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Absolut Vodka at vanguard of LGBTQ engagement

Iconic brand among first to embrace its queer customers

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Absolut Vodka has spent decades sending a message of solidarity as clear and potent as its product.

Pride parade-goers given to grouse about the sheer volume of corporate floats, logos, and swag may well have a point about over-saturation. Yet as the year of Stonewall 50 winds down, it’s worth noting that for the longest time, mainstream brands wouldn’t be seen in public, even in June, with the community they now unabashedly woo.

Notable exceptions exist. American Airlines, IBM, and Wells Fargo have long been present, year-round, in LGBTQ-specific media—but beyond paying Pride month lip service, most high-profile players have yet to establish a presence. Apple and Starbucks, for example, cannot claim so much as a single tear sheet from the gay press, or a mainstream ad featuring LGBTQ content.

Absolut Vodka, however, has spent decades sending a message of solidarity as clear and potent as its product.

To date, the progressive Swedish company has spent $31 million+ on LGBTQ marketing, and donated $40 million+ to LGBTQ charities. It launched a campaign with Equality California, joined others in suing the Trump administration for rollbacks to transgender rights, and have been partnering with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation since 1989, when it became a founding sponsor of the GLAAD Media Awards.

Absolut’s direct marketing to the community began in 1981, the company’s timeline notes, with full-page back cover ads in The Advocate and After Dark magazines. Although the first spirit maker to do so, other recognizable names were engaging at the time, says Mike Wilke, a former journalist and founder of AdRespect.org.

In his capacity as an LGBTQ ad historian, Wilke notes the pre-Absolut presence of Casablanca Records, Yves Saint Laurent, Jägermeister, Coors, and Pernod Ricard in After Dark—the 1968-1983 soft-pornish entertainment magazine whose shirtless cover boys flew off the shelf and under the bed of many a gay man coming into his own.

Even so, “These were all mainstream ads,” Wilke says, noting it would be years before anyone ventured outside the realm of coded content. Absolut imagery included a purple-laced corset worn by a gender-nonspecific individual, and a ruler with “8” at every inch marking.

“At the time, we called it ‘gay vague,’ ” recalls Todd Evans, of Rivendell Media, who places advertisements for the National LGBT Media Association (this publication is among its members). “It was ‘gay’ to you and me, but the mainstream world might not know it.”

Wrote Stuart Elliott, in an October 2011 New York Times article charting Absolut’s 30-year track record, the company “ran its regular ads in the L.G.B.T. media; the 1981 placements were ‘Absolut Perfection,’ with a halo hovering over the bottle. More recently, the brand has sponsored ads that are tailored for the market.”

Still, says Wilke of the early 1980s, associating one’s mainstream product with the gay community “was risky.” (This was less than a decade since the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

That lingering stigma was about to have company. As Absolut entered the fray, Wilke recalls, other major advertisers “were actually starting to show interest in the gay market. Then AIDS happened, and everything pulled back.”

Rather than retreating, Absolut doubled down.

“They continued to advertise through the ’80s,” notes Evans, “buying every back page ad that was available in gay media,” as well as hosting special events at brick and mortar establishments.

“It was no secret,” says Evans, “that drinking was a big part of gay culture, so it made sense to have a consistently maintained presence [in print and at bars]. It was an inexpensive way to own the market, and it earned them the thankfulness of the community… Any national advertiser coming into our media, it’s a big deal, to this day. And if you’re over 50, chances are you’re still an Absolut patron, because you remember that time in our lives, of not having acceptance.”

As often happens when untapped markets reveal their profit potential, other spirit makers came pouring into the pages of LGBT (pre-“Q”) magazines and newspapers.

But by that time, says Wilke, Absolut had “maintained their presence for many years, building loyalty and name recognition. So I’d say they’ve been highly successful at being known as one of the most gay-friendly brands of all time, even when they had fierce competition for the gay dollar. A number of competitors were doing, in my opinion, a very good job at marketing. But they got there much later.”

