TWO BIRDS AND ONE STONE: PURPOSEFUL POLYSEMY IN MINORITY
TARGETING AND ADVERTISING EVALUATIONS
Ruben Visscher3, 4
Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, PO Box 1738, 3000 DR, Rotterdam, the
Netherlands. Tel.: +31104081184. Fax: +31104089011. E-mail: email@example.com.
IESEG School of Management, Lille Catholic University, Rue de la Digue 3, 59000 Lille, France. Tel.:
+33320545892. Fax: +33320574855. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unilever, European Supply Management, Nassaukade 5, 3071 JL, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Tel.:
+31104395506. Fax: +31104395781. E-mail: email@example.com.
The authors thank the three anonymous reviewers and the editor for their comments and suggestions.
Authors are ranked alphabetically; they contributed equally.
Stefano Puntoni (Ph.D., University of London), Assistant Professor of Marketing,
Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joelle Vanhamme (Ph.D., Catholic University of Louvain), Associate Professor of
Marketing, IESEG School of Management, Lille Catholic University,
Ruben Visscher (M.Sc., Erasmus University), Market Intelligence, European Supply
Management, Unilever, email@example.com.
TWO BIRDS AND ONE STONE: PURPOSEFUL POLYSEMY IN MINORITY TARGETING
AND ADVERTISING EVALUATIONS
Current social trends leading to greater consumer diversity require that advertisers pay increasing
attention to minority groups within society. This article answers recent calls for research into the
effects of purposeful polysemy, or strategic ambiguity, in minority targeting. The results of a
quasi-experiment with gay and heterosexual male respondents in the context of gay window
advertising not only demonstrate significant positive target market effects of covert minority
targeting (i.e., ambiguous ad cues) but also the existence of negative nontarget market effects.
Emotional responses fully mediate these effects. Our results further demonstrate the importance
of individual differences and product category by suggesting, for example, that gay men who are
open about their sexual orientation can be targeted using gay window ads when the product
category is congruent with male stereotypes and with mainstream ads when the product category
is incongruent with male stereotypes.
Consider an ad for a pair of jeans, depicting a man romantically kissing a woman. Then
imagine the same ad with two men romantically kissing each other. These source cues are
unambiguous representations of, respectively, heterosexual and gay relationships. Now, what if
instead of kissing each other, the two men in the ad were just standing next to each other? This
type of source cue would no longer provide an unambiguous portrayal of a gay relationship,
because the two men could be friends, relatives, or lovers.
In this article, we explore target and nontarget market effects of covert minority targeting.
Following prior work in this area (e.g., Aaker, Brumbaugh, and Grier 2000), we define target
market effects as typically positive responses to an advertising message—in terms of attitude
toward the ad—among consumers who belong to the target segment. Similarly, we define
nontarget market effects as typically negative attitudinal responses to an ad among consumers
who are not targeted by the message. Existing research into the effect of target marketing on
target and nontarget markets generally focuses on the influence of unambiguous cues, such as a
black versus a white person portrayed in the ad (Aaker et al. 2000; Grier and Deshpandé 2001), a
romantically involved male couple (Bhat, Leigh, and Wardlow 1998; Oakenfull and Greenlee
2005), or a pink triangle with a gay and lesbian source (Aaker et al. 2000). This focus on
unambiguous markers of group membership assumes consumers’ conscious awareness of the
intended target of the ads (Brumbaugh and Grier 2006). In addition, by using salient visual cues
of group membership (e.g., dark skin, romantic behavior, symbols associated with a subculture),
previous literature relies on the implicit assumption that firms adopt overt targeting strategies.
Although these assumptions may be warranted in many instances, nonacademic
marketing publications have long acknowledged that firms sometimes use ambiguous cues to
target multiple segments of consumers with the same message or for fear of alienating nontarget
consumers, especially in the case of stigmatized minorities (e.g., Greenlee 2004; Oakenfull 2004;
Stevens, Maclaran, and Brown 2003; Wilke 1997). In a recent exception to the general lack of
interest among academics in practitioners’ purposeful use of ambiguity in advertising
copywriting, Brumbaugh and Grier (2006) call for research into the effect of nonsalient physical
markers of group membership on the effectiveness of targeted advertising. We address this issue
by examining the effect of subtle and ambiguous visual cues on both target and nontarget market
effects. That is, we focus on cues open to multiple interpretations. The strategy of using
ambiguous cues in advertising messages to generate multiple meanings across a heterogeneous
audience entails purposeful polysemy (which we define in more detail subsequently). The two
men standing close to each other in the jeans ad is an example of purposeful polysemy in that
they may be interpreted as platonic friends or intimates, depending on the audience’s
In a quasi-experiment, we assess how members of a subculture and of mainstream culture
react to ambiguous portrayals of models in advertising by comparing how gay and heterosexual
men respond to mainstream and gay window ads. Following previous literature (e.g., Bhat et al.
1998), we select gay and heterosexual male consumers as the target and nontarget markets,
respectively, and provide a study setting that is both theoretically and substantively interesting.
Heterosexual men tend to stigmatize gay men more than they stigmatize lesbians and, in general,
display more bias toward homosexuality than do heterosexual women (Herek and Capitanio
1999; Kite 1983). Thus, the nontarget market effects of covert minority targeting should be
especially strong in the specific population selected for our study. In addition, as any casual
glance at fashion and lifestyle magazines can attest, ambiguous representational practices hinting
at gay culture are common in advertising (Rohlinger 2002). The remainder of this article thus is
structured as follows: We first review relevant literature on purposeful polysemy and target and
nontarget market effects to develop a series of research hypotheses. We then present the results
of the empirical study and conclude with a discussion of implications for theory and practice.
Purposeful Polysemy in Advertising Targeting
Research into the consequences of ambiguous ad cues tends to conceptualize ambiguity
as either a rhetorical device in advertising executions or a marketing gimmick. Literature
investigates the ambiguity of both textual (e.g., McQuarrie and Mick 1992) and visual (e.g.,
Peracchio and Meyers-Levy 1994) advertising elements and uncovers important moderators of
the consequences of ambiguous cues on persuasion and choice, such as level of involvement
(Kardes 1988), individual differences (Dimofte and Yalch 2007), and the unexpectedness of the
ambiguous cues (Miller and Kahn 2005).
By definition, ambiguous ad cues are open to multiple interpretations and can thus lead to
advertising polysemy: multiple meanings across an audience in response to the same message
(Puntoni, Schroeder, and Ritson 2009). In a recent conceptual article, Puntoni and colleagues
(2009) highlight the prevalence of purposeful polysemy, which they define as advertising
polysemy that results from advertisers’ strategic efforts. Firms may pursue different goals when
encoding multiple meanings into a slogan or an ad. An area that has received limited attention
but that is especially interesting from a substantive point of view involves the effects of
purposeful polysemy with a targeting goal—that is, deliberate attempts to target two or more
segments of consumers with a message that is open to multiple interpretations (Puntoni et al.
2009). Despite previous calls for additional work in this area (e.g., Greenlee 2004; Kates and
Goh 2003), scant research considers purposeful polysemy in advertising targeting, and the few
existing studies focus on multi-ethnic advertising (Brumbaugh and Grier 2006).
