How Do Hair Loss Marketers Sell to Gay Men?




“We’re here, we’re queer — and we have hair to save. Who wants to help us?”

In 2000, Merck & Co. announced it would spend $2 million on a campaign for Propecia (finasteride) aimed at reaching gay men. The campaign was produced by Prime Access, a diverse-markets ad agency, and featured a print ad that closed with the tagline, “He likes me just the way I am. Keeping my hair is my choice.”

The influx of cash, largely into gay newspapers and Web sites, no doubt caused a few champagne corks to pop. But what was most remarkable for its time was this was the first case of a pharmaceutical company designing a gay-market campaign around something other than HIV medications.

If following the money is a way to find answers to life’s great questions, this may be one very large clue. Hair loss — or rather, the fear thereof — may be nearly as important as life-threatening illness.

Hair loss advertising with staying power

Even today, Merck is “probably the biggest advertiser in the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community relative to hair loss,” says Mark Elderkin, CEO of the Gay Ad Network, a media-buying firm that represents dozens of online and print publications specifically targeting the LGBT markets. Those publications — which include, Windy City Media Group, and The DataLounge — reach more than 6 million gay men per week.

Rogaine (McNeil-PPC, Inc., a division of Johnson & Johnson) jumped into the market a bit later, in 2008, as it rolled out its foam product to position it alongside toothpaste and deodorant as an everyday product used by everyday people. Those included everyday gay men who watch Logo, the gay cable channel, where the television ads were largely placed.

It’s all just good business. A segment (not all, but a lot) of the gay male population has exceptional disposable income due to two incomes and fewer, if any, children than their straight counterparts.

More importantly, gay men are recognized for allocating more disposable income to matters of appearance. Just as notable, gay men tend to lead trends that follow in the straight community. As Blair Lawhead, proprietor of Blair Hair in a Chelsea (New York City) hair studio, says, “We gay men determine what straight women buy for their husbands.”

But everyone knows that marketing in the digital age involves much more than just print and television ads. Hair loss is something that, when first discovered, sends millions of men and women to their computer, pulling up a Google, Yahoo or another search engine to get answers. Type in “hair loss prevention” and you will get pages and pages of links with answers. Advertising, as well as informative articles with links of their own, will help you find answers.

“Hair loss companies that started with print ads in the LGBT markets have shifted to online channels,” says Elderkin. “It’s much more efficient to track campaigns. The reach of those campaigns is very clear. Less important today is the size of the [ad buy] budget.”

Brian Sterling-Vete, chairman of the U.S. division of Head of Hair, based in the U.K., echoes this strategy. “It’s better that we take the PR/education-marketing approach in the gay market,” he says, explaining that gay men seem to be interested in deep details when taking care of health and appearance.

A Merck & Co. spokesperson denied to an Advertising Age reporter in 2000 that gay men were in some fashion being approached differently than the general population. She claims it was just a way of concentrating on a particular market. The publication found other industry observers who said that gay consumers tend to be brand loyal to companies that have gay-specific creativity (i.e., the ads were designed for gay consumers, not just general-market ads running in gay media). Doug Shingleton, associate publisher of Genre magazine (now defunct), told the reporter that pharma companies’ experience in advertising HIV medications led them to consider other products as well.

(So they’re not targeting us per se, just building brand loyalty. OK, except Merck holds exclusive rights to sell finasteride under a patent that doesn’t expire until 2013. Whatever. Glad they like us.)
Other segments of the hair restoration market, however, are hard to track. Independent salons within single markets may advertise in gay pubs and on gay Web sites. But no other national ad program is evident in the data. An argument against gay-specific advertising for any product is that LGBT individuals are exposed to mainstream media as much as anyone else. This might be how other companies in the industry hope to reach the gay market.

For their sake, let’s hope they are right. To ignore this community is to ignore a lot of lost hair.