With increased cultural visibility came gay-specific ad content. In 2000, an “Absolut GLAAD” ad sung the organization’s praises—and in 2008, the “In an Absolut World” ad had pumped-up baseball fans in the foreground, implying approval of the message on the scoreboard behind them (“Mark will you marry me?—Steve”). Absolut was also an early adopter of a little show called “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” becoming a presenting sponsor in 2011, while it was still airing on Logo.

“That was a real risk,” says Evans. “Either the show was going to take off, or it wasn’t. So it shows a level of willingness to keep moving forward.”

“In the early days,” says Wilke, “we were thrilled to be validated by a major advertiser… Speaking as a gay man who pays attention to this stuff, I feel more excited when I see a great ad that speaks to me, more than I do with a general market ad. I think it’s a natural reaction, and that’s why it’s done.”

John McCourt, GLAAD’s Senior Director of Business Development & Integrated Marketing, notes, “When brands authentically represent LGBTQ people and the issues that affect the community most in their marketing, then they can certainly expect to attract more LGBTQ consumers. Authenticity is key.”

But acknowledging our orientation is not enough, says McCourt, who notes companies “need to recognize the difference between supporting the LGBTQ community and marketing to them,” especially in a “a post-marriage-equality United States” where the community “expects more from brands than choosing to wrap a rainbow around their products.”

Aligning one’s ad campaign with LGBTQ nonprofits is “essential,” asserts McCourt, who cites Transgender Awareness Week and LGBTQ History Month among the “plethora of reasons to support LGBTQ people all year round,” as opposed to ghosting us once the last speck of June glitter has been cleared from the gutter.

“We believe that outreach, engagement, and support is an ongoing commitment that lasts well beyond June Pride Month,” says Absolut Vice President Regan Clarke, who cites the Absolut Pride Bottle as an example. Once designed in partnership with the late Gilbert Baker (the Pride flag designer), the Pride bottle, Clarke notes, “now has nationwide, yearlong distribution.”

“That shows you what level they’re at,” says Evans. “That’s what advertising is all about—reminding you, ‘We’re here, and we’re going to be here.’ And think about how that has helped the market. Stoli Vodka did a campaign this year [and previously], where they did a commemorative Pride bottle. So Absolut is encouraging more business in the gay market, because other companies are trying to do something different, or outdo them.”

Asked how they intend to maintain their foothold, Clarke said Absolut is committed to “provoking dialogue that leads to cultural change every day.”

To that end, Absolut’s multi-year commitment to GLAAD, McCourt notes, “has helped us to grow our media representation programs, such as the GLAAD Media Institute, our Transgender Media Program, and Spanish Language & Latinx Media Program.”

McCourt describes the Absolut team as “well aware of the nuances that come with marketing to a marginalized community,” noting they “welcomed GLAAD’s guidance” for Absolut’s David LaChapelle Stonewall-inspired Pride campaign and Celebrating Trans Acceptance film.

Of their LGBTQ-centric advertising, outreach, and philanthropy, Clarke says Absolut hopes other corporate entities “will listen, learn, and take action… We only celebrate when everyone is invited.”

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National LGBT Chamber of Commerce & Grubhub team up with grants

The Community Impact Grant Program is inviting restaurants & bars that qualify to submit applications for grants up until Oct. 12, 2021

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Chance E. Mitchell and Justin G. Nelson of NGLCC (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the global online food delivery company Grubhub announced on Sept. 22 that they have launched a $2 million grant program to provide financial support to struggling “LGBTQ+ owned and ally restaurants” adversely impacted by the COVID pandemic.

“America’s vulnerable LGBTQ+ owned restaurants and bars serving food will find a vital lifeline this fall stemming from the partnership formed by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) and Grubhub,” according to a joint statement they released.

“These small business owners have been among the hardest hit by COVID impact with loss of jobs and income over the past two years,” the statement says.

