Where is the empathy in Singapore’s advertising?

Circles Life's new 'fight data deprivation' advert

If Circle Life’s recent 'Fight Data Deprivation' campaign started with an insight, that insight was probably along the lines of “this survey shows millennials consider internet access a basic need”.

In fact, a quick look at the research presented on the campaign page and it’s not a bad guess to assume this is where it all began. It’s an interesting thing to play with, and you can take it very seriously if you want: the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution to the same affect last year.

They’ve clearly got their business KPIs in mind too. Circles Life has a huge focus on getting their customers to sign up their friends, offering money off, bonus data and publishing leader boards in their app of customers who have earned the most data. Driving this through a major campaign and good creative hook is logical, all in all there’s the bare bones of something intelligent here, something that could deliver real results too.

But one glance at the huge ad in the MRT station and you know it’s all gone wrong. The charity advertising trope is there in force: the washed-out monochrome, the gaunt faces, the thousand yard states, and the outstretched pleading hands. It has the statistics – six out of ten Singaporeans fail to meet their data plans – and it has the physical language in its call to action – “fight data deprivation now”. Through one way or another the general style of a charity ad is culturally understood. But the faces are of twenty something models, the image of an iphone on a begging hand is beyond jarring, and it goes without saying that nobody has ever starved from lack of data. It trivialises the causes that these ads champion, and it insults the audience they want to talk to by implying their pyramid of needs is so warped. “Nearly seventy percent of Singaporeans are hungry… for more data”. There’s no escaping they know what implications they’re making.

If plucky challenger brand Circles struggles, spare a thought for establishment giant Starhub, who’s own efforts this month caused some awkward shifting by running Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” on their 'Regardless of Colour' National Day advert.

Again, there’s the structure of a great insight and an intelligent campaign here. Singapore has championed harmony between its people since its inception. It is a defining characteristic of the country, and it’s worthy of celebration. Again, there’s the good cause advertising tropes. Starhub’s CMO even highlighted the black and white grading commenting on his video. But why borrow this individual speech? Some commentators have called this appropriation – I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Despite the context of the speech, it seems fair to apply King’s message of racial harmony beyond his time and beyond the USA. That is in the spirit of its message.

But Starhub’s use of it shows a huge lack of empathy. Starhub wants to praise Singapore’s harmony, but by important contrast the speech is a call to create it, in a context where it didn’t exist. Where it still doesn’t exist. And if there was any confusion as to whether Starhub just being ignorant and should be forgiven, they polish off the ad with “What the world dreams of, we are blessed to call home.” That takes a great message, and Singapore’s national accomplishment, to a gloat. And again, it’s a failure of empathy.

It would be wrong for advertising to become terrified of causing offense in any quarter, and over-sensitivity will make creative less innovative, less funny, less relevant and ultimately deliver less results to a business, but somebody needs to walk a mile in another man’s shoes here.

Circles has an enviable opportunity right now. Anybody who has got on a $30 contract yet somehow receives a $150 bill every month for going over their data limit, or discovering that their telco bizarrely charged them per connection rather than data used while roaming, is going to be very interested in Circles’ transparent and data-first plans.

And their messaging here is working – if their campaign has raised some eyebrows on social media, and it has, it’s only fair to point out these messages of concern are swamped by potential customers asking for more information on the offer. And they are still introducing themselves as a brand, and finding their voice and face. They have decided who their audience are, they have decided what their USP is, but if they want to use this sort of messaging then they need to position themselves as a Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This is stealing from the rich and leaning on the poor for a campaign. That’s not as catchy. For Starhub, and any other established brands facing challengers and disruption, maybe resting on past achievements is not the right tone either for their marketing or their offering.

Are Circle Life’s customers vapid enough that they will resonate with the implication that their data plan is the equivalent to physical hunger? Not judging by those responses from customers who were put out by the campaign. It’s a decidedly strange approach in a country that is ranked in the top 15% by the World Giving Index for how charitable nations are.

Circles Life is happy to quote an article calling it the “Good Guy Telco” on their website, and have responded to the concerns over their campaign saying they will be building the feedback into their next round of processes. If they are supporting any charities, their website does not yet mention it. It would be good to see their next campaign offering their potential customers an opportunity to fight something other than limited data contracts.

Tom Jones-Barlow is Southeast Asia Media Director at APD.

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