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From the Floor
Weekly Briefing
Commercial Closet: T-Mobile's Call Includes Gay Couples
December 7, 2004
Mike Wilke

tmobi Gays don't have to be a punch line in commercials, advertisers are starting to learn.

"My cell phone bill is outrageous," says a man to his girlfriend in a current T-Mobile commercial. She replies, "Mine too!" He asks in an accusatory tone, "Who have you been talking to?" "You!" she exclaims.

The tension grows as other couples go over the same discovery, with shouts of "You!" Included in the hysteria are two men in their bathroom, one shaving his face. At the end, the brand's trademark spokeswoman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, says, "Come to T-Mobile, where couples talk free."

The calling plan, called FamilyTime, includes two lines of service from the same billing address -- accommodating same-sex partners, as well as roommates and friends.

"We have 16.3 million customers," says Bryan Zidar, spokesman for T-Mobile, just outside Seattle in Bellevue, Washington. "We made a strategic decision to talk about our products and services' appeal to a wide range of consumers, and we wanted our actors to represent that with this ad. We know 'diversity' represents our customer base and future customers -- it's one of the reasons we're growing so fast."

With 16.3 million subscribers, T-Mobile is the fourth largest carrier after Cingular/AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint PCS.

couple Still, T-Mobile didn't give the gay couple too much screen time -- they are the only couple shown once, for just a fraction over a second. Peter Dobrow, another T-Mobile spokesman, admits the ad agency, Publicis in the West, Seattle, may have soft-pedaled things a bit. "I'm not going to say it wasn't a consideration," he says.

Asked about the ad's results, Dobrow says "all of our TV advertising has one big metric -- in-market sales," and he notes T-Mobile added 901,000 new customers in the third quarter of this year, a 35% increase.

The commercial, targeting 18-34 years olds, was first conceived early in 2004, began in the spring and has run throughout the year. Despite the contentious election year, and the renewed bluster of fundamentalists, Zidar says the gay-inclusive commercial garnered little comment from viewers -- under 10 messages, and they were split.

T-Mobile Joins a Trend

T-Mobile's couples spot is a rare but growing example of commercials where advertisers include gay people incidentally -- as a sign of diversity, not simply a punch line.

Outside the U.S., McDonald's included an older man who performed in drag as part of a diversity of life campaign. Last year in Quebec, Vanilla Diet Coke showed an animated ad with a Ferris wheel that included a shy but love-sick pair of young men. MTV often includes gay couples in promotional spots. A 2001 ad from John Hancock Financial Services about a high school reunion mentions how many classmates came out of the closet.

Things were a bit different for T-Mobile last year, with another spot that some gay people might consider uncomfortable. As several guys play basketball, one of the men tells the other his shoes are "cute." Trademark spokeswoman Catherine Zeta-Jones intervenes and says, "Looks like someone needs to get in touch with his masculine side." Dobrow says T-Mobile got no specific comments against the 2003 commercial.

vmodern Elsewhere, mobile carriers have had mixed results with gay themes in general ads too. Overseas, Virgin Mobile featured two soldiers holding hands in a 1999 British print ad, but later commercials played on stereotypes, including predatory behavior in jail, and a male couple eyeing a hamster. An ad in 1999 from Belgium's Nomad featured a couple on their wedding night and the "bride" is spied peeing -- standing up.

Vodafone also carried gay-themed ads, and MobilCom of Germany had a drag queen as its spokesperson in 2001. More positive efforts have come from Canada's Fido and Siemens.

Competitive Wireless Business Has Not Yet Spurred Gay Outreach

Despite slowed growth and a highly competitive marketplace where roughly 170 million Americans subscribe, wireless phone services and products have not yet attempted to reach gay consumers in gay media, including T-Mobile.

"The bottom line is the cell business is highly commoditized and it's reaching saturation, though it isn't quite there yet, so the companies don't view diverse marketing as a priority," says Bob Witeck, a principal at Witeck-Combs Communications. In partnership with Harris Interactive, Witeck's firm did a telecom use survey that found 79% of gay and lesbian consumers have cell service, compared to 73% of the general market.

In a look at brands, there were no clear winners among gay users. "Churn is a big issue to the carriers, and building brand loyalty is their best opportunity," he says.

Despite what may have been an advertising misstep last year, T-Mobile has since created a model commercial -- finding revenue in same-sex partnerships, not a punch line. If the company sticks to its message of inclusion and adds gay marketing, it could have a one-two punch with the 1.2 million people in same-sex couples nationally. Good call.

The Commercial Closet column covers gay issues in advertising, marketing and media. It is part of the non-profit project tracking 85 years of gay images in advertising worldwide. Its 2000+ image archive is at Wilke is a veteran business journalist who has written for the New York Times, Advertising Age and Brandweek, and covered gay media issues for over 10 years.

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See also:
Subaru Sponsors Gay-Ads Education Project
Commercial Closet: Cross-Dressing Scores At Super Bowl
Commercial Closet: Miller Ads Get Gay Inclusive

More columns by: Mike Wilke

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