Opinion

Naga DDB ECD Alvin Teoh on the thinking behind anti-child abuse campaign #StopNurseryCrimes

Itsy-bitsy fingersNaga DDB launched a campaign for charity PS The Children to combat child sex abuse in Malaysia last week that took the issue head-on with a series of unsettling videos and subverted nursery rhymes to raise awareness among parents.

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia’s Robin Hicks, the agency’s executive creative director Alvin Teoh responds to questions about the strategy behind the campaign, how the project affected him personally, and whether it was necessary to use children in the films.

Briefly, can you explain where the idea behind Nursery Rhymes came from, and the thinking that went into bringing it to life?

Alvin Teoh

Alvin Teoh

The idea came from a writer – Jeremy Yeoh and his CD, Alex [Wong], after they heard about what had happened to my daughter [Teoh’s child suffered from abuse at the age of seven]. From research, they found out that pedophiles usually masquerade their intentions with innocent things. (It was only later, we discovered this was called ‘grooming’.) So, we took something that’s completely innocent – Nursery Rhymes, and changed the lyrics to match the intent of a paedophile and called it Nursery Crimes.

That’s how it started. After talking to NGO’s, our suspicion of the general apathy, ignorance and even denial among Malaysians towards this problem was an issue. And that was when we decided to create something that people can’t deny anymore. The people who are aware don’t really need to be reminded of what’s taking place. But we needed to address the parents who take this problem for granted and to wake them up to what is happening and arm themselves with information and knowledge via the micro-site.

http://www.stopnurserycrimes.com/

From the beginning, we knew we were only covering a very small aspect of a very large problem. But awareness is a start. And there’s a lot more to do.

What sort of response have you received from this campaign so far in Malaysia, a conservative country in which topics of discussion like this do not come easily? Is it any different from what you’d hoped for?

So far, most of the responses have been better then we expected. To be frank, throughout the ideation and production period, we had a lot of self-doubt. (We still do.) Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing it for the right reason? Is it too controversial? Will it backfire?

To be sure, it is not a perfect idea or a perfect piece of work or a perfect answer to a very complex problem. And as creatives, we’re far, far from perfect too. But we believed in what we were attempting to do. That’s why, an ‘ok’ from PS the Children was crucial.

Anyway, from some of the responses we’ve tracked, people seem supportive. And two survivors spoke to us. One person from South America sent a note informing us that she was a abused as a child and is thankful for this project. Another was a lady friend who came up to me to tell me about our project and that she too was abused as a child by a relative. She’s not spoken to anyone about it except her husband and you could tell she needed to talk to somebody about it.

I am not claiming everyone is responding positively, but so far, what we’ve received is encouraging and it has made us realise how deep this problem is and is giving us some insights into what to do next.

We also had a few parents telling us they made their children watch the videos. Some were as young as five and to our surprise, they understood what was happening and had conversations about ‘inappropriate’ touching by adults with their parents.

How hard was it for you to work on a project that has affected you personally?

By the time we went into production, my daughter’s incident was more than a year in the past so I was more or less ok. The only affect it had on me are doubts, which I explained earlier. I did talk to my wife about it and she was all for it.

I have something else to say. The thing about being a parent of a child who went through a traumatic experience, the feeling I have can sometimes feel surreal. Did it really happen? Then, the realisation sinks in again. It did. And the emotion you felt when you first found out surfaces for a bit and you feel hurt. And then just as it comes, it goes away and you’re ok. It’s like riding a roller-coaster. But anyways, I was not too bad during production.

One of our readers has commented beneath our story about Nursery Crimes that she feels that such young children should not been used in the films, which make for uncomfortable viewing.

She commented: “They were so young that it wasn’t possible to explain what was going on to them, and they acted well because they saw it as a game. However, I don’t think the scenarios portrayed should ever have been presented as a ‘game’ to these girls.” She also noted that the films would have been just as powerful without using young children. What do you make of these comments?

I am actually thankful for comments like that. It shows me this person really cares and is concerned enough to have her thoughts heard. I don’t exactly know how to answer that because her points are valid and I am humbled by it. But here’s what we did. The parents of the talents were fully aware of what we were doing. In my phone calls with the film director, this was one of the most frequently asked question – ‘you sure the parents are ok with this?’ Second thing is, the parents were there on set at every scene. Third, the actions were very controlled. There were a lot of interactions between the talents and the film director. Everything action was explained. It was never made to be a game. As for the education part, we left that to the parents. I hope that was enough.

As to the comments whether there was a better way to tell that story, of course there is always a better way. But at the time of ideation and production we thought, for the mindset of our target market, that was the best way we knew how.

You worked with social workers who gave you advice for the campaign. Can you share what advice they gave you on what could and should not be featured?

They didn’t dwell too much about the do’s and don’ts. They were more concerned about whether we covered things like ‘grooming’, whether we brought to light that most of the abusers are trusted people and people in authority (like a teacher, for example) and that not all the abused are girls. Boys are abused as well and there is a lot of ignorance about that because boys are less likely to come forward.

You mentioned in an interview with Campaign about the work that, “someone’s misery and pain is not a subject matter for award wins.” But you’ll be entering the work for awards, surely?

We’re not sure yet. Probably that would be a yes. And we’ll cross that bridge when it comes I guess. But currently, we’re not thinking about it just yet. We’re more concerned about it starting conversations and it would really be great if we knew for sure it is making a difference. That’s where the stress is.

When I said that “someone’s misery and pain is not a subject matter for award wins,” I was referring to pseudo ads. And since the best ‘formula’ to win is the combination of ‘creativity, technology and humanity’ a small number (I can’t verify that though) of peeps from the industry are looking for a good cause to work for but the question is, were they ever concerned about the cause in the first place and were they really solving a problem? If the work we do really attempted to use creativity so solve a real problem, then I think it’s ok to have it submitted.

Anyway, here’s some extra bits of information about this matter. Besides the films and micro-site, we also had a bunch of radio ads and some radio stations were thinking about airing them after 10pm. They debated about it and decided it was too controversial and we understand, so no issues.

Then we were asked if we would like them to air it once, at 3am, just so it becomes legitimate for award submission. Obviously, this practice isn’t new. What would you decide? Well, we thought about this for a whole five seconds, then said, nah… it didn’t feel right at all.

Now I want to ad one more thing. We’re not saints. We do want to win awards. But it would be so much better to win them properly and to understand what the priorities are.

This is just the beginning of the campaign. Can you shed any light on what’s to come next, and the thinking behind it?

Judging from the few responses from ex-victims, the next stage may be about empowering them and the help them see themselves as survivors instead of victims. We could help give them a platform to talk about their experiences and get support and affirmation from people. For too long, they’ve suffered in silence. They need to know that people care and the public at large need to hear their stories perhaps so we can take what’s swept under the carpet and bring it to light. Whatever the next steps are, we know we need to collaborate with others; journalists, counsellors, law enforces and the like.

Sexual abuse of children and minors is a huge problem and we want to try to see how we can help for the long haul. We’ll be getting plenty of advice and guidance from PS the Children for sure. And while we want to be partners in this fight, we are also very aware we’re not full time activists. We’re an ad agency with clients and deadlines and what we can do is limited. But where we can, whenever we can, we will give it a shot. Like I said earlier, there is much to do and much to learn.

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