It says the newly launched Community Impact Grant Program is inviting restaurants and bars that qualify for the program to submit applications for grants up until Oct. 12, 2021, the closing date for the applications. The grants are expected to range from $5,000 to $100,000, the statement says, with NGLCC and its more than 50 affiliated LGBT chambers across the country playing the lead role in selecting which restaurants or bars are awarded the grants.

In a separate statement in response to a question from the Blade, NGLCC said an LGBTQ-owned establishment such as a gay bar would be eligible to apply for a grant under the program if they offer a menu for serving food.

“They do not need to be licensed as a restaurant specifically to be eligible for consideration,” NGLCC said.

In the same follow-up statement to the Blade, NGLCC said it will determine whether an applicant qualifies for a grant as an LGBTQ ally by evaluating “the restaurant’s clientele, reach, track record of support, and public benefit.”

The statement adds, “In our application online, we ask allies to share evidence of their LGBTQ+ community support such as nonprofit sponsorships or advertising in local LGBTQ+ media, among others. We know that our allies are an important foundation standing by their LGBTQ+ patrons, neighbors, and friends.”

The statement announcing the launching of the LGBTQ grant program says the funds for the grants will come from a charitable program Grubhub started in 2018 called Grubhub’s Donate the Change program. It says the program asks customers receiving food delivered by Grubhub to “round out their order total and donate the difference,” with Grubhub matching eligible donations from its Grubhub+ members.

It says NGLCC has set a goal to allocate 30 percent of the funds for the Community Impact Grant Program for LGBTQ-owned and ally-owned restaurants and bars to businesses owned by people of color and transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

“We’re proud to partner with Grubhub offering these grants to support these businesses,” said Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the NGLCC, who noted that LGBTQ-owned and allied restaurants were among those who “kept our communities and first responders fed throughout the pandemic.”

Added Nelson, “America’s 1.4 million LGBTQ+-owned business owners have shown incredible resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, in turn, we can help them recover stronger than ever.”

The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce describes itself as the business voice of the community and “the largest global advocacy organization specifically dedicated to expanding economic opportunities and advancements for LGBT people.”

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One in ten LGBT workers experienced discrimination at work

LGBTQ employees of color were more likely to report being denied jobs and verbal harassment at work as opposed their white counterparts

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LOS ANGELES – A new study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law finds an estimated 46% of LGBT workers have experienced unfair treatment at work at some point in their lives, including being fired, not hired, or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

An estimated 9% of LGBT employees reported experiences of discrimination in the past year, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which extended employment non-discrimination protections to LGBT people nationwide. Approximately 11% of LGBT employees of color reported being fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the last year.

Using survey data collected in May 2021 from 935 LGBT adults in the workforce, researchers examined lifetime, five-year, and past-year discrimination among LGBT employees.

Results show that over half (57%) of LGBT employees who experienced discrimination or harassment at work reported that the unfair treatment was motivated by religious beliefs, including 64% of LGBT employees of color and 49% of white LGBT employees.

“Employment discrimination and harassment against LGBT people remain persistent and pervasive in 2021,” said lead author Brad Sears, Founding Executive Director at the Williams Institute. “Passing the Equality Act would ensure that LGBT people—particularly transgender people and LGBT people of color—are allowed to participate fully in the workplace as well as other public settings.”

ADDITIONAL FINDINGS:

Discrimination

  • 30% of LGBT employees reported experiencing at least one form of employment discrimination (being fired or not hired) because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives.
  • 29% of LGBT employees of color reported not being hired compared to 18% of white LGBT employees.

Harassment

  • 38% of LGBT employees reported experiencing at least one form of harassment (including verbal, physical, or sexual harassment) at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives.
  • LGBT employees of color were significantly more likely to experience verbal harassment than white employees.
    • 36% of LGBT employees of color reported experiencing verbal harassment compared to 26% of white LGBT employees.

Religious Motivation

  • Of employees who experienced discrimination or harassment at some point in their lives, 64% of LGBT employees of color said that religion was a motivating factor compared to 49% of white LGBT employees.