Literature within communication studies and rhetoric attends more to the importance of
purposeful polysemy, mostly as a determinant of message popularity (e.g., Browne and Schulze
1990; Ceccarelli 1998). Such largely conceptual work pertains to the antecedents and
consequences of purposeful polysemy in a variety of communication settings, such as
organizational communication (Eisenberg 1984) or everyday conversation (Nerlich and Clarke
2001). For example, Fiske (1986, p. 392) argues that for a television program to be popular, it
must appeal to diverse audiences, which occurs only if the program includes ambiguous elements
that are amenable to different interpretations so multiple groups of viewers can find “structural
similarities to [their] own social relations and identity.” Thus, purposeful polysemy reportedly
allows for the successful targeting of multiple audiences with the same advertising message.
When a target segment represents a stigmatized minority within society, purposeful
polysemy can become important to avoid the risk of backlash from members of the dominant
culture (Bhat et al. 1998). Given the stigma associated with homosexuality, mass media
messages designed to appeal to gay consumers in the absence of explicit targeting therefore offer
an especially interesting application from both managerial and theoretical points of view.
Gay Window Advertising
Since the 1980s, the term “gay window advertising”—or “gay vague advertising”—has
appeared in media and communication studies to describe advertising that covertly targets gay
consumers through the inclusion of ambiguous cues (e.g., Clark 1995; Rohlinger 2002; Sender
1999). Heterosexual men are not meant to perceive these subtle elements as a reference to gay
culture, and even for gay men, the cues remain ambiguous (i.e., different interpretations of the
potential target are possible; Greenlee 2004). According to this conceptualization, gay window
ads differ both from explicit appeals targeting gay consumers (e.g., a gay couple; Bhat et al.
1998) and from so-called implicit gay ads (Oakenfull and Greenlee 2005), which feature overt
(and unambiguous) gay symbolism (e.g., pink triangle, rainbow). Such symbols are readily
recognized by gay consumers and may or may not be understood by heterosexual ones,
depending on their subcultural knowledge, but if understood, they leave little space for
ambiguity (for a discussion of the difference between gay window and implicit gay ads, see
Clark (1995, p. 486) argues that gay window advertising occurs through a dual strategy
that both avoids explicit references to heterosexuality and contains “signifiers of sexual
ambiguity.” These subtle cues that suggest gay targeting should be characterized by a sufficient
degree of ambiguity, so that their “gayness remains in the eye of the beholder.” (Clark 1995, p.
486). In line with Clark’s analysis, we define gay window advertising according to two criteria:
(1) the absence of explicit heterosexual cues and (2) the presence of ambiguous cues that could
be construed as depicting gay relationships or culture. For example, a common representation of
masculinity in print ads is what Rohlinger (2002) refers to as “the erotic male with unknown
sexuality.” This type of gay window advertising typically features “images of partially-clothed,
muscular men with sexually ambiguous appeal” (Rohlinger 2002, p. 65). Although these ads
include no explicit references, their use of imagery can be interpreted as hinting at elements of
gay culture (Sender 1999).
Despite the interest that gay window ads have generated among commentators and
practitioners (Greenlee 2004; Oakenfull 2004), academic marketing literature largely ignores this
topic, and the effect of such ads on gay and heterosexual consumers remains unknown (Greenlee
2004). For example, do gay men react more positively to such ads than to ads featuring
heterosexual cues? How do heterosexual men react when exposed to gay window ads?
Target Market Effects of Covert Minority Targeting
As a result of increasing diversity in the marketplace, target marketing strategies are
gaining importance (Grier and Brumbaugh 1999). Viewers who feel they belong to the target
market display more favorable attitudes toward an ad than do viewers who feel excluded (e.g.,
Leigh, Rethans, and Whitney 1987; Whittler and Spira 2002). As highlighted in the introduction,
prior advertising literature tends to focus on ads that unambiguously target a minority, with the
implicit assumption that minority consumers recognize the advertisers’ cultural sensitivity. We
propose, however, that covert minority targeting carried out through the use of ambiguous cues
may produce significant target market effects as well. We present a general social cognitive
account of how people interpret ambiguous information, and then discuss target market effects in
the case of covert minority targeting.
Social cognitive psychology discusses ambiguity in terms of applicability, or the
relationship between features of stored knowledge and attended features of a stimulus (Higgins
1996). Accordingly, different interpretations of an event are possible when different knowledge
structures are applicable to the processing of incoming information (e.g., Förster and Liberman
2007). Another basic tenet of social cognition is that the accessibility of knowledge structures
determines the way ambiguous social information is interpreted (Higgins 1996). For example, in
an impression formation task, in which a character’s actions might be interpreted as implying
either one of two personality traits, the relative accessibility of the two applicable concepts
determines which attribution the person likely makes about that character (Srull and Wyer 1979).
Individual interpretations of an ambiguous event therefore are a joint function of applicability
and accessibility, both chronic (baseline) and temporary (primed). In particular, people with a
predisposition toward a certain interpretation of a stimulus likely make that interpretation, even
when faced with a considerable amount of ambiguity, because greater chronic accessibility can
compensate for weak applicability in interpretations of ambiguous stimuli (Higgins and Brendl
1995). Significantly for our study context, these effects may occur automatically and outside
conscious awareness (Higgins 1996).
Self-schemas, which store information about the self, tend to enjoy relatively high
chronic accessibility (Markus 1977). In particular, consumers’ sense of who they are drives how
they make sense of advertising messages (Mick and Buhl 1992), because self-schemas serve as
an interpretive framework for incoming applicable information (Markus 1977). Self-schemas
that have been the focus of much attention in social psychology are those based on social
identities. When a social identity refers to a minority group within society that is characterized
by distinctive values, beliefs, and behaviors, we can talk of subcultural self-schemas
(Brumbaugh 2002). In general, social self-concepts guide the perception, encoding, and retrieval
of applicable information (Oyserman 2007). Although the importance of a social identity to the
sense of self can vary substantially among group members (Stryker and Serpe 1994), some
identities, such as gender, racial, ethnic, class, and sexual identities (Frable 1997), tend to play
key self-identification roles. Self-schemas related to these social identities therefore may be
implicated in advertising processing, particularly if those messages include cues that could be
interpreted as speaking to the consumer’s in-group. This implication should be especially
pertinent when a consumer belongs to a group that represents a minority, as defined by one of
these central social identities (e.g., African American, gay), because the distinctiveness of a trait
enhances its influence on the sense of self (McGuire 1984; Oakes 1987). For example, the sexual
self and associated subcultural schemas—which encode information about the subculture—play
important roles in how most gay consumers make sense of social information in their everyday
lives (e.g., Kates 2002).
Covert minority targeting therefore should increase the personal relevance and make
ambiguous cues more accessible among minority consumers, with potentially positive
repercussions for their responses to the ad. Different processes could underpin positive target
market effects in the case of covert minority targeting, including attentional processes (e.g., gay
consumers may be more likely to pay attention to ambiguous gay cues than to heterosexual
cues), fluency effects (e.g., for gay consumers, ambiguous gay cues may feel more familiar or
“natural” than heterosexual cues), and implicit identification (e.g., gay consumers may be more
likely to experience a sense of affiliation with the models featured in gay window ads than with
those in mainstream ads).
