China is truly unlike anywhere else in the world. While it tries hard to modernize and keep up the pace with (if not tread slightly ahead of) the Western world, there are some areas that is seems to have little to no interest in progressing. Living in China as a Queer individual (a term that has recently gained momentum in replacing the umbrella term of “LGBTQ+”) is not easy. In fact- homosexuality and homosexual acts were only decriminalized in China as recently as 1997 and declassified as “mentally ill” as recently as 2001. So, the Queer Rights movement in China only has about 18 years of open door progress- compared to the west, specifically the United States, where the movement has well around a half-century of notable history and advocacy.
It is not uncommon to see same-sex couples or Trans individuals in advertisements, on billboards, or in mainstream cinema and television. It’s not only acceptable- it can be a powerful statement showing your company’s political stance and an even greater way to boost your image and profits. However, this is not the case for China.
In fact, it’s illegal. Not only is it illegal but many companies have taken active measures to remove LGBTQ+ content altogether.
In 2015, the China Television Drama Production Industry Association places restrictions that banned “abnormal sexual relationships and behaviors” explicitly stating that LGBTQ+ relationships and sex were included. This censorship reaches so far as even on Eurovision 2018, Chinese television censored a performance which depicted the rainbow pride flag in the background and another performance which included two male dancers. Also in 2018, Weibo, China’s largest social app, attempted to ban all Queer content from their platform. Another, more recent, development is China’s ban on jewelry being worn by male models and even banned “feminine” acting men on television and advertisements.
China stated that these changes are a result of a recently declared “crisis of masculinity” which has struck their country and has resulted in media and nation-wide educational revisions. However, that’s not to suggest there wasn’t push back. The Eurovision debacle resulted in the European Broadcasting Union blocking MangoTV- China’s most widely viewed European network. Chinese citizens protested Weibo’s content ban so hard that the company reversed their decision. Moreover, following the arrest and 10-year prison sentencing of an author in Anhui following the publication of their book “Occupy” which depicted “obscene sexual acts between two males,” the conversation on Queer Censorship has been slowly gaining momentum.
So, as a company moving into China, why does any of this matter?
A world famous sexologist named Alfred Kinsey once reported that 10% of all men were “exclusively homosexual.” This was a rough estimate back from right after WWII in a world where the Queer Rights movements had barely found momentum. According to more recent research from 2017 which surveyed 1.5 million people, the reality is more like 7.3% of all men. However, as society changes and opens its arms to people with different sexual identities, this number has statistically grown every time this type of research has been done. Now, take this statistic and apply it to the Chinese population of 1 billion plus, and that’s a target audience of nearly 100 million LGBTQ+ identifying people.
To put that into perspective- this target audience is nearly 1/3rd of the entire American population. This is more than the entire population of the United Kingdom (nearly double, actually). Can you imagine the profit potential that is being overlooked and underutilized by this demographic? It’s gargantuan. Just being able to reach out and grab even a quarter of that population could result in a massive goldmine.
However, with such strict law and regulation, how do you market to this demographic without landing yourself in hot water? You have to play it clever. For example, a Shanghai-based travel agency encouraged people to “bring a gay friend” for vacation in a clever promotion. The advert depicts two women sharing a bed and two men sharing a bed. These are not depicting same-sex couples- but rather depicting a guy and girl sharing a bed with their gay friend. Smart.
Another way to reach out to the Queer demographic in China (male-specific) is a popular social app called “Blued.” This app works similarly to western apps like Grindr (which if you have a gay friend you’ve probably heard of it before) in that you make a profile and then the app shows you all other profiles and their proximity to your location. Sort of like the motion-tracker in the Alien franchise. When I lived in Nanjing there were more than 150 active users in less than a mile radius of my apartment. If you can get an advertisement placed on this app (and trust me- there are MANY places for ads here including: banner ads, full-screen ads, pop-up ads, etc. for clothing, food, electronics, etc.) then you are effectively reaching out to a large, overlooked, portion of the Chinese populace.
This visibility is another key aspect to reaching this demographic. Simply having your ad on an App like Blued shows that you are comfortable with Queer Culture and are unafraid to have your name associated with one of the biggest gay social apps in the country. In China, showing this sort of “silent support” is big for the community. It shows that you are comfortable with the community, comfortable with the culture, and it can be read as “we are a safe place for you to be you.” Boom. You’ve showed your support and earned demographic loyalty without ever even needing to place rainbow in your ad.