Avoiding Discrimination

  • Half (50%) of LGBT employees said that they are not open about being LGBT to their current supervisor and one-quarter (26%) are not out to any of their co-workers. 
  • Many LGBT employees reported engaging in “covering” behaviors to avoid harassment or discrimination at work, such as changing their physical appearance and avoiding talking about their families or social lives at work.
    • For example, 36% of transgender employees said that they changed their physical appearance and 28% said they changed their bathroom use at work to avoid discrimination and harassment.

Read the report

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Business slowly resumes in West Hollywood

Halting steps toward new normal amid pandemic and protest panic

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Transit Workers Appreciation Week - Santa Monica Boulevard Lanterns

After a nearly 3 month pause, Los Angeles allows businesses to reopen and owners are hopeful crowds will return.  (Photo provided by City of West Hollywood)

Feeling the pressure of an ailing economy, West Hollywood businesses are anxious to finally re-open, after several weeks of closures. Amid new safety rules, the long term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and recent civil unrest have resulted in a mix of fear and uncertainty within the community,

“I am excited for our businesses but worried for them as well,” acknowledged Genevieve Morrill, president and CEO of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “While it almost feels impossible to move forward without fear of the pandemic or fear of looters, many are.”

Morrill is concerned that Weho establishments are able to manage all the necessary protocol to keep employees and the public safe, and at the same time, break even and not take more losses.

“Nevertheless, I am happy that many companies can begin to generate revenue.

They were shut down for months, only to reopen one day and close again due to threats of vandalism,” she noted.

“The marches and protests are needed and our business are supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and want to be involved. But they are also stretched to the max – they need immediate relief.”

Morrill is hopeful about more jobs coming to the area.

“Some businesses have received PPP loans allowing them to rehire. With the recent amendment to the PPP loan policy, this has been a much needed adjustment to allow rehiring to happen,” she claimed.

Weho Bars, Restaurants, Jobs

Wendy Tuttle.

West Hollywood restaurants and bars are opening with cautious optimism, warns hospitality recruiter Wendy Tuttle.

“They will be assessing the demand and hiring/bringing back staff appropriately. Most are chomping at the bit to get back to work. There are others that may have underlying health issues or live with family members that might be hesitant to return out of fear of contracting Covid-19.”

Tuttle’s clients are “anxiously waiting” receiving those calls to come back to work.

“My people want to hear ‘we’re open. We have all the plans in place to keep you and guests safe.’ so that they can get back to work, doing what they love—creating great food, while offering an amazing experience with friends, family and community.”

Restaurants like Conservatory are looking at fully opening their venues, with a full food and beverage menu, servers, a host/hostess.

“Conservatory is excited about opening up to the community again, and are taking every measure to ensure safety for our employees and guests,” said owner Paul Kalt.

Kait feels “lucky” that the restaurant’s street-side cafe with a pick up window has been open.

“That has allowed guests to enjoy keeping their daily routines for coffee, cocktails and food, take out and delivery. While we have very much missed our full restaurant capabilities, we have been able to maintain continued service and as much of a sense of normalcy as possible, during these unprecedented times.”

For Pride Month, Conservatory have created specialty cocktails for the month of June. For their For The Love Wins package—all six cocktails offered in a package for $70– a percentage of proceeds will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign.

George Figares, general manager at Fiesta Cantina Weho is equally thrilled to be back. ‘WeHo has been dark for too long and we are happy to bring back Fiesta to WeHo!” They offer a 4-8 PM happy hour everyday.

Making sure guests feel comfortable is Figares’ number one priority.

“First and foremost, public safety is our top priority. Keeping everyone safe throughout our reopening is essential. We want everyone to come out and enjoy the community, but in a way that does not encourage the spread of the pandemic.”

Fiesta Cantina has the most delicious nachos. (Photo by Susan Hornik)

He continued: “We are hopeful that with following the strict guidelines set by the State and County Health departments that we will be able to operate in a way that is safe for our employees and guests.”

