Why Singapore government advertising is so bad (and how it can get better)

Shop theft is a crime vidIs advertising so comically terrible it goes viral a strategy? If it is, Singapore can probably add it to the list of things it ranks number one in the world for.

But why is the wealthy citystate’s public sector messaging so cringeworthy so often, and where are the weaknesses that $180 million in investment on improving government communications – announced last week – should focus on?

Despite having one of the world’s richest public sectors and an enviable talent pool of local and international creative talent to choose from, the government that has succeeded in building Asia’s most powerful hub for the communications industries somehow manages to produce a steady stream of ads that make international headlines for unintended reasons.

Remember this?

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The Singapore Tourism Board, the Media Development Authority, the Public Utilities Board, the Army, the Land Transport Authority, the National Council on Problem Gambling, and, most recently, the Singapore Police, have produced wave after wave (you can watch them at the end of this article) of social media canon-fodder that has made people at home and abroad squirm at how the conservative citystate talks to its citizens. Even government-friendly newspaper The Straits Times ran a piece this month on the eight cheesiest government ads ever. So it must be a thing.

Mumbrella asked a few local and expat marketing agency folk to share their views on why Singapore government communications is the way it is:


Paul Soon, CEO, APAC, Possible

Paul Soon

Paul Soon

I think a lot of it comes down to the way government departments are structured. When you talk about comms in government, it’s mainly more around public comms, and so much about branding and engagement. Rarely is it a brand person running marketing from the agency world crossing over Vernon Vasu [the former head of marketing for the IPA Effectiveness award-winning Health Promotion Board].

I don’t think anyone wants to produce bad work. It is simply because they do not have the relevant experience or background to discern good work from bad.

Having said that, if prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, as the leader of Singapore, is getting better at reaching out to Singapore through social media and taking that chance, more can surely be done within the ministries.

And, by the way, this challenge is not just limited to the government sector.


Dan Gibson, group MD, Havas Creative Group, Singapore

Dan Gibson

Dan Gibson

For me, there are two key points:

1. In most comms categories, disruption is a key objective. For government work though, that’s rarely the case.

For the ministry, politically it’s a lot less hassle to do something similar to last year’s campaign, than it is to break new ground.

Where it works best is when there’s a senior client lead in the ministry prepared to really interrogate the issue, prepared to partner with the agency and prepared to be accountable for tangible behaviour change.

2. These briefs cover some of the country’s most important and most enduring issues. Yet sadly the incessant public tender process for government briefs gets in the way of the kind of genuine dialogue and partnership that’s required to address them. Since the relationships tend to be highly transactional, it’s no surprise that the creative product tends to be highly tactical.


Leon Lai

Leon Lai

Leon Lai, group MD, GOVT

My thoughts can be summed up with this: Over enthusiastic clients who end up ‘playing creative’ or enforcing their creative wants.


Sonal Narain, regional planning director, Ogilvy & Mather Asia Pacific

Sonal Narain

Sonal Narain

In a world increasingly driven by “measurable response” to advertising in the digital space, the temptation to do what has worked before is becoming a dangerous one. And everyone (corporates and government) is succumbing to it. Advertising agencies get reduced to pretty picture producers in a world where media and measurability take precedence over creative intuition. So why blame the governmentt? After all, taxpayers’ money is not an easy thing to play with. Especially in a conservative society. I would go out on a limb to say that Singapore government communications is far more interesting in what it tries to achieve and sometimes how it does so (Health Promotion Board’s award-winning ‘I quit’ anti-smoking campaign, the Ong and Raj campaign, Breast Cancer, etc) than the pan-Asian whitewash that brands are producing.

Health Promotion Board’s campaign to encourage cancer screening featuring Ong and Raj:


Pat Law, founder, Goodstuph

Pat Law

Pat Law

One word: Gebiz [Singapore’s Government Electronic Business tender portal].

It takes a certain kind of agency with a certain level of overheads, with a certain level of patience and patriotism, to subject herself to the daunting world of Gebiz. And I truly applaud them for that.

I don’t necessarily think Singapore Government advertising is all that bad. I particularly like the works from Economic Development Board and Singapore Navy, but these are also the same entities known to treat their agencies as partners, not vendors.

The Republic of Singapore Navy’s ‘Beyond horizons’ ad from 2011.


Rob Campbell, regional head of strategy, Wieden + Kennedy

Rob Campbell

It’s probably one of four reasons why all bad advertising is bad.

1. It’s created to appeal to the client (and their ego) rather than the audience they want/need to engage & involved.

2. They communicate what they want people to know rather than what people want to know and care about.

3. They have no point of view so just say nothing lots and lots of times in the hope some will be bored into submission.

4. They live in a marketing bubble rather than the culture of reality.

Oh and one last one, they are judged internally for doing the work rather than what the work achieves.
Probably. Ha.

Government work is always hard as it always will invite criticism, but being bland doesn’t make it better, it just makes it ignored.


Daniel Ng, founder, Day 28

MOE adI’ve worked with a few government bodies over the years, and I think the latest Ministry of Education’s teacher recruitment campaign stands out as good recent work from the public sector. I think the quality of any government campaign lies in how the client selects and briefs the agency. It also has a lot to do with approval processes. Government organisations have to take a lot into consideration, and have many stakeholders, so tend to be cautious – which could be why the end product often does not have their desired effect.


Chris Reed, founder, Black Marketing, and blogger

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

It’s really bad for many reasons. The government is very much the father of the nation and tells you what you can and can’t do, and because the education system is also like that people just expect to be told things and to do exactly as they are told. The trouble with that is that when people become more independent and are exposed to other countries and other people they don’t always take what the government says at face value anymore and are more cynical and sceptical about what they are told.

The people being targeted have moved on, but the advertising has not. There is a gap between what people are told and what they believe, and the people controlling the money and the creative tend to be conservative, risk averse and don’t want to try anything new. It may be that, ironically, too many local advertising agencies are being employed rather than international firms who could bring a fresh perspective on how to communicate with Gen Y, Gen X and millennials. Local companies are more likely to want to please the government, and that comes through in the bland, patronising and uninspiring creative.


12 of the worst Singapore government campaigns

To refresh your memory, here are a bunch of Singapore government treasures that went viral without really meaning to:

Singapore Tourism Board, ‘anniversary weekend’


Media Development Authority, MDA senior management rap


Public Utilities Board, Water Wally shower dance


Singapore Police, Shop theft is a crime’


National Council on Problem Gambling, ‘I want Germany to win’


National Trades Union Congress, ‘Cheaper Better Faster’


Youth Olympics, ‘You are the one’


Land Transport Authority, Phua Chu Kang rap


National Day Parade, 2012


Land Transport Authority, ‘Love your ride’.


National Day Parade, 2013


Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association, ‘Some healthy distractions’



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