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Pepsi Marches Into Gay Pride
The first soft drink to market itself to gay Americans.
By Michael Wilke


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June 29, 2004. Amidst the noisy advertising battle of the soft drink titans, PepsiCo has quietly joined the growing list of corporations marching into Gay Pride events. It is the first effort to reach gay Americans by any soft drink in the $63.8 billion annual U.S. cola market.

Join the Crowd
On the last Sunday in June, floats promoting eighty gay businesses, nonprofits and major corporations lined the side streets of New York's Fifth Avenue. A cacophony of competing dance songs blared from each one while muscle boys and drag queens, the dominant float "decorations," patiently waited their turn to enter the fray of the massive, 35th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade.

At the more sedate float promoting Pepsi, festooned with bubble machines, a DJ spun records from the float's top tier, but the only one in drag was an enormous blow-up Pepsi bottle with a blonde wig.

Pepsi employees, decked out in corporate gray or black Diet Pepsi T-shirts and hats, jogged down the parade route accompanied by members of the Big Apple gay softball league. They handed out 8,000 cans of new Pepsi Edge soda (half the carbohydrates and sugar of regular, but not quite diet) and 78,000 blue Mardis Gras bead necklaces to hundreds of thousands of eager attendees.

Gay Employees Spur Gay Marketing
The presence of the Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo was largely inspired by its new gay employee group, EQUAL, formed in December 2003. Such groups have become a force in motivating their companies to look at gay marketing.

A greater presence for Diet Pepsi in gay media is anticipated later this year, though no details are confirmed. Intriguingly, gay themes have already crept into the company's general ads. Its Doritos brand featured a commercial with Enrique Iglesias that has a gay tease joke, while Lays showed several guys posturing not to touch each other during a sporting event. Up in Canada, a flamboyant man broke the news of his "bisexuality" in a Pepsi commercial in which he declared that he loved both Pepsi and Diet Pepsi.

Pepsi was also a recent sponsor of Canada's PrideVision gay TV network. Arch-enemy Coca-Cola supported Divers/cité, Montreal's Gay Pride event, but has not yet made U.S. gay marketing efforts, aside from sponsorship of Gay Pride in Atlanta, its home city.

Pride Events Offer Image, Sampling Opportunity
For many advertisers, Pride parade and festival sponsorships are a key component of having a presence in the gay community. This year, Bud Light, Delta Airlines, Showtime, Smirnoff, Starbucks and Washington Mutual were among the largest corporate brands strutting their stuff at multiple Pride events.

As corporations increasingly capitalize on the notion of gays as "early adopters," "trendsetters" and "thought leaders" by introducing new products to them in gay magazines, Pride events can be a way to introduce new products into the hands, literally, of the gay marketplace.

Most Pride parades reported attendance boosts this year, though actual statistics are not tracked. Reporting comes from organizers (who want to emphasize size) instead of police (who are so often accused of undercounting they may sometimes overcompensate) or third-party sources.

Thus, New York City parade organizers say attendance this year was 1.5 million, the largest in the country. San Francisco's organizers claimed a million this year, compared to last year's police count of 750,000. Toronto regularly asserts 750,000, while Chicago estimated 400,000. Los Angeles-West Hollywood and Boston each estimated between 250,000-300,000, and Washington DC about 200,000. Numbers for smaller cities like Minneapolis fall at or under 100,000. Atlanta Pride officials said event attendance fell from last year's 300,000 to 100,000 people because of rain.

But parade organizers don't emphasize attendance numbers to sell sponsorships. "Corporations look at whether it's a significant media market more so than attendance," notes Andre Davis, operations director for Boston Pride.

"Attendance is not as important as sampling," echoes Scott Seitz, founder of SPI Marketing in New York, and formerly a Pepsi employee for eight years. Seitz organized Pepsi's parade presence, and over the last eight years has also done so for clients including Johnson & Johnson's K-Y lubricants, SmithKline Beecham's Havrix, Philip Morris' Benson & Hedges, and Absolut vodka — which had a presence at 15 Pride events simultaneously.

In the biggest cities, a float costs $5,000 to $10,000 to make and enter, though in smaller cities it can cost just $1,000. (In New York City, creativity is stifled because all parades must work with a single float contractor — ironically from New Jersey).

How to Carry Everything
Logistics can be a challenge at Pride Parades. Since Seitz was doing massive sampling across the 3-mile-long New York City parade route, he needed to drag along thousands of cans of soda, ice, and bead necklaces, all which didn't fit on the float. So he rented an additional truck that needed decorating too.

And not all companies use employees on the floats, especially in cities where they have no offices. Seitz sometimes hires models, other times he'll give a donation to a local gay athletic team in exchange for their help, further supporting the community.

Many cities' parades are followed by large, advertiser-friendly festivals that may be days long, where people spend more time and money. In San Francisco, Seitz was able to give away twice as many samples of Diet Pepsi & Pepsi Edge. Conversely, in New York City, most parade attendees skip the anemic free festival as 10,000 people head for other events costing up to $120. One favorite is the 18-year-old Pier Dance, where both Janet Jackson and Cher have performed.

Rather than participating in parades, more companies still prefer, overall, to invest in print advertising, which is simpler. "Pride is not a place for everybody," explains Seitz. "It's like the Rose Bowl, where you're one of 52 sponsors and you have to do something to really stand out. You can't do it lightly."

But, as consumption in the overall carbonated soft drink market is increasingly flat, the time seems right for soft drink marketers to take a gulp of the gay market. Overall carbonated soft drink sales have leveled off, with just a 0.4% volume consumption increase in 2003, according to Beverage Marketing Corp.

If Pepsi receives a good welcome, PepsiCo's beverage and salty snacks businesses may also open up its other major untapped ad categories, with Frito-Lay, Tropicana, Quaker Oats and Gatorade as major divisions, and brands as diverse as Doritos, Ruffles, Rice-A-Roni, Aunt Jemima, Mountain Dew, Aquafina, and Lipton.

By being the first to commit advertising dollars, Pepsi and its brands could well become the choice of a New Gay Generation.

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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