January 3, 2020 at 4:55 pm PST | by Scott Stiffler
Absolut Vodka at vanguard of LGBTQ engagement

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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