay media featuring six openly gay leaders at the company.

Aimed at gay business leaders and gay-owned businesses, IBM's first overtly gay ad carries the headline, "Chelsea, Provincetown, The Castro, Armonk," a list of famous gay destinations, followed by Big Blue's headquarters town.

The photo includes Sarah Siegel and Joseph Bertolotti, IBM's dedicated sales team to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They began selling directly to lgbt leaders at major corporations and lgbt-owned businesses in 2001.

IBM is the second major corporation with a dedicated lgbt sales team. American Airlines started a gay market manager position in 1994 and later formed the Rainbow TeAAm. However, American didn't begin developing gay ads for business-to-business and consumer sales until 1999, because the company preferred the visibility it earned through sponsorships.

Earlier Ads Too Gay Vague
The new IBM ad follows one that featured openly gay designer Simon Doonan as part of a series about how real people use their ThinkPad laptops. An earlier ad, a widely-run 1998 mainstream effort, showed two men who owned a small business with the headline, "Not exactly your typical Mom & Pop operation." Both ads were from Ogilvy & Mather.

Siegel said, "Mom & Pop was a huge, huge hit. People were charmed by it and still talk about it." The ad was part of a larger campaign that included other underrepresented groups, such as people of color and those with disabilities. But, Siegel said, the reference to the men as a couple was very oblique, and "I was so hungry for something new."

The recent Doonan ad was not the solution. "We knew that an inner circle of New York lgbt people would know who he is, but we weren't satisfied with that," Siegel said. "We wanted even more lgbt specificity. It went into all sorts of mainstream publications, but the bad news was it was too 'gay vague.'"

In preparing for the new ad, IBM did an "extensive" study of lgbt decision makers who work in Internet technology. "What we found was that lgbt people did not natively see IBM as approachable in the lgbt arena," says Siegel. So the new ad was to focus on approachability. She continued, "Joseph and I were real clear that it had to show real IBMers and that it be absolutely diverse."

Internally, Siegel helped cast the ad from people involved with IBM's Employee Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Empowerment (EAGLE). They created a volunteer media talent pool, then the ad agency made the final selections.

From 'IBM Really?' to 'IBM Of Course!'
Siegel and Bertolotti say that lgbt business people frequently express surprise when they are told IBM is gay-friendly. "We want to change people from thinking, 'IBM, really?' to 'IBM, of course!'" she says.

In fact, Siegel notes with pride, "People don't know we hired women and blacks prior to 1899," ten years before the NAACP was founded and twenty years before women could vote. At that time, the company was still known as the Computer Tabulating & Recording Equipment Company. The name became International Business Machines in 1924.

More recently, IBM was one of the first corporations to add a non-discrimination policy for lgbt people in 1984. Benefits were extended to same-sex partners in 1997. In 2002, IBM added "gender identity" to their non-discrimination policy worldwide, and supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which specifically protected lgbt workers. ENDA failed to pass at that time, but was reintroduced late in 2003.

The Armonk print ad reflects other changes. For instance, there are no blue suits. Siegel notes, "We really all did use to wear blue suits and white shirts before my time, but that's what our customers wore." Siegel, who began with IBM as a consultant in 1990 and was hired full time in 1996, wears a turquoise blouse in the ad.

Diversity Pays Off
The new ad is a product of the success of the lgbt sales team, who now have a budget for advertising and sponsorship. IBM sponsors Commercial Closet Association (CCA), along with other lgbt organizations, and Siegel and Bertolotti are active on the boards of CCA and Out & Equal, advocates for lgbt people in the workplace. Though Siegel declined to share exact figures, she says her team doubled its 2002 revenues early in 2003. By the third quarter, revenues equaled "millions and millions of dollars."

"This was our second full year, and the first year we had to show we could drive revenue," Siegel says of the dedicated lgbt sales team. IBM now has similar lgbt sales teams in France, the Netherlands, Britain, Mexico and Canada.

The diversity effort appears to be paying off for everyone. Touts Siegel, "I've never felt IBM welcomes me despite my sexual orientation; I've always felt IBM welcomes me because of my orientation."

IBM, along with American Airlines, have been leading the way in showing that gay dollars don't just come from reaching individual consumers, and that relationships remain as important as they always have, even in business-to-business sales.

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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