In summary, we propose that positive target market effects can occur in the case of
advertising that covertly targets a minority group by featuring subtle cues congruent with that
minority’s lifestyle or subcultural values. In the context of gay men’s responses to gay window
and mainstream ads, this proposal leads to the following hypothesis:
H1a: Gay men have more positive attitudes toward gay window ads than toward
Nontarget Market Effects of Covert Minority Targeting
Existing literature also documents negative nontarget market effects—that is, decreased
preference for ads when people feel they do not belong to the target audience (Aaker et al. 2000;
Brumbaugh and Grier 2006). These market effects are especially evident among nondistinctive
consumers when the distinctive source portrayed in the ad belongs to a controversial minority,
such as gay men (Bhat et al. 1998; Grier and Brumbaugh 1999; Oakenfull and Greenlee 2005).
Negative nontarget market effects often are cited as a major impediment to the overt targeting of
minority groups (e.g., Grier and Brumbaugh 1999). As a consequence, exploring nontarget
market effects in the case of advertising messages that covertly target minorities (especially
stigmatized ones) is substantively interesting.
Members of a dominant culture should have some knowledge about the values and
behaviors of prominent minorities, which should be activated by salient cues. For example, in the
case of messages targeting members of the gay subculture, salient cues could be a same-sex
couple captured in a romantic moment or explicit textual information (“gay pride”). Such cues
are likely to be interpreted by heterosexual viewers as targeting a gay minority, which may lead
to less favorable attitudes toward the message (Bhat et al. 1998). However, members of
dominant cultures often lack detailed knowledge about the subculture (Grier and Brumbaugh
1999). For these consumers, subcultural knowledge should mostly take the form of stereotypes
and should contain little self-referential information (Fiedler 2007). As a consequence,
ambiguous cues featured in messages that covertly target a minority should be less likely to
activate subcultural schemas among members of the dominant culture (Brumbaugh 2002; Grier
and Brumbaugh 1999). In contrast with the results from Bhat and colleagues’ (1998) study,
which uses an ad with two men romantically involved, heterosexual men exposed to a gay
window ad should not be as likely to interpret the ambiguous cues (e.g., two men standing next
to each other in a way that suggests some sort of close relationship) as gay cues. Covert minority
targeting thus might prevent negative nontarget market effects. These arguments encapsulate the
promise of covert minority targeting: executions that can deliver positive target market effects
among members of a minority without inducing negative nontarget market effects (e.g., Puntoni
et al. 2009).
However, negative nontarget market effects might emerge even in the absence of explicit
awareness of minority targeting. Semioticians and critical and cultural theorists often criticize
advertising on the grounds that ads help perpetuate the status quo within a society by
encouraging consumers to interpret reality in ways that benefit the members of the dominant
culture (e.g., Leiss, Kline, and Jhally 1997; Schumann 2004; Williamson 1979). For example, in
the world depicted by advertising, women typically are in charge of household work, and men
are sexually attracted to women. If most ads are designed to appeal to consumers who identify
with mainstream culture, and if these consumers display positive target market effects, then the
absence of cues emphasizing mainstream cultural values alone should result in less positive ad
evaluations among the members of mainstream culture. We have defined gay window ads
according to the absence of heterosexual cues and the presence of ambiguous cues. This
discussion then suggests that heterosexual men may respond more negatively to gay window ads
than to mainstream ads.
H1b: Heterosexual men have more positive attitudes toward mainstream ads than toward
gay window ads.
The Role of Emotional Responses
Although most studies focus exclusively on attitudinal effects (e.g., Aaker et al. 2000;
Brumbaugh 2002; Oakenfull and Greenlee 2004, 2005), literature pertaining to group processes
and intergroup relations shows that for some groups, such as gay men, emotional reactions are
the strongest predictor of overall evaluations (Miller, Smith, and Mackie 2007). In addition,
emotional reactions elicited by ads mediate the effect of the ad content on attitudes (Edell and
Burke 1987; Holbrook and Batra 1987)—a mediating role confirmed by Bhat and colleagues
(1998) in the context of target marketing. The arguments that lead to hypothesis 1 also should
apply in the context of emotional responses. In particular, we expect emotional responses to gay
window and mainstream ads to reflect the interpretive frames of gay and heterosexual
consumers. Accordingly, gay (heterosexual) men should experience more (less) positive
emotions and less (more) negative emotions in the case of gay window compared with
mainstream ads. Moreover, we expect emotional responses to mediate the joint effect of sexual
orientation and ad type on attitudes toward the ad.
H2: Sexual orientation moderates emotions elicited by gay window and mainstream ads,
such that (a) for gay men, gay window ads generate stronger positive emotions and
weaker negative emotions than do mainstream ads, whereas (b) for heterosexual men,
mainstream ads generate stronger positive emotions and weaker negative emotions
than do gay window ads.
H3: Positive and negative emotions mediate the influence of sexual orientation on
attitudes toward gay window and mainstream ads.
The Role of Individual Differences and Product Category
Our previous hypotheses do not take into account the role of heterogeneity among gay
and heterosexual men. However, individual differences among both groups likely help explain
variations in their responses to gay window and mainstream advertising. For example, Bhat and
colleagues (1998) show that attitudes toward homosexuality moderate heterosexual men’s
negative reactions to explicit gay advertising. In this section, we therefore focus on two
individual differences that should be especially relevant to the discussion of target and nontarget
market effects in the context of gay window advertising.
Gay men vary in the degree to which they identify with being gay (i.e., are at different
stages of the coming out process) and express their gay identity to others (Kates 1998; Oakenfull
2004). This individual difference influences how gay consumers relate to the subculture (Kates
1998); we therefore use degree of gay openness to investigate differences in gay men’s responses
to gay window and mainstream ads. Moreover, heterosexual men vary in their degree of
acceptance of homosexuality, with consequences for their responses to the gay subculture (Bhat
et al. 1998; Herek and Capitanio 1999). Attitudes toward homosexuality among heterosexual
men therefore may influence consumers’ reactions to gay window and mainstream ads.
Degree of gay openness and attitudes toward homosexuality should help explain the ad
evaluations offered by gay and heterosexual men, because they may capture differences across
individuals in their strength of opposition to or endorsement of gender stereotypes and traditional
gender roles. If this premise is accurate, the product category advertised should be a crucial
moderator of the effect of individual differences on gay and heterosexual men’s responses to
purposeful polysemy in advertising targeting.
Products vary in the extent to which they fit prevailing gender stereotypes. Although
some product categories (e.g., sanitary napkins) are used only by one gender, many others are
ascribed to a single gender by dominant stereotypes (Alreck 1994; e.g., do-it-yourself equipment
is for men). Dramatic social changes in the past 30 years have challenged stereotypical views of
appropriate user groups, though gender stereotypes for product usage remain prevalent and
influence the way people spontaneously feel about product categories (Browne 1998). Individual
differences in the degree to which gay and heterosexual men relate to traditional views of
sexuality thus may explain differences among gay and heterosexual respondents in their
reactions to ambiguous gay and mainstream cues in ads that promote products that vary in their
level of congruence with prevailing gender stereotypes (e.g., face moisturizer versus car tires).
