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Low-Carb Craze Targets Gay Waistlines

Posted on July 31, 2004 and read 7,116 times

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Marketers have added gay waistlines to the menu of carb-conscious targets for the first time, even as tummies (and overall market growth) may begin to flatten.

Carbohydrate-sensitive products are proliferating with the Atkins diet craze. In the first half of this year alone, a scale-tipping 1,863 new products were introduced for people avoiding carbs according to Productscan Online, but the market may have peaked. While category sales grew a healthy 42% to $478.3 million for the current 13-week period ended June 12, ACNielsen says, sales had bulged more than double that, 95%, during the previous period. Looking for continued growth, marketers are now entering the gay market late in the craze.

Carbohydrates were pinned to weight problems in the 1972 book Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, but low-carb diets hit their stride in the new millennium. Atkins Nutritionals company was born in 1989, began selling products under its name in 1997 and now puts out 200, along with licensed branding in TGI Friday’s and Subway restaurants. While general advertising began three years ago, Atkins landed in gay media for the first time in May 2004 with a general market ad for Atkins’ Advantage meal bars and Basic3 meal supplement in national gay and lesbian magazines The Advocate, Genre, Metrosource and lesbian title Curve, along with West Coast newspapers.

(Dr. Atkins died at age 72 in April 2003, after a slip on ice, but also reportedly had heart disease.)

Working with ad agency Mad Dogs & Englishman, Atkins Nutritionals also partnered with local gay media like HX magazine and with theater shows like “Chicago” and “Naked Boys Singing” for gay sampling in New York City, which began a year ago and is expected to expand to other cities next year.

“Our market is influencers and I felt intuitively that the gay market should be part of our effort,” says Kurt Carstensen, media director at Mad Dogs. Carstensen says he sought to buy supportive research data on gay and lesbian dieting, but could find none. Nonetheless, his client Atkins was supportive of entering the gay market.

Indeed, Richard Rothstein, VP-corporate communications for Atkins in Ronkonkoma, NY, says, “As we moved more into the products area and putting together sampling programs, I said we should make sure we include the gay community.” Rothstein, who is openly gay, says that the gay marketing idea found quick acceptance among his colleagues.

Low-Carb Competition: Carbolite, Michelob Ultra, Skyy Sport

Competitor Carbolite Foods also began promoting its low-carb Carborite bars in gay media this spring, to explore untried niches and stay ahead of competition.

Late last year, things started to heat up. With the Atkins company receiving a cash infusion from new investors, and rumblings of big food companies like Nestle and Russell Stover entering the low-carb fray, “We said, ‘Holy smokes! We’ve got to do something here, we don’t have the money to compete. We’ve got to do something different,” explains John Miller, president and creative director of Miller Branding, which works for Carbolite.

“The brand is a first mover in many ways, we were the first chocolate bar, the first breakfast cereal bar, the first with scratch-and-sniff on boxes,” says Miller. “I tried to make it a first mover into the gay market too.” The company came into OUT in May, arriving the same month as Atkins.

“My only reservation was I didn’t know if it was going to work,” he says, noting now that he had no data to start with and cannot track how well people respond to the campaign. Further, general research is “scant and not conclusive” on low-carb dieting demographics.

Joining the low-carb fray in alcoholic beverages are Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob Ultra and Skyy Sport malt beverage, from San Francisco-based Skyy Spirits (a subsidiary of Milan-based Gruppo Campari, distributed domestically by Miller Brewing). Skyy also markets Skyy Vodka, which has had extensive gay-specific advertising since 1995. Michelob Ultra was advertised briefly in local gay newspapers back in 1992, but came into an August issue of The Advocate with its “Lose the carbs. Not the taste” slogan. Long familiar with the gay market, A-B has advertised its brand Bud Light consistently in gay magazines nationally since 1996.

Old line packaged foods companies have been largely absent in the gay market, leaving mostly smaller and newer companies like Atkins and Carbolite. For a period in 2001, Balance Bar Co. supported its food bars in gay magazines, as did Wholesome & Hearty Foods for its Gardenburger line beginning in 1997. An exception to the rule is major player The Pillsbury Co., which has sought gay, premium ice cream lovers for Haagen Dazs since 2000.

Nonetheless, despite new interest by low-carb marketers, advertising budgets — gay or general — aren’t expected to grow in 2005 unless overall sales go up dramatically again. “We’re seeing a shakeout and spending overall will go down next year,” suggests Miller. “some won’t be in it anymore.” As for his client Carbolite, the company anticipates launching, you guessed it, another brand in 2005.

Overall, too many marketers still suffer from “gut” advertising, where small budgets and lone champions lead the way into the gay market, but without knowing enough about their audience or with sufficient research and tracking capabilities.


Michael Wilke is the Director of The Commercial Closet. The World’s Largest Collection of Gay Advertising. A former AdvertisingAge reporter, he has charted the emergence of gay marketing and advertising since 1992






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