Staff Reporters
Jan 25, 2022

Should brands continue to take a stance in Asia's socially conservative markets?

After Samsung pulled an ad featuring a drag queen and his mother in Singapore, eight creative and communications leaders discuss how brands should balance purpose and politics

The organisers of Pink Dot, an annual event for the LGBT community in Singapore (pictured here in 2017), questioned Samsung's decision to pull the ad
The organisers of Pink Dot, an annual event for the LGBT community in Singapore (pictured here in 2017), questioned Samsung's decision to pull the ad

Brands that seek to represent certain diversities or align with social causes in their advertisements can find themselves up against public and political pressure in Asia's conservative markets.

Portrayals of the LGBTQIA+ community draw particular backlash in markets where religion and politics are steeped in tradition. In such markets, the LGBTQIA+ community is often not recognised or protected by the legal system, and attempts by brands to normalise the representation of the community is usually met by some degree of resistance. Faced with this, some brands choose to hold firm with their stance, and others backtrack and self-censor.

Samsung was faced with such a decision last week, when an ad it had released in Singapore in December showing a mother supporting her drag-queen son had been criticised by vocal conservatives from the city-state's Muslim communities. In response, the consumer-electronics brand announced on 19 January it was removing the ad.

In a Facebook post, Samsung stated the campaign was “insensitive and offensive to some members of our local community.” While the ad was meant to convey a message of sensitivity and inclusiveness, the brand instead suggested the very same message was not sensitive to others who might view the relationships differently, stating: “We acknowledge that we have fallen short in this instance, and have since removed the content from all public platforms. We will certainly be more mindful and thorough in considering all perspectives and viewpoints for our future marketing campaigns.”

The brand's decision to remove the ad has been criticised by Singapore's LGBTQIA+ advocates.

The incident calls into question whether brands will continue to find ways to deliver on their social stance in Asia's conservative markets, or whether they will choose to play it safe. Should brands continue to take calculated risks in order to improve the representation of different diversities, knowing they will potentially offend a portion of their customer base?

Campaign Asia-Pacific asked agency leaders from Singapore and Malaysia for their thoughts on the balance between purpose and politics.

Should brands continue to take calculated risks in socially conservative markets like Singapore in order to fulfil their purpose?


Lee Kai Xin, client services director, Wild

Before brands decide if they should take calculated risks in a conservative society like Singapore, it is important to take a step back and ask if the cause you are standing behind is aligned to your brand values. Do you think your core group of customers whom you want to retain and attract is aligned to this? If so, it is worth considering taking a stand. More than ever, consumers don’t just buy products for their functional benefits. They buy into brands that are belief-driven. Nike took a stand with their Dream Crazy campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick despite people burning their Nikes—and it paid off. You can’t please everyone. Sometimes a “crisis” like this is a rare opportunity to establish even more brand loyalty.

Shivram Gopinath, creative director, UltraSuperNew and Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong, general manager, UltraSuperNew

Every piece of work is a calculated risk. 'Is it our place to even talk about this?' 'What will people say?' Questions like these are asked every day. Our job is to push the boundaries of perspectives. Many potentially sensitive causes still need to be talked about and if we continue to craft narratives that maintain "unquestioned" conservatism, then progress, change and acceptance will never happen. That said, it is brands that will likely bear the brunt of a backlash. The real questions brands might want to ask themselves are, do we start a conversation even if it’s one that is difficult to be had, and do we say something we feel is right even if not everyone will agree. And are we going to see through and support the conversations that may happen after. To that, the answer should always be yes.

Daryl Ho, managing director of Singapore, WE Communications

The reality is that a brand will never please everyone, and doing nothing out of fear is not an option. People expect brands to speak up and praise brands who show conviction and courage by acting on their purpose. Encouraging for brands, our Brands in Motion research found that more than two-thirds of people are open to brands speaking and acting on societal issues in Singapore and globally. Instead of targeting 100% positive responses, brands should not be deterred by detractors and focus on connecting with the audience they want to engage and sharing what they stand for.


Pat Law, founder, Goodstuph

Beyond advertising, be it a 30-second commercial or a social post for Instagram, what's far more important is what brands are actually doing on the ground for marginalised groups. A 30-second commercial featuring transgenders means jack if there are zero transgender employees.

I can't quite answer your question directly because it's not about whether a risk is worth taking, but when you're a brand that walks the talk, you do not need to get cosmetic in your marketing efforts.


Stanley Clement, managing director, Reprise Digital

Samsung stated the campaign was “insensitive and offensive to some members of our local community.”

Personally, I find this statement disturbing. If you really ‘listened to your heart’, you would find that the love of every parent towards their child, no matter how different or unique they may be, is endless.

In a world already divided in numerous ways, this ad really hit a note with me as one that encompasses acceptance, giving us a view of what unconditional love looks like. It’s a shame that it was pulled down because it was insensitive to some. It’s a shame that some people appear to have missed the key point of the ad, and are unable to appreciate a universal message of unconditional love.

As advertisers, it is true that we should consider the sentiments of the audience. But shouldn’t we also stand up for what we believe in? Shouldn’t we stand up for the values that make this world a better place?

We have the power in our sphere to create change. And this ad had that power to spark change and start a conversation. One that continues even now.

For whatever reason that the brand has weighed out, it has decided to take a step back after taking a brave step forward. I now wish you courage to start the dialogue and continue pushing these boundaries of change. 

Joanna Ong-Ash, director, Bravery Communications

In my personal opinion, I am so disappointed that Samsung caved to the pressure of the few dissentious voices instead of standing by the integrity of their communications intent. I always believe in authenticity when it comes to communications and applaud whoever came up with this creative idea that reflects the reality of a part of our community that shouldn’t be shoved under the carpet. When Samsung pulled the ad, it swung us all right back a zillion steps after so much effort has been made towards building an inclusive society.


Charlie Blower, managing partner and cofounder, Blak Labs

Brand purpose is a tricky thing. Especially in socially conservative markets such as Singapore. However, I believe that brands should be selling their products primarily, while purpose serves to add burnish to their reputation. What brands need to be cognisant of are the sensitivities within each market that they operate. Cancel culture is now so strong, thanks to social media; it’s hard to predict how a market will respond. There will of course be haters. What brands need to figure out is whether they’ve got their idea and messaging right. If they’ve done their due diligence and conducted their internal DEI checks and come out with good responses, then go ahead.



Campaign India

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