Among gay people, Chung (2001) notes five identity management strategies: acting (i.e.,
engaging in a heterosexual relationship to mislead people about the person’s sexual orientation),
passing (i.e., fabricating information to be perceived as heterosexual), covering (i.e., omitting or
censoring information that would identify oneself as gay), implicitly out (i.e., open and honest
about sexual orientation without labeling oneself as gay), and explicitly out (i.e., openly
identifying as gay). The last four strategies parallel the gay identity development progress
identified by Griffin (1992). Compared with people in earlier stages of the coming out process,
gay consumers who are explicitly out are more likely to endorse minority cultural values, be
committed to their gay identity, and criticize society’s negative evaluation of homosexuality
(Kates 1998). Oakenfull (2004) argues that targeting gay consumers by inserting implicit gay ads
in mainstream media may provoke negative reactions from gay consumers who are especially
committed to their gay identity. Explicitly out gay consumers may oppose ambiguous, or
“closeted,” references to the behaviors and values of the gay community, on the grounds that
these messages accept society’s restrictive sexual rules (Gross 2005). As a consequence,
Oakenfull (2004) suggests that explicitly out gay consumers are best targeted with overtly gay
messages placed in gay media. In the current setting, explicitly out gay men should react less
positively than gay men who are at an earlier stage of the coming out process to both mainstream
and gay window ads. However, ads that are inconsistent with traditional gender roles may
mitigate such negative reactions among gay men who are explicitly out. In particular,
mainstream ads for products that are incongruent with male stereotypes and gay window ads for
products traditionally considered the prerogative of heterosexual men appear to challenge
prevailing gender stereotypes. We therefore propose:
H4: Compared with gay men at earlier stages of the coming out process, explicitly out
gay men hold more negative attitudes toward (a) mainstream ads for products
congruent with traditional male stereotypes and (b) gay window ads for products
incongruent with traditional male stereotypes.
A similar line of reasoning applies to the influence of attitudes toward homosexuality on
heterosexual men’s responses to gay window and mainstream ads. For heterosexual men, more
negative attitudes toward homosexuality reflect a stronger endorsement of traditional
(mainstream) notions of sexuality (Weinberger and Millham 1979). Men who hold traditional
views of sexuality and sex roles like stereotypically male products more when they are endorsed
by men than by women and like stereotypically female products more when they are endorsed by
women than by men (Morrison and Shaffer 2003).
In the context of our study, heterosexual male consumers who hold more negative
attitudes toward homosexuality should react more positively to mainstream ads for male-
stereotypical products than men who hold more positive attitudes toward homosexuality, because
these ads represent the most stereotypical ad type/product type combination. In contrast, gay
window ads for products that are incongruent with traditional male stereotypes neither include
traditional mainstream cues designed to appeal to heterosexual men nor advertise products that
are traditionally categorized as male products. In other words, heterosexual men with traditional
views might perceive that they are not targeted at all by such ads, whereas men who share
traditional values to a lesser extent might still consider themselves part of the target. However,
because traditional cues that appeal to heterosexual men are not present, men who are less
traditional should like gay window ads for incongruent products less than heterosexual men who
endorse traditional views. We therefore propose:
H5: Among heterosexual men, a more negative attitude toward homosexuality is
associated with more positive attitudes toward (a) mainstream ads for products
congruent with traditional male stereotypes and (b) gay window ads for products
incongruent with traditional male stereotypes.
To test our hypotheses, we conducted a quasi-experiment in which we asked a sample of
male consumers (gay and heterosexual) to evaluate gay window and mainstream ads. To provide
a managerially relevant test of the framework, we used real ads, available in both gay window
and mainstream versions, in accord with our definition of gay window advertising.
Design and Participants
The study used a mixed 2 (sexual orientation: gay vs. heterosexual) × 2 (ad type: gay
window vs. mainstream) × 2 (ad type order: gay window first vs. mainstream first) × 4 (brand
order) design. We measured sexual orientation according to self-reports, and the ad type
manipulation applied within-subjects. In addition, we included two between-subjects
counterbalancing factors for ad type order and brand order. All participants thus reviewed two
ads, a gay window and a mainstream ad, each for a different brand, and were randomly assigned
to complete one of eight different versions of the survey. The specific brand pairs in the four
brand order conditions were determined randomly (see Figure 1 for specific brand pairs). In this
design, we can assess hypotheses 1–3 through an analysis of the sexual orientation × ad type
interaction on attitudes toward the ad and emotional responses.
To test hypotheses 4 and 5, which posit separate effects for gay and heterosexual men
related to the interaction between individual differences and product category, we measured gay
openness among gay respondents (explicitly out vs. not explicitly out) and attitudes toward
homosexuality among heterosexual respondents. Furthermore, we included a manipulation of
product category (congruent vs. incongruent with male stereotypes).
Two hundred eighty-two men participated in an online study (148 self-identified as gay)
in return for a chance to win a €15 (approximately $21) gift voucher from a popular website.
Because we collected data in the Netherlands, the language used in all instructions and questions
was Dutch. To recruit participants, we turned to various channels, including an advertisement for
the study website (presented as research on advertising effectiveness) posted on a Dutch site on
which consumers interested in academic research can sign up and be contacted for research
participation. In addition, to recruit a sufficiently large number of gay respondents, we used
channels targeting online gay communities (www.gay.nl).
Eight print advertisements served as stimuli in this study. The stimulus ads are real ads,
selected following an extensive analysis of materials related to gay window advertising among
managerial publications, websites, and gay media. To guarantee ad comparability in the two ad
type conditions, the selected ads appear in both gay window and mainstream formats.
Specifically, for each campaign, the two versions of the ad are identical in layout, slogan, and
textual information and differ only in that the mainstream version contains heterosexual
references, whereas the gay window version uses more ambiguous references.
Eau de toilette, facial cream, car tires, and alcohol (vodka) are the categories featured in
the ads. Previous studies have shown that beauty products and toiletries are perceived as
typically feminine products, whereas alcohol and car items are typically masculine products
(Alreck 1994; Morrison and Shaffer 2003). To confirm the stronger association between
heterosexual men and vodka and car tires and their weaker association with eau de toilette and
facial cream, we carried out a pretest. Thirteen male respondents evaluated (on five-point Likert
scales) the extent to which they associated eau de toilette, vodka, car tires, and facial cream with
women, heterosexual men, and gay men. The aim of the pretest is to confirm that certain product
categories tend to be considered the prerogative of men, whereas others are not. Because women
and gay men represent outgroups for heterosexual men, we averaged the scores for the women
and gay men categories. As expected, vodka and car tires are associated significantly more with
heterosexual men than with the outgroup (M = 3.77 vs. 2.38, F(1, 12) = 8.29, p < .05, and M =
3.62 vs. 1.92, F(1, 12) = 15.53, p < .01, respectively), whereas the opposite pattern emerges for
facial cream (M = 2.31 vs. 4.00, F(1, 12) = 12.15, p < .01) and eau de toilette (M = 3.08 vs. 4.08,
F(1, 12) = 6.64, p < .05).
