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Does Spending Power Buy Cultural Acceptance?

John Ritter (search), the beloved actor who died Friday shockingly far before his time, rose to fame playing a man who had to pretend to be gay in order to be allowed to share an apartment with two women.

There's perhaps no better gauge of how much society and culture has changed in the past quarter century than to catch a re-run of "Three's Company," consider that the show was regarded as controversial and groundbreaking and risqué in its time, and then compare it to "Friends" or "Seinfeld."

Imagine Jack Tripper with Ross Gellar's three wives? Imagine Chrissie Snow embracing Rachel's unmarried motherhood? Compare Janet holding her dates to Elaine's "sponge worthy" criteria? 

There are large segments of the population who perhaps do not see the progression in television sitcoms from "Three's Company"'s premise to "Friends"' plot turns exactly as social progress.

There are large segments of the population who perhaps found Ritter's broad, flamboyant portrayal of feigned homosexuality as just another offensive point on television's long continuum of propagating and reinforcing negative stereotypes. (Spike Lee (search) has harshly and publicly criticized the portrayal of African Americans in television sitcoms.)

But popular television shows are also often responsible for dispelling the myths and ignorance that fuel hate and prejudice, and for providing a safe environment in which the public can be nudged toward understanding and acceptance by characters they get to know and love within the safe environment of their favorite shows.

And it may now again be silly sitcoms that help us overcome one of our most enduring prejudices: that against gays.

In 1997, comedienne Ellen DeGeneres (search)' decision to have the character she played on her ABC sitcom "Ellen" "come out" killed her show. But the second time audiences were presented with gay characters in a similar format, just a year later in 1998, "Will & Grace" became a critical and popular success.

This summer, shows like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and a gay version of "The Bachelor" were smash hits, and this fall, DeGeneres is back with her own talk show while "It's All Relative," a sitcom featuring the daughter of a male gay couple marrying the son of an Archie Bunker-type premiers on ABC.

There's no doubt that television is just reflecting changing social mores that it may have also helped transform along the way, but it's also important to note that television networks can't run what their advertisers won't support. The reason that DeGeneres is being welcomed back amidst a flurry of programming featuring gay characters or storylines may have as much to do with corporate financial realities as it does with enlightened cultural attitudes.

According to the most recent research, gays comprise a $350 billion market fiercely loyal to brands that advertise directly to them. Gays are twice as likely to have graduated from college, twice as likely to have an individual income over $60,000 and twice as likely to have a household income of $250,000 or more. They are essentially an untapped consumer market that corporate America can no longer ignore.

Michael Wilke, founder of the Commercial Closet Association, said advertisers have been covertly trying to tap the gay market for years. He has compiled an on-line library of television advertisements that he has labeled "gay vague." For example, several years ago, a popular Volkswagen commercial depicted two young men in their 20s picking up an abandoned couch and taking it home to the apartment they shared. The commercial premiered during "Ellen."

"The relationship was not clear. When you put that ad into a gay program, it takes on a different meaning," Wilke explained. "The message is in the context."

Obviously, "gay vague" is in the eye of the beholder. A college guy might look at that ad and simply see his Gen Y roommates. But Wilke said gays are growing weary of being courted in secret. They want to be marketed to out in the open.  

Of course, gays are not the first once-disenfranchised or marginalized group to be wooed and embraced by corporate America. While African Americans and Latinos still deal with social prejudice, the respect they receive from marketers as consumers and customers is longstanding and unquestioned.

Lisa Skriloff, president of New York City-based Multi Cultural Marketing Resources, said that the effort companies are making to bring diversity into all of their advertising does push back social barriers. When a black family is featured in a prime-time network commercial for a luxury automobile, the cultural impact of viewers seeing that ad over and over again can be powerful.

"Advertising can help reinforce positive images about minorities," Skriloff said.

Marketing experts say when it comes to selling their goods, companies go where the dollars are, and base their marketing decisions on pure economics. They will create products and advertising campaigns to appeal to a certain group if that group is ready to buy.

But can purchasing power buy mainstream social acceptance? Does economic recognition dissolve prejudice? Experts are split on the answer.

"As a minority group is advertised to, there are some breaking down of barriers," said Russell Bynum, a consultant who helps companies reach African American consumers in Pittsburgh. "But I think racial barriers are broken down more through social interaction," he said.

J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich Associates, a market research firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C., said targeted advertising does not necessarily translate into mainstream recognition, economic or otherwise. Companies can be busily placing ads in gay magazines and buying airtime on Spanish television without ever altering the way they market their image to middle America.

"You don’t want to confuse people about what a brand stands for," Smith said. As much as companies are always trying to develop new markets, they are loath to do anything that may alienate current customers. "Companies are always thinking, ‘If we put our add in this context, our customers are going to have a problem with our brand,'" he said.

Prof. Michael Collins, a broadcast historian with Quinnipiac College, said advertising itself tends to reflect the culture, not change it. "Advertisers don’t want to be at the center of any controversy," he said.

But advertising is the point where corporate courting meets the media, and it’s the media deciding that a particular group is emerging — Newsweek doing a cover piece on Latino America, ABC broadcasting a show about gay parents — that pushes them into the mainstream.

Which makes the proliferation and popularity of television shows built around gay characters and storylines that much more significant. America may be finally parting with a virulent prejudice that had often made gays victims of some of the most unjust discrimination and brutal violence.

These shows may not yet get it all right and they're not going to thrill everyone. But, whatever you think of Ellen DeGeneres as a person or entertainer, the episode that ultimately led to cancellation of "Ellen" was some of the funniest television ever committed to video. Today, it may have won her an Emmy nomination. It's nice to know that DeGeneres was only ahead of her time. It's even better to know that society is finally catching up to her. And I think John Ritter would be thrilled.