Tea Leaf Nation
China’s New Multibillion-Dollar Target Market: LGBT Youth
With social conservatism fading, tech firms and advertisers are scrambling to show their tolerant side.
China’s Spring Festival, which celebrates the lunar New Year, is the ultimate test for fledgling romances. A partner’s invitation to meet family signals commitment; but for China’s LGBT population, the holiday creates disproportionate stress. Only 5 percent of them have come out of the closet, and they are, as a group, under remarkable pressure to get married to someone of the opposite sex.
During this year’s Spring Festival festivities, which occurred in late January and early February, a leading local Chinese mobile phone brand, Vivo, made waves with a supportive message urging LGBT Chinese to bring their partners home. “Grandfather, grandmother, mom, dad: I have something to tell you,” a nervous young man starts to say at a dinner table. “Xiaocheng and I, we’re actually…” His boyfriend darts up to interrupt: “We actually want to take a group photo together!” Family members wink at them to show they understand what they were trying to communicate; then they gather behind a selfie stick to take a selfie.
Tame stuff, as it goes, but it’s one of many recent high-profile examples of big companies striving to be seen within China as LGBT friendly.
In this regard, technology firms are leading the way. Over the last two years, China’s leading car hailing app Didi Chuxing, top search engine Baidu, and popular karaoke app Changba have all run pro-LGBT social media campaigns. Chinese smartphone maker Meizu has launched a series of advertisements celebrating same-sex partnerships. China’s leading restaurant review app, Dianping, has created a dedicated website to promote LGBT-friendly establishments. And while same-sex marriage is illegal in China, that didn’t stop Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba from running a contest in early 2015 awarding ten lucky couples with all-expense paid weddings in Los Angeles.
Many of these efforts have relied on social media. In early 2016, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) banned television shows showing homosexual relationships. But short ads on social media have typically been spared the censors’ axe, a signal that the government does not consider the issue highly politically sensitive. The government is surely also aware that social media users skew younger, and are thus already more likely to be tolerant of different lifestyles.
This generational change augurs a huge shift in Chinese thinking. Homosexuality was classified as a crime in China until 1997, and a mental illness until 2001. But observers say social mores have quickly changed. A bevy of (unscientific) online surveys seems to support that. In a 2012 survey of over 85,000 web users, for examples more than 80 percent of (admittedly self-selecting) respondents born in the 1980s and 1990s said they did not disapprove of homosexuality. While China still has no legislation protecting against discrimination on basis of sexual orientation, internal policies in some companies are changing to punish workplace bullying.
Technology companies’ customers are predominantly made up of increasingly progressive young people. And those companies are evidently aware that LGBT Chinese, as a group, spend somewhere north of $300 billion annually, although precise estimates differ. 56 per cent of LGBT men and 62 per cent of LGBT women in China say the most important factor influencing their purchasing decisions is company support for LGBT friendly policies and regulations, according to a 2016 report. With China’s tech companies in fierce competition with each other to gain market share, targeted advertising to LGBT individuals can give them an edge. “As a mobile phone manufacturer, we have a large user base and our users are very diverse,” Novak Cheng, project leader for Meizu’s Valentine’s Day campaign, told Foreign Policy. “It is obvious that they experience a wide range of love.”
Firms aren’t just keen on to court young LGBT customers, but employees. Many technology companies are run by millennials, noted Duncan Clark, Chairman of BDA China, an investment advisory firm in Beijing, told FP. “China’s internet companies represent a new generation,” Clark said. “This native digital generation have had greater exposure to a wider of lifestyles” and have “engaged in wider discussion among fellow netizens about social issues and life choices.”
International firms seeking to break into the Chinese market have behaved similarly. In November 2016, four global companies with large offices in China — PR firms Edelman, Burson-Marsteller, Golin Magic, and multinational beverage and brewing company AB InBev — participated in the first annual “LGBT Advertising Showcase” in Shanghai alongside non-profit groups. “We want to let people know they don’t have to worry about discrimination if they work for us,” said Natalie Xu, Shanghai-based human resources director of Edelman China.
Many of the showcase ads from those firms, which were directed at the general public as well as prospective employees, did not use actors. “The most powerful stories are true, told by gay and lesbian individuals and couples themselves, sharing their hopes for a future where they can simply be themselves,” said Steven Bielinski, showcase organizer and founder of the WorkForLGBT group, a nonprofit based in Shanghai.
While stigma against sexual minorities continues in China, particularly in rural areas and smaller cities, the tens of millions of LGBT Chinese have clearly already demonstrated their growing importance to some of the biggest companies in the country. One need only watch social media for evidence of that.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images