The gay window and mainstream ads feature the following products: Azzaro Visit eau de
toilette for men, Nivea for Men facial cream, Bridgestone Turanza tires, and Skyy Blue vodka
(the ads had appeared in either U.S. or German gay and mainstream magazines). The gay
window ads come from the database of The Commercial Closet (www.commercialcloset.org), an
association scrutinizing the advertising industry’s targeting of gay and lesbian consumers. To
obtain the mainstream versions, we contacted the advertisers or located them on online databases
of print advertisements. Two of the gay window ads (Azzaro and Nivea) promote products that
are incongruent with traditional male stereotypes (perfume and face moisturizer), and the other
two (Bridgestone and Skyy) promote products that are congruent with traditional male
stereotypes (tires and alcohol). We present the stimuli in Figure 1.
Figure 1 about here
Compared with the mainstream versions, the gay window ads do not contain any cues
that suggest heterosexual relationships. In addition to the lack of explicitly heterosexual cues, the
gay window versions feature details (absent in the mainstream version) that suggest ambiguity in
the sexual orientation of the male model. In the Azzaro ad, this ambiguity derives from the naked
torso of the model and a less assertive facial expression. The Nivea gay window ad includes a
mirrored disco ball (in place of the female head) and bright colors surrounding the disco ball.
The ambiguity in the gay window versions of the Bridgestone and Skyy ads emerges from the
introduction of a male companion. In both versions of these ads, the posture and position of the
two models suggest some connection between them (i.e., leaning toward or touching each other),
but without a clear cue to disambiguate the nature of their relationship.
Procedure and Measures
The study website randomly assigned respondents to one of eight versions of the survey
(see Figure 1 for the eight randomized sets of stimuli). After a short introduction, the website
presented the two ads and, for each, asked respondents to answer a series of questions. The
dependent variables included measures of attitudes toward and emotional responses to the ads.
To measure attitudes, we adopted seven seven-point semantic differential scales used by
Muehling, Laczniak, and Stoltman (1991) (e.g., bad–good, unattractive–attractive, unappealing–
appealing); for emotions, we used 18 items from the Differential Emotion Scale (Izard 1977) to
capture Ekman and Friesen’s (1975) basic emotions (e.g., “this ad makes me feel
delighted/happy/sad/disgusted,” seven-point Likert scales, from “strongly disagree” to “strongly
agree”). After the dependent variables, an open-ended question appeared for each ad, asking the
respondent to describe the type of person targeted by the ad. We used this open-ended measure
to elicit ad meanings without drawing attention to specific ad elements and without imposing a
priori notions about viable interpretations for these ads. A content analysis of these data helped
validate the assumption that the implicit target and nontarget market effects predicted by the
theory occur in the absence of explicit target market recognition.
The final part of the study included questions about various socioeconomic factors (age,
income, education, geographical residence, relationship status) to check the comparability of the
gay and heterosexual samples. The study concluded with questions about the respondents’ sexual
orientation. Participants completed the ATG-S4 scale, which measures attitudes toward
homosexuality (Herek and Capitanio 1999) with four seven-point Likert items (e.g.,
“homosexuality is a natural expression of sexuality,” “I think male homosexuals are disgusting”
[reversed]). The item pertaining to the respondent’s own sexual orientation offered three
response categories: heterosexual, gay, and bisexual (no respondent selected the third option).
For respondents who self-identified as gay, the next item inquired about their level of openness
about their sexuality, based on Chung’s (2001) categories: (1) “I am sure nobody knows and I do
not want anybody to know about it. I am engaged in heterosexual relationships and have a
heterosexual lifestyle” (acting); (2) “I assume other people do not know. I sometimes make up
things which are not true, to be sure that I will pass as straight” (passing); (3) “it is possible that
some people might suspect it but I do not know what they really know. I often omit or censor
things to avoid to be identified as homosexual” (covering); (4) “especially in new situations, I am
not always open about my sexuality, but it is not a secret. If people ask me about it directly, I
will not deny it” (implicitly out); and (5) “I am open about my sexuality and when I talk to other
people I do not avoid subjects around my sexual orientation. Everybody is allowed to know it,
some see me as ‘gay’” (explicitly out).
Sample and Measure Checks
Because sexual orientation is not randomly assigned, we checked the comparability of the
two samples and found no significant differences in age, income, education level, or employment
(ps > .07). Table 1 presents demographic information for the two groups of respondents. The
only significant differences pertain to relationship status (more gay respondents reported being
single than their heterosexual counterparts, χ²(1) = 5.64, p < .05) and attitudes toward
homosexuality (t(282) = -9.89, p < .001). Unsurprisingly, gay participants (M = 6.84 on 7-point
scale) display more positive attitudes toward homosexuality than heterosexual participants (M =
5.81). Among gay respondents, 13% are explicitly out and 87% are not explicitly out (2% belong
to the passing category, 22% covering, and 63% are implicitly out).
Table 1 about here
We conducted factor analyses of emotions, attitudes toward the ad, and attitudes toward
homosexuality. For emotions, the eigenvalue criteria indicate three factors that explain 67% of
the variance for gay window ads and 69% for mainstream ads: positive emotions (gay window α
= .89; mainstream α = .88; 3 items), negative emotions (gay window α = .93, mainstream α =
.94; 12 items), and surprise (gay window α = .77, mainstream α = .78; 3 items). Because surprise
is neither a positive nor a negative emotion (Ekman and Friesen 1975), we do not discuss it
further. For attitudes toward gay window and mainstream ads, respectively, the one-factor
solution explains 72% (α = .93; 7 items) and 69% (α = .92; 7 items) of the variance. The one-
factor solution for attitudes toward homosexuality explains 67% of the variance (α = .82; 4
items). Each variable (i.e., positive and negative emotions, attitudes toward the ad and
homosexuality) was aggregated by taking the mean of its respective items.
An important assumption of this research is that the ambiguous cues featured in gay
window ads can influence consumers without their explicit awareness of gay targeting. To
validate the subtlety of the ambiguous gay cues, we content analyzed participants’ answers
regarding the perceived target of the ads and dichotomized the data according to whether
participants identified gay men among the targeted consumers. Confirming the subtlety of the ad
type manipulation, most respondents (93% heterosexual, 92% gay participants) did not mention
gay men as the target of the gay window ads (2.5% of respondents mentioned a gay target for
Attitudes toward the Ad
Hypothesis 1 predicts an interaction between sexual orientation and ad type on attitudes
toward the ad, such that gay (heterosexual) participants should display a relative preference for
gay window (mainstream) ads. To test this hypothesis, we estimated a repeated-measures
ANOVA on attitudes toward the ad, with the scores for the gay window and mainstream ads as
the within-subjects factor and sexual orientation as the between-subjects factor (Table 2; Figure
2a). The order of ad presentation and brand counterbalancing also served as between-subjects
factors (the Appendix reports the ad-level analyses).
