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Will brands in Singapore ever get their ads culturally right? Creatives and ad execs weigh in


By Shawn Lim, Reporter, Asia Pacific

May 17, 2021 | 7 min read

The conversation around diversity and inclusion has never been more prevalent in the US and EMEA, and in Asia Pacific, the topic is getting bigger and gaining more attention. The Drum takes a look at why it is hard for brands in Singapore to get their ads culturally right.

In April, Singapore-based e-commerce platform ShopBack released a video to promote its mega sale and cashback mechanisms. It featured brand ambassador and local comedian Kumar and TikTok influencer Kevin Tristan dancing to an eclectic beat.

However, the video included a segment where the pair and several backup dancers, who were in traditional Indian attire, repeated the campaign tagline over Bollywood-themed music.

This video drew criticisms for misrepresenting the Indian heritage and culture as there were no upcoming festivals related to the Indian community. In addition, the lack of Indian dancers in the video was also pointed out.

This is not the first time a company in Singapore has drawn flak for misrepresenting a particular race or culture.

In 2019, an advertisement on e-payment in Singapore was taken down after it was accused of racism and cultural appropriation for using a Chinese actor to dress up as characters of other races, including darkening his skin.

The ad was put out by E-Pay, a Singapore government agency that encourages the public to use electronic payment solutions in coffee shops, hawker centers and industrial canteens across the country.

It featured Dennis Chew, a Mediacorp actor, dressed in various forms of garb to represent the main races of Singapore – Chinese, Malay and Indian. He also dressed up as a woman.

The ad was splashed across the website’s homepage, with the image of a darkened Chew as an Indian man in the FAQ section, wearing a lanyard with the name ‘K Muthusamy’ printed on the card.

Why it is hard for brands in Singapore to get their ads culturally right? The Drum asks creatives in Singapore about representation and tips on being culturally sensitive, and what brands should not do.

After a string of ads that have offended ethnic minority groups in Singapore, how can brands celebrate Singapore’s multicultural heritage without getting it wrong?

Simon Hearn, director at Distillery APAC

The key to getting this right is to engage people from the specific backgrounds that you are aiming to include. By consulting people from the communities it’s meant to represent, brands stand a much better chance of getting it right, rather than the agency or brand manager trying to guess or assume.

The conversation around D&I has never been more prevalent in the US and EMEA, and the wave coming through APAC is getting bigger and gaining momentum.

We anticipate the pressure on brands will increase from consumers when it comes to being inclusive and representative of diversity in advertising, and consumers will not be afraid to call it out if brands get it wrong. This is especially true in Singapore, where it is arguably the biggest melting pot of varied diversities in APAC.

At Distillery, we challenge brands and agencies to begin their creative process with diversity and inclusivity in mind. Ask yourself, will this idea offend anyone? If you’re not sure, seek advice. If it does, reconsider the concept.

Divika Jethmal, account manager at Bud Communications

Singapore is a melting pot of race, religion and culture. It is heartening when an ad gets our culture right, and this goes a long way in building a connection between the audience and the brand. But it is apparent that much of the insight is based upon stereotypical and parody behavior, not just with minority groups but often enough with the wider population too.

We need to be sensitive about how we portray culture and tradition. A rich and complex culture cannot merely be based on what we see or read about – there are layers to it. And if we just take the time to explore and uncover them, we can portray them closer to the truth.

As a first step, we should involve our peers who belong to these ethnic minority groups in the creative discussion from the very start. Moving forward, brands should think about working with creators who belong to these groups and give them a chance to tell their stories about their cultures in their own special ways.

Eugene Cheong, founder and creative director at E and former chief creative officer for Asia Pacific at Ogilvy

I have no clue why Singaporeans have become so culturally sensitive. It could be a case of a very noisy handful. The brownface e-payment ad is not very tastefully done so it deserves the backlash it got, but the ShopBack ad is actually quite entertaining.

I think the authorities need to act to prevent a Western-style culture war from being fought on Singapore soil. The noisy minority must be discouraged from playing the race card. Ugly identity politics can ruin Singapore’s beautiful and painstakingly cultivated racial harmony.

Benson Toh, executive creative director at Tribal Worldwide Singapore

Because we work on several government accounts, we are always very mindful of having equal representation in our work, and we do this consistently in all our campaigns. Our rule of thumb is to be authentic in our portrayal of everyday life, and this comes through in our cultural representation as well.

I think what can help is that when brands craft their messages to engage the wider audience, more attention can be given to the sensitivities of minority groups. Breaking away from stereotypes, for starters – especially if it is for humor at the expense of a certain ethnic group. When it comes to translating content into the various vernaculars, it is crucial to watch out for nuances or slang that may have negative connotations. Do not get lazy and simply ‘copy and paste’, because what works for one community may not work for another.

So, at Tribal, we would actually activate our ‘cultural police’ in the agency. Basically, they are our staff who are culturally astute and deeply familiar with their respective ethnicities and norms – ‘woke’, as they call it these days. But their role is not just to catch cultural faux pas. Often we turn to them for critical insights into the significance of certain festivals, practices or rituals. And this has helped form the spine of some of our vernacular works, such as Pub’s short film, ‘Kinship’, which evokes the spirit of forgiveness that is central to Hari Raya Puasa.

It paid off greatly, as we saw how Muslims (and even non-Muslims) connected deeply with the story. I believe it is not just about making sure we don’t get it wrong, but more importantly, how we can make it right.

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