Creating a safe feeling for Queer individuals is one of the best things you could do to create customer loyalty. Innumerable number of LGBTQ+ who are terrified to come out, who have come out and found no support, have been kicked out and disowned, who are scared to be who they are. The infamous “One Child Policy” led to a large generation of males (after all, girls don’t carry the family name) being the sole heirs to their family names and fortunes and if that heir is a gay man, in a country where Queer individuals cannot adopt, then that’s the end of that family. It’s this pressure that makes life especially hard for the Queer community.
That’s is why many companies in the club, alcohol, and travel industry find this demographic to be one of their best internationally; admittedly, I am not immune to the marketing either. Queer individuals take a lot of time “acting straight” in the workplace, at family gatherings, in public with their partner, etc. We love experiences. We love doing things that take our minds off “keeping appearances.” We love places and things that help us to not have to worry about “who society wants us to be.” A simple, vague, slogan that says “where you can be you” is all that’s needed to pique our interests.
Following the example of the Shanghai travel agency from earlier, you can also show support by proxy. “Treat your gay friend” can be used as a filler for “treat your partner” in doing so, depicting two men or women in your advertisement is arguably not a depiction of a same-sex relationship- but of a supportive straight individual and their not-so-straight friend.
Now, it should be noted that the Queer community is ever changing and evolving. As Gender and Sexuality studies begin to grow and the world at large becomes more comfortable with these identities we’ve learned that you can’t really “blanket” advertise to ALL identities unless you’re advertising as mentioned above with the “be yourself” idea. Every letter in the acronym is a different identity, with different interests and therefore advertising to a specific group must be done with care. There are also different terms and slang used in China than in the West. Knowing these “underground” terms could be beneficial for surreptitiously advertising towards the community as a whole.
I should also note that while Queer communities have general terminology that anyone in the community would know, each subgroup has their own slang as well. As a gay man, when I listen to lesbian women speak, or Trans individuals speak, sometimes it’s like I am hearing a whole other language built from their experiences. So, again, take care to learn about the demographic and their cultures before jumping in and “just going for it.”
That said, aside from the financial gain that comes with successfully reaching this overlooked group, now is probably the best time to attempt such efforts in China. Why? Because, the populace is more aware of the presence of Queer individuals and attitudes are the mildest they’ve ever been. Between 2006 and 2015, Pan Suiming, a scholar of sexuality, surveyed the Chinese people 3 times asking the question “Some people say that homosexuals should be completely equal to other people. What do you think?” The results are cause for optimism! While the number of LGBTQ+ supporters stayed about the same, the number of those opposed to equal-rights dropped from 52.2% to 28.3%! Also, the number of those who decided to not state an opinion increased from .5% to 26% showing indication of growing indifference on the topic (which, let’s be real, is better than antagonizing attitudes). In a similar study conducted 4 times between 2000 and 2015, Sulming found an increase in participant willingness to admit to homosexual desire or experience.
Also, in a public campaign to raise support for LGBTQ+ communities across China- including Shanghai, a group of individuals wore shirts saying “I am gay, will you hug me?” They then stood, blindfolded in crowded public areas with their arms open for an embrace. The outcome? Beautiful. Countless men, women, boys, girls, parents, elderly, and young alike awarded their bravery by hugging them.
With the Chinese public consciousness towards the Queer community growing, now is the time to ride the rainbow wave and show your support. Simply showing your support for the community is advertising and marketing in itself. Shanghai Pride in June is becoming one of the biggest international LGBTQ+ celebrations and many companies take the opportunity to hand out flyers, samples, etc. at this time. They can have adverts hung in spaces around the celebration or in local gay bars and nightclubs. Marketing towards the community may have little payoff now, but think of it as an investment.
Every gay man in America remembers when JCPenny’s took on Mothers of America by boldly being one of the first mainstream companies to show a gay couple and their children in their advertisements. They received backlash from many conservatives and made a VERY risky gamble- but the love drowned out the hate and JCPenny’s sales and profits skyrocketed drowning out the boycotting and picketers. We’ll never forget when Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream rolled out a rainbow flavor for Pride month. We’ll never forget Honey Maid’s Love Wins campaign. As a result these companies will always have our loyalty and business because they risked their business reputation by showing their support for our communities and made us feel safe to shop there.