Figure 2 and Table 2 about here
A significant main effect of sexual orientation (F(1, 264) = 36.99, p < .001; gay
participants rate ads higher than heterosexual participants, M = 4.55 vs. 3.75) is subsumed by the
hypothesized ad type by sexual orientation interaction (F(1, 264) = 16.75, p < .001). Gay
participants report more positive attitudes toward gay window (M = 4.81) than mainstream ads
(M = 4.30; F(1, 124) = 6.38, p < .05); heterosexual participants report more positive attitudes
toward mainstream (M = 3.95) than gay window ads (M = 3.56; F(1, 140) = 10.89, p < .01). The
main effect of ad type is nonsignificant (p > .78). These findings provide support for hypothesis
Hypothesis 2 predicts an interaction between sexual orientation and ad type for positive
and negative emotions, in line with the interaction predicted in hypothesis 1. The correlations
between negative and positive emotions are low (r = -.17 for gay window ads, r = -.07 for
As in the case of attitudes, the significant main effect of sexual orientation for both
positive and negative emotions (F(1, 265) = 31.48, p < .001 and F(1, 257) = 15.32, p < .001,
respectively; gay males report stronger positive emotions, M = 3.71, and weaker negative
emotions, M = 1.47, than heterosexual males, M = 2.88 and M = 1.86, respectively) is subsumed
by the hypothesized interaction between sexual orientation and ad type for both positive and
negative emotions (F(1, 265) = 14.27, p < .001 and F(1, 257) = 11.70, p < .001, respectively;
differences in degrees of freedom are due to missing values; see Figures 2b and 2c). Gay
participants report less negative emotional responses for gay window (M = 1.42) than
mainstream ads (M = 1.55; F(1, 122) = 3.87, p = .05), as well as marginally more positive
emotional responses for gay window (M = 3.92) than mainstream ads (M = 3.51; F(1, 127) =
3.27, p = .07). Moreover, heterosexual participants report more positive emotional responses for
mainstream (M = 3.11) than gay window ads (M = 2.64; F(1, 138) = 16.94, p < .001) and less
negative emotional responses for mainstream (M = 1.76) than gay window ads (M = 1.95; F(1,
135) = 8.12, p < .01). These findings support hypothesis 2.
Hypothesis 3 predicts that the joint effect of sexual orientation and ad type on attitudes
should be mediated by emotional responses. Our theoretical framework therefore presents a case
of mediated moderation (Muller, Judd, and Yzerbyt 2005; see also Model 2 in Preacher, Rucker,
and Hayes 2007). When we include negative and positive emotions in the model for attitudes
toward the ad, which we used to test hypothesis 1, the influence of emotions is significant.
Specifically, the coefficient for negative emotions is significant for both gay window ads and
mainstream ads (β = -.38, F(1, 247) = 21.15, p < .001 and β = -.55, F(1, 247) = 16.07, p < .001,
respectively), as are the coefficients for positive emotions (β = .59, F(1, 247) = 103.62, p < .001
and β = .56, F(1, 247) = 121.59, p < .001, respectively). In this model, the sexual orientation by
ad type interaction (F(1, 247) = 2.0, p > .15) and the main effect of sexual orientation (F(1, 247)
= 1.49, p >.22) become nonsignificant, in support of hypothesis 3: Emotional responses fully
mediate the joint effect of sexual orientation and ad type on attitudes toward the ad.
Gay Men: Gay Openness and Product Category
Hypothesis 4 predicts that gay respondents who are explicitly out should report more
negative attitudes toward (a) mainstream ads for product categories that are congruent with male
stereotypes and (b) gay window ads for product categories that are incongruent with male
stereotypes, as compared to other gay men. Therefore, for the subsequent analyses, we used data
from gay respondents only and estimated separate models for gay window and mainstream ads.
Specifically, for each ad type, we estimated an ANOVA on attitudes toward the ad with a
dichotomous measure of gay openness (explicitly out vs. not explicitly out) and product category
(congruent vs. incongruent with male stereotypes) as between-subjects factors. As in previous
analyses, we added the order of ad type presentation as a between-subjects factor (we did not
include the brand order counterbalancing, because its inclusion leads to linear dependence when
product category is a predictor). We represent the results graphically in Figures 2d and 2e.
For mainstream ads, the gay openness by product category interaction is significant (F(1,
125) = 6.64, p = .01). Explicitly out respondents report more negative attitudes toward
mainstream ads for product categories congruent with male stereotypes (M = 2.73) than do
participants who are not explicitly out (M = 4.36; F(1, 62) = 9.10, p < .01), but no association
emerges between gay openness and ad liking in the case of mainstream ads for product
categories incongruent with male stereotypes (p > .60). For gay window ads, the gay openness by
product category interaction is marginally significant (F(1, 127) = 2.89, p < .10). Explicitly out
respondents report marginally more negative attitudes toward gay window ads for product
categories incongruent with male stereotypes (M = 3.92) than do participants who are not
explicitly out (M = 4.78; F(1, 55) = 3.70, p = .06), but no association exists between gay
openness and attitudes in the case of gay window ads for product categories congruent with male
stereotypes (p > .60). The results therefore provide support for hypothesis 4.
Heterosexual Men: Attitudes toward Homosexuality and Product Category
Hypothesis 5 predicts a reverse of hypothesis 4 for heterosexual men and attitudes toward
homosexuality. Accordingly, more negative attitudes toward homosexuality should be associated
with more positive evaluations of (a) mainstream ads for products congruent with and (b) gay
window ads for products incongruent with traditional male stereotypes.
Among heterosexual respondents, scores on attitudes toward homosexuality are very high
(M = 5.81 on 7-point scale), perhaps as a result of either the well-documented tolerance of Dutch
society or socially desirable responding. Regardless, such high scores lower the sensitivity of the
measure and its ability to sustain hypotheses. In particular, one item (“a man who is homosexual
is just as likely to be a good person as anyone else”) presents a problematic distribution, with
70% of heterosexual respondents using the rightmost endpoint of the scale. This skewed
distribution raises a concern about possible ceiling effects, because the answers are significantly
higher than those for any of the remaining items (M = 6.52 vs. 5.57 for the average of the three
remaining items; p < .0001), resulting in lower variance (standard deviation = .94 vs. 1.35; p <
.0001). Therefore, we excluded this item and used the average of the remaining items as our
measure of attitudes toward homosexuality, after reversing two of them (α = .79). To test
hypothesis 5, we adopt an approach similar to that for hypothesis 4. We estimated separate
general linear models for gay window and mainstream ads, with attitudes toward homosexuality,
product category, and order of ad type presentation as predictors. We treated (mean-centered)
attitudes toward homosexuality as a continuous variable (Aiken and West 1991).
For mainstream ads, we observe a significant interaction between attitudes toward
homosexuality and product category (F(1, 140) = 3.89, p = .05). Respondents with more negative
attitudes toward homosexuality like mainstream ads for products congruent with male
stereotypes marginally more (β = -.38, F(1, 54) = 2.88, p < .10). This result is interesting because
it mirrors the joint effect of gay openness and product category for gay respondents, as reported
for the mainstream ads. Attitudes toward homosexuality do not predict attitude toward
mainstream ads for products that are incongruent with male stereotypes (p > .27). Figure 2f
provides a representation of these results (for representational purposes, attitudes toward
homosexuality are dichotomized). For gay window ads, none of the coefficients is significant (ps
> .23). Thus, only the first part of hypothesis 5 receives support.