Many bars in West Hollywood have found a way to open, serving food and observing social distancing rules.  Rocco’s, The Abbey, Beaches, Fiesta Cantina and others have reopened with social distancing rules in place and food as the centerpiece.

David Cooley, owner of West Hollywood’s famed bar and restaurant, The Abbey, was on hand to welcome customers on the first post-lockdown day of business. (Photo by Troy Masters)

David Cooley recently told the Los Angeles Blade, “We scan everyone’s temperature, require masks and have social distance table rules in place,” he said.

On a recent mid-day walk through WeHo, every bar we visited was strictly imposing the new rules, too. But the crowds are huge. At least one such business has been cited for being over-capacity since implementation of the new reduced census rules.

Weho Stores

“RJ  Holguin, director of marketing and outreach at My 12 Step Store, has mixed feelings about Weho businesses reopening.

“I’m in favor but I think it’s best to move forward with great caution. People are so anxious to be out that they are willing to take a risk,” Holguin said.

RJ Holguin (Photo by Paulo Murillo)

The store has remained open online and that has been Holguin’s saving grace.

“We are now open for instore purchase with all the guidelines, but still recommend people to order online and pick up or use our curbside service. It’s very challenging to maintain in store shopping with the regulations and operate with less employees.”

Last summer, the store was expanded, to offer a better shopping experience.

“In order to meet our expectations, we needed to increase our in store sales by 30% which we started to, during the holiday season. But by the end of March, we were losing 100% of our in store sales due to the shutdown, which has been a huge financial hit,” said Holguin.

While it has been “a year of lemons,” Holguin has constantly found ways to make a joyful lemonade.

“We have provided a weekly post to our blog on the emotional effects on 12-step recovery, and offered free meeting chips to newcomers in the area. Our Facebook page has constant updates on our outreach program,” he said proudly.

During the Black Lives Matters protests, Holguin and his team painted support graffiti on their store. Protesters stopped to take pictures and offered words of support.

West Hollywood dogs haven’t yet gotten the green light to be able to play together but grooming services are available in day cares like Dog-E-Den.

“We miss our staff, our customers and the dogs who we have come to know and love to care for,” said owner Gene Barash.

The pandemic made it impossible to operate for about two months and Barash had to fully close the store. “We began reopening with reduced days/hours, but then the protests required us to close down for a few days. Thankfully, they have been very peaceful after the first few days, so we reopened again yesterday. We have a pretty high level of confidence that the protests won’t have a disruptive impact on our business.”

Over the past 3 months, Barash has received a lot of calls and emails from customers letting them know that they are looking forward to the daycare reopening and can’t wait to be able to bring their dogs in again.

“We are really appreciative of their support and encouragement and consider ourselves lucky to have such positivity coming from our community, especially in these incredibly challenging times.”

Gyms have not yet been able to open, but Brendon Ayanbadejo, President of Fitness at West Coast Fitness, the franchisee of Orangetheory Fitness, has been hard at work getting his studios ready.

“We can’t wait to open our Weho studio and the rest of our locations across California. The health and safety of our team and members is always our number one priority. We also know that health, fitness, physical activity and community are vital for a healthy immune system and mental health. So we feel excited and ready to get people back doing what they love once we get the green light.”

The state of CA announced last week guidelines of a state re-opening date of 6/12 for gyms and fitness studios.

“However, the county decides when we will be allowed to open, based on their assessment of health, risk, etc.” he explained. “We are digesting the state guidelines and waiting to hear from county health and govt representatives on specific dates when we will be allowed to open each studio.”

Economically having their business closed has of course been a challenge, stated . Ayanbadejo. “But, we are in the same boat as so many others. Beyond any economic impact the pandemic and especially here in our home of Los Angeles the protests in support of Black Lives Matter have elevated our community and opened our collective eyes to the role and responsibility we need to play.

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