EARLIER THIS YEAR, car maker Subaru ran a print advertisement in Singapore showing the back of a man, clad in a sleeveless white undershirt, with his hands braced on the top of a cubicle. The headline: "Grips like hell."
The ad made its debut on August 9 at the Nation party, a three-day gay event hosted in Singapore by Fridae.com, which claims to be Asia's biggest gay Web site and which is running the ad as part of a year-long advertising deal.
Subaru has used gay-specific marketing in the mainstream American media for more than eight years. Now it's starting to court high-spending gays in Asia through the gay media, largely because--thanks to the Internet--it can finally reach them.
In Australia, however, where such advertising has never really moved outside the gay press, the old stereotypes of gays as single people with high disposable incomes are fading. Instead, there's a growing perception of gays as couples sharing similar concerns as their straight counterparts--buying homes and bringing up kids. Marketing to them isn't always that much different from marketing to any couple.
That's a long way off in Singapore, where the gay community is only just beginning to find its feet. For advertisers like Subaru, the Internet has proved to be the missing link in targeting these gay consumers. Until relatively recently, says Glenn Tan, a director at Motor Image Enterprises, which distributes Subaru in Singapore, "we couldn't follow the lead taken by the U.S. because there was no medium in Singapore or clear way to communicate."
Subaru, which helped pioneer gay marketing globally, may have been waiting for Asia's gays to come of age, but other companies were harder to woo. When Stuart Koe started Fridae.com, he had a tough time finding advertisers. "Most people politely declined and said 'we're not ready for something like this,'" says Koe. "They were concerned about backlash, and worried about what marketing to gays would do to their brand."
But the statistics swayed many. As Fridae.com built up its subscriber base, it proved it offered access to a very moneyed niche: Fridae says that 43% of its subscribers are professionals or executives, 50% earn more than S$45,000 ($26,800) per year and 71% are between 21 and 40 years old. "These people have a high disposable income, no kids and they spend it on themselves. Sexuality aside, it's an important demographic to attract," says Koe.
Howard Tai is a typical gay consumer. A Hong Kong event manager, he earns $95,000 annually and takes four beach vacations a year. He's attended Nation since its inception four years ago. This year, he spent S$1,200 on hotels, S$4,000 on food and beverage and another S$2,800 shopping for clothes and CDs during his three-day visit to Singapore.
Tai says he's pleased to have been singled out by marketers like Subaru. "It makes me feel happy. It shows we're being respected, in a way," he says. "They're acknowledging that we're there, and that they realize this is a sector they need to take care of, instead of pretending we don't exist." Some, however, dispute the stereotype of high-spending gays, and believe gays can be victims of a "pink ceiling."
"Gays self-select workplaces and industries that won't penalise them for being gay," says Robert McGrory, lawyer and convener of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in Sydney. "These industries often provide poorly paid jobs--especially the arts-based industries; therefore, gays have less income than the general population. But when you're young and thinking about a career, you think about discrimination and which industries will be difficult for you."
Nevertheless, in Singapore there are plenty of signs that advertisers want to jump onto the bandwagon. Motorola launched its new E398 music phone at this year's Nation, which was sponsored in part by Cathay Pacific Airways and InterContinental Hotels. Internet travel guide VisitBritain, which runs a Web site for American gays wanting to travel to Britain, used Nation as test for Asia. It developed a series of print ads in Singapore for the event, and is now hunting for local gay media in North Asia so it can broaden its campaign.
But conservatism does pose a problem in Singapore. Local property developer SC Global advertised apartments in a new development on Fridae.com last year, and even arranged tours for Fridae subscribers--then pulled its ads after residents complained. The company declined to comment.
Such issues are rarer in Australia, where there's wider acceptance of gays. "There are still issues, like equal rights, but it is a mature community and it is easier to accept who you are," Leong K. Chan, a senior lecturer in graphic arts at the University of New South Wales.
"Gay and lesbian life crosses every socio-economic group," adds Trent Zimmerman, a directors of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association. Indeed, he argues that the behaviour of gay couples is becoming less distinguishable from that of straight couples. "It was thought gay people had more money because few of them had children and the expenses that go with having children," he says. "But more gays are having children and more straight couples are deciding not to have children."
That blurring of identities is on view at the former hospital site of St. Margaret's in Surry Hills, an inner suburb of Sydney, which has been converted into 220 upmarket apartments that start from A$500,000 ($365,100). The building sits right in the middle of the city's gay district, so gays are clearly target customers. But they're not the only ones.
"If the project is located near the inner city, then you have to consider the gay community," says Bradford Gorman, whose marketing firm, Design Communications Associates, conducted the strategic marketing of St. Margaret's. "But we have not marketed this project exclusively to gay people. We have aimed for people who lead trends. People who lead trends can recognize the clues in our marketing, the way the images are put together that make it attractive. These might be gay people or single young people. They are early adopters."
"There is a recognizable, credible gay market segment and you can market to that," adds Jennie Tsen, Sydney-based senior strategic planner with ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi. "But the stereotype was more apparent when the gay community was still developing its identity. When it was trying to find and define itself, the stereotype was much stronger than it is today.
"Today, the gay community is established and matured," she adds. "It would be a sweeping statement to stereotype a 'gay' person. For example, you would not pigeonhole all women in their 20s as wearing white pants suits, Gucci sunglasses and aspiring to the same goals and role models. It's now the same for the gay community. It is not as sharply defined. It is so diverse."