Despite practitioners’ increasing attention to the issue of purposeful polysemy in
advertising targeting, research on this topic remains lacking. We extend existing literature by
investigating the target and nontarget market effects of purposeful polysemy and thereby respond
to calls for research into the effect of using less visible physical markers of group membership in
advertising targeting (Brumbaugh and Grier 2006; Greenless 2004; Kates and Goh 2003;
Oakenfull and Greenlee 2005; Puntoni et al. 2009). By focusing on a stigmatized minority—gay
men—we provide a strong test of the effect of purposeful polysemy. We conducted a quasi-
experiment in which gay and heterosexual men evaluated gay window and mainstream ads.
Crossover interactions occurred for attitudes toward the ad and emotional responses (both
positive and negative), such that gay men evaluated the gay window ads more positively than the
mainstream ads, and heterosexual respondents did the opposite. Moreover, emotional responses
fully mediated the effect of ad type and sexual orientation on attitudes, a finding that extends
prior research on the mediation of emotional responses on ad liking (e.g., Bhat et al. 1998) to a
situation in which consumers have no conscious awareness of advertising targeting.
We found a significant effect of product category and individual differences. Compared
with gay men in earlier stages of the coming out process, gay men who are explicitly out
responded more negatively to gay window ads for product categories incongruent with prevailing
male stereotypes and to mainstream ads for product categories congruent with male stereotypes.
Moreover, heterosexual participants with more negative attitudes toward homosexuality tended
to respond more positively to mainstream ads for product categories congruent with male
stereotypes. The analyses of the role of individual differences and product category on consumer
responses to gay window and mainstream ads provide converging evidence about the role of
consumers’ worldview and sense of self for the processing of advertising cues, as well as the
interaction between product and ad characteristics in determining consumer responses to
mainstream and gay window ads.
Implications, Limitations, and Further Research
Gay men responded positively to gay window ads. In addition, the large majority of
respondents—both gay and heterosexual—failed to identify gay men as part of the target market.
These findings are important because, to our knowledge, this article provides the first formal test
of whether purposeful polysemy in minority targeting can produce positive target market effects.
The results therefore demonstrate that purposeful polysemy is a communication strategy that can
be helpful in targeting consumers who belong to a minority within society, hence answering
recent calls for research on advertising polysemy (e.g., Kates and Goh 2003; Puntoni et al. 2009).
The results also add to previous research on target market effects (e.g., Aaker et al. 2000; Grier
and Brumbaugh 1999) by extending prior findings to the substantively and theoretically
important case of subtle group identifiers and ambiguous ad cues (Brumbaugh and Grier 2006).
Despite their lack of awareness of gay targeting, heterosexual men responded negatively
to gay window ads. In the case of minority targeting, the size of the target market is, by
definition, smaller than that of the nontarget market. In recent years, purposeful polysemy has
been often heralded as a “win-win” targeting strategy (e.g., Greenlee 2004; Kates and Goh 2003;
Puntoni et al. 2009). However, the trade-off between target and nontarget market effects
demonstrated by our findings challenges the viability of this strategy: If purposeful polysemy
promises positive results among a (relatively small) target market and negative results among a
(larger) nontarget market, managers should be careful about adopting this strategy, at least when
targeting stigmatized minorities. Advertisers should conduct careful pretesting among both target
and nontarget markets before engaging in purposeful polysemy. It would be a mistake, however,
to interpret our findings as implying a general dismissal of the strategy, because in different
circumstances, the conditions that lead us to predict negative nontarget market effects may not
exist. Following current practice in mainstream advertising and most academic research on gay
advertising (Oakenfull and Greenlee 2004), we focused on gay male cues, but lesbian source
cues tend to engender less negative responses among heterosexual consumers than do gay male
source cues (Oakenfull and Greenlee 2004). Advertising with ambiguous lesbian cues therefore
may be especially interesting from a managerial point of view, because it may prompt positive
target market effects while reducing the risk of negative nontarget market effects.
More generally, the critical aspects that distinguish a subculture from mainstream culture
may not be reflected in the stylistic elements often used in ads, such that the basis for predicting
negative nontarget market effects (i.e., negative consequences of the absence of mainstream
cultural cues) may be weaker. For example, consider an advertiser in a conservative Christian
market that considers using purposeful polysemy to target families of a religious minority. If
both sub- and mainstream cultures share a patriarchal view of the family, it may be possible to
target families belonging to the religious minority covertly while still portraying family relations
that are not incongruent with those expected by members of dominant culture. In this context,
purposeful polysemy may be less likely to produce negative nontarget market effects. Due to the
“perpetual encroachment of sexual appeals into mainstream advertising” (Reichert and Lambiase
2003, p. 1), negative nontarget market effects of covert minority targeting also may be especially
strong in the case of gay window advertising. Compared with other settings, the ubiquity of
(heterosexual) sex cues in advertising may render the absence of such mainstream cultural cues
particularly incongruent with consumers’ expectations. Investigating further the negative
nontarget market effects of covert minority targeting therefore is an important area for future
The interaction between individual differences (gay openness, attitudes toward
homosexuality) and the degree of congruence of the product category with male stereotypes
represents another interesting finding. Our results add to existing literature (e.g., Oakenfull 2004)
by suggesting, for example, that gay men who are very open about their sexual orientation might
be targeted using gay window ads when the product category is congruent with traditional male
stereotypes but with mainstream ads when the product category is incongruent with traditional
male stereotypes. The latter case suggests that the product category may act as an ambiguous
nonsource cue. Specifically, the targeting of counter-stereotypical products to men may act as an
ambiguous gay cue for gay men who are explicitly out.
Advertisers thus should take the product category into consideration when choosing an ad
format (gay window or mainstream) or media planning. For example, purposeful polysemy
might be especially difficult to implement for products that are bound up with prevailing
stereotypes (Grier, Brumbaugh, and Thorton 2006). Additional research thus should explore the
role of product category, as well as the effectiveness of different implementations of purposeful
polysemy. For example, we manipulated ambiguity using pictorial information, but further
research could assess the effect of ambiguous cues presented in different advertising elements
(e.g., verbal or textual elements). In particular, it would be interesting to assess implementations
of purposeful polysemy carried out through textual cues to target covertly minorities that are
characterized by visually salient markers of group membership (e.g., distinctive skin color).
Before concluding, we acknowledge two limitations. First, we used real gay window and
mainstream ads, which allowed for a more realistic test of the hypotheses, though it also forced a
trade-off between external and internal validity in our tests of hypotheses 4 and 5. In particular,
some differences across ads were inevitable when using a variety of product categories, because
advertising agencies often adhere to established formats when advertising in certain product
categories (e.g., prominent face shot in ads for beauty care products, group consumption settings
in ads for alcoholic beverages). In particular, the ads varied in the number of men featured in the
ads: The gay window ads for Skyy and Bridgestone included a same-sex couple, whereas those
for Nivea and Azzaro featured only one man. It would be worthwhile to replicate our findings
about the effect of product category using ads that hold the number of men depicted on the ads
constant across product category conditions.
