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Research Booms on Same-Sex Couples
Marriages unleash scramble to mine U.S. Census data.
By Michael Wilke


A happy couple under scrutiny.

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MAY 28, 2004. As Massachusetts inaugurates same-sex marriage, companies are scrambling to invest in new market research about gay couples. A lot of the data is coming from groundbreaking questions in the U.S. Census.

Millions to Spend
"There is a groundswell of requests for info on the gay market," says Alisa Joseph, vice president of advertiser-marketer services at Scarborough Research, which recently partnered with OpusComm Group to sell gay market data.

Global media agency MindShare also teamed up with The Poux Company, to get better gay market data. David Marans, director of Consumer Insight at MindShare, says that three advertisers who spend over $100 million annually want to know more about the market.

Years ago, syndicated research was frequently faulted for engaging in inadequate and slanted "convenience sampling," and American Express and Subaru were the only corporations that conducted legitimate gay market research.

Now, IBM and Ford Motor Co. have invested in gay market research, too, and more studies are on the way. The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation conducted research before planning to launch the first TV campaign from a city aimed at gay travelers. It is due to begin in June.

U.S. Census Breaks Ground
For the first time, new U.S. Census data about same-sex households is providing a look at gay demographics, via a new "unmarried partners" option in the 2000 survey.

As detailed in a new book, "The Gay & Lesbian Atlas," by Gary Gates and Jason Ost, the U.S. Census discovered same-sex couple households are present in 96 percent of counties nationwide, totaling 1.2 million individuals. One in four gay households have children, more than one in ten gay homes have a senior over 65, and male couples prefer cities, while females prefer the suburbs.

Bob Witeck of Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington, D.C. gay marketing firm that does ongoing gay market polls with Harris Communications, is enthusiastic about the census results, pitching three new clients with it. "We needed to know the geography for the community. While there's a 'duh factor,' there were also surprises in where people live. Also, you can mine the data. It's richer and deeper than surveys."

For example, it provides reliable statistics on questions never asked before, such as how many couples are biracial (12-15 percent), and if they've served in the military (8-14 percent).

Still, one major shortcoming is that the data reflects couples, not individuals. Furthermore, a report by the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies estimates same-sex households may be underreported by 16 to 19 percent, due to a reluctance to come out to surveyors.

Gay Incomes Like Overall Population
The MindShare/Poux gay market survey is the first publicly shared study by a major media agency, though some had been made earlier by research firms. Created by Lightspeed Online Research, the survey was of 1,000 gay men and lesbians randomly drawn from a pool of 700,000 general panelists.

Marans, of MindShare, says a key finding was that gay income levels reflect those of the general population. They are not above average, as was often indicated in earlier studies. They also found that the most widely viewed programs are: "Will & Grace," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Friends," "CSI," and "Queer As Folk."

Marans notes the survey offers better rankings rather than exact statistics, and some numbers are not projectable. For example, 27 percent of survey respondents reported that they read The Advocate. "People always exaggerate readership and viewership," Marans says, acknowledging that if 27 percent of the community really did read The Advocate, circulation would be considerably higher.

The problem of actual numbers is a common issue for researchers. "We always couch our results in terms of 'respondents,'" says Jeff Garber of OpusComm, which conducts an annual survey with Syracuse University called the "Gay/Lesbian Consumer Online Census." Garber says projectable, scientific data is unachievable until the actual "universe" of gays and lesbians is known -- if the U.S. Census records sexual orientation, which cannot happen until Congress mandates the question.

Scarborough Research does not ask its panel of 210,000 because "religion, net worth, and sexual orientation tend to be hot buttons with respondents," says Alisa Joseph. "OpusComm's idea was to create a safe environment for these questions, and we identified their links to the community as important" for our partnership.

Nielsen Doesn't Collect Gay Viewing Data
Remarkably, the giant in TV data, Nielsen Media Research, does not track gay viewing. "We've had no requests for that information," says spokesman Jack Loftus. "If buyers wanted it, we could do it" but it would require a critical mass to make the change worthwhile. A while back, he adds, an advertiser did want a plan to analyze an existing TV survey for gay data, but the price proved too high.

The history of research on gay demographics has been spotty and shoddy, but lessening taboos and growing corporate interest is already improving things. Advertiser interest in the market now needs to be matched by budgets that support better research.

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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