Second, following previous studies on target market effects (e.g., Aaker et al. 2000;
Brumbaugh 2002; Brumbaugh and Grier 2006; Burnett 2000; Forehand et al. 2002; Oakenfull
and Greenlee 2004, 2005), we focused on attitudes toward the ad as a measure of advertising
effectiveness. The results provide an important indication of the likely marketplace effects on
attitude toward the brand and purchase intentions (see Brown and Stayman 1992), though the
relationship between attitude toward the ad and brand attitudes or purchase intentions tends to be
weaker for well-known brands (i.e., because attitudes toward known brands have been formed
through repeated exposure to ads and/or product usage; Brown and Stayman 1992). Replications
and extensions of our study therefore should include additional dependent variables.
Growing consumer diversity and increasingly sophisticated marketing practices imply
that advertising targeting applies to ever narrower segments (Grier and Brumbaugh 1999). Such
narrow targeting raises two problems for media strategists. First, despite the increasing
importance of interactive and new media, mass media advertising remains the standard channel
for many advertisers, and it may become uneconomical to conduct an advertising strategy that
employs narrow targets and mass media. Second, to target stigmatized minorities, advertisers
face the potential of alienating nontarget consumers if they become aware of minority targeting
(Bhat et al. 1998; Greenlee 2004). In light of current social trends, the attractiveness of strategies
aimed at multiple segments through ambiguous messages is therefore likely to increase (Puntoni
et al. 2009). We have focused on the gay minority, but managerial publications also identify
other minorities (e.g., based on religious, ethnic, or social status differences) as hard to target
through traditional media. We have provided a theoretical and empirical analysis to address both
target and nontarget market effects of purposeful polysemy in minority targeting, which could
serve as a starting point for additional inquiries into this important and timely topic for
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Azzaro Visit for Men Azzaro Visit for Men Skyy Blue Skyy Blue
Mainstream version Gay window version Mainstream version Gay window Version
Nivea for Men Nivea for Men Bridgestone Bridgestone
Mainstream version Gay window version Mainstream version Gay window version
Notes: GW = Gay window and MS = Mainstream. The eight counterbalancing conditions are: Azzaro MS-Nivea GW; Azzaro GW-Nivea MS; Nivea MS-
Bridgestone GW; Nivea GW-Bridgestone MS; Skyy MS-Azzaro GW, Skyy GW-Azzaro MS; Bridgestone MS-Skyy GW; Bridgestone GW-Skyy MS
Results for Hypotheses (Estimated Marginal Means)
Variable Heterosexual Gay men
Age Mean: 31.12 30.68
SD: 11.77 8.24
Range: 15-62 17-63
Relationship status Single: 40.5% 56.6%
Divorced: 2.7% .7%
In a relationship: 56.8% 42.7%
Employment Student: 38.5% 28.7%
Has a paid job: 54.7% 64.7%
Other (e.g., not paid job): 6.8% 6.6%
Education Primary school: 1.3% 0%
Secondary school: 25.7% 25%
Attends university/has a university 73% 75%
Gross income Less than €1.000 monthly (+/- 33.8% 22.1%
(missing data: N=23) $1,400):
Between €1000 and €2000: 18.9% 28.7%
Between €2000 and €4000: 23.6% 27.2%
More than €4000: 12.8% 16.9%
Raw Means and Standard Deviations per Ad Type and Sexual Orientation
Heterosexual men Gay men
Gay window ad Mainstream ad Gay window ad Mainstream ad
Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD
Positive emotions 2.64 1.44 3.11 1.50 3.92 1.56 3.51 1.62
Negative emotions 1.95 1.01 1.76 1.00 1.42 .69 1.55 .85
Attitude toward the ad 3.56 1.37 3.95 1.38 4.81 1.31 4.30 1.44
As suggested by two reviewers, we further analyzed the imagery evoked by the ads
among gay and heterosexual male respondents. The details of the analysis are beyond the scope
of the article. However, we found consistent evidence that gay window ads and mainstream ads
tend to evoke different imagery among gay and heterosexual respondents, despite the implicit
nature of the processes hypothesized by theory and the subtlety of the experimental manipulation.
(For example, gay respondents who identified heterosexual men as the target of the ad did so
more often for the mainstream ads than for the gay window ads with no such effect for
Results of Ad-Level Analyses
The ad-level analyses indicate similar results for the Nivea, Bridgestone, and Skyy ads
and nonsignificant results for the Azzaro ad (i.e., nonsignificant ad type by sexual orientation
interaction on attitudes and on positive and negative emotions, ps > .48). The nonsignificant
results for Azzaro may be a consequence of the loss of power, due to our use of a between-
subjects design for the ad-level analyses (respondents never saw two ads for the same brand) or
the too subtle difference between the gay window and mainstream versions of the Azzaro ad. We
describe the results for the Nivea, Bridgestone, and Skyy ads in this section.
For hypothesis 1, we ran an ANOVA for each brand on attitudes toward the ad, with ad
type and sexual orientation as between-subjects factors. We also included position in the ad
sequence as a between-subjects factor. The ad type by sexual orientation interaction is significant
for Nivea (F(1, 143) = 10.26, p < .01) and Skyy (F(1, 124) = 9.34, p < .01) and directional but
nonsignificant for Bridgestone (F(1, 125) = 2.17, p = .15). For all three brands, gay participants
report more positive attitudes toward the gay window version of the ad than the mainstream
version of the ad, whereas heterosexual participants report more positive attitudes toward the
mainstream than the gay window version of the ad.
We tested hypothesis 2 in a similar fashion using positive and negative emotions as
dependent variables. For all three brands, the ad type by sexual orientation interaction is
significant for at least one type of emotions. For Nivea, the interaction is significant for both
positive (F(1, 143) = 5.66, p < .05) and negative (F(1, 143) = 5.03, p < .05) emotions: Gay
(heterosexual) men report more (less) positive emotions and less (more) negative emotions
toward the gay window than the mainstream version of the ad. For Skyy, the interaction is
significant for positive emotions (F(1, 124) = 5.82, p < .05; for negative emotions, p > .76), such
that gay (heterosexual) men report more (less) positive emotions toward the gay window than the
mainstream version of the ad. For Bridgestone, the interaction effect is significant for negative
emotions (F(1, 125) = 9.06, p < .01; for positive emotions, p > .36). Gay (heterosexual) men
report less (more) negative emotions toward the gay window version of the ad than the
mainstream version of the ad.
Finally, ad-level analyses confirm the mediating role of emotions (hypothesis 3). For
Nivea, when we include positive and negative emotions in the model for attitude toward the ad,
the sexual orientation by ad type interaction becomes nonsignificant (F(1, 139) = 1.73, p > .18),
whereas the influence of emotions is significant (negative emotions, F(1, 139) = 25.46, p < .001,
positive emotions, F(1, 139) = 25.46, p < .001). Negative emotions mediate the interaction effect
on attitude toward the ad for Bridgestone (negative emotions, F(1, 122) = 7.12, p < .01; ad type
by sexual orientation interaction, p > .38), and similarly, positive emotions partially mediate it for
Skyy (positive emotions, F(1, 122) = 93.94, p = .001; ad type by sexual orientation interaction,
F(1, 123) = .3.59, p = .06).