Opinion

The verdict on Singapore’s CNY ads: ‘Nice, gentle and utterly forgettable’

Asia ad land veteran and now start-up boss Dave McCaughan laments the lack of spark and insight in the recent spate of campaigns celebrating arguably Singapore's biggest holiday

We live by and for special events. Life is mostly humdrum. Gathering together makes us happy. Family moments are special moments.

Chinese New Year is a time for family (replace and fill in with Christmas, Ramadan, Diwali, or your own preferred annual cultural celebration).

You have all seen the brief. You have all seen ‘insights’ that in all honesty are not. They just repeat what we know.

Hallmark figured out the right schmaltz that would sell cards around ‘special days’ because they are ‘special days’. Coke managed to capture the essence of Christmas by using an easy to understand symbolic image. Big holidays linked to tradition really mean family, and maybe friends, coming together. That one time of the year when we can have some certainty, comfort and care with those closest to us.

So what is a brand to do? You want to be a part of the celebration. You want to ‘connect’ with the people. You want to be seen as nice guys. Respectful of the cultural importance of a special occasion but also a part of it. And brands have been doing it for a long time.

Now there are so many well-made campaigns that say: ‘We understand and share in your moment and maybe we can make it a little better’. The trope might have been started in early 20th century Christmas celebrations, but in my 20-plus years in Asia, it has now come to be applied to all major holidays. CNY is no different.

And it works. Sort of.

Think about the recent Singapore outflow of  CNY advertising for the brands Tiger Beer, StarHub, Singtel. I’m a father. My adult children live a long way from me. I spent many years living far away from my own family. I watch each of these and I get the message.

Singtel’s ‘Mr Lim’s Reunion Dinner’

As the films clearly illustrate, for many of us family is the greatest treasure. You see what CNY will mean to people: parents/grandparents looking forward to a bit of time with children over meals. CNY is the excuse that is hard to avoid.

I did a little research around the narrative going on in Singapore around each of the above campaigns using some neutral content analysis tools, which measured the emotions generated: love, joy, happiness. All good: no negatives. But all rather weak reactions.

These are ‘nice’ gentle films that remind us of a cultural and personal truth. But they are not really good advertising. Or content.

They are good little snapshots of life that reinforce a well regarded cultural norm. You can argue it’s good of these brands to pay for a moment or two of happy reflection. Or remind us about the importance of familial duty. But advertising?

I noticed among the many comments about the StarHub film that pointed out the gaping hole in the ad: not once does a phone appear.


Now that is exactly the problem. It’s a community service film. We can watch it, like it, absorb it and never know who provided it, why and what it has to do with them. Even as I write this, I have to keep going back and checking which film is for which brand.

While lovely ads, they do not shift, reinforce, introduce anything new about the brand involved. Which of course is the role of content and advertising.

Somewhere there has to be a reason for people to say: ‘Did you see that [insert brand] film?’.

If a brand can help people feel like they should do more with their lives then no harm done. But neither is any help.

When we talk of special holiday and brand communications everyone talks of the John Lewis Christmas campaigns these days. Beautiful films that use the “focus on the delight of a kid and a present” storyline. I’ve seen and worked on CNY campaigns using that in the past too. It’s not the storyline, it’s the connection.

Beautiful produced, imaginative versions of a simple story with a strong brand connection – getting a gift they will love is hard, John Lewis can get you there. Proper brand relevance. Sure it could be any retailer selling gifts. But it’s not, it’s John Lewis because they do it bigger, better, with more imagination and make sure the key brand promise is so involved.

So CNY in Singapore. Lot’s of nice stuff. Nice stuff. It’s all nice stuff. And maybe that is why nobody will remember them come next month.

Dave McCaughan is the former Asia head of strategy for McCann and now chief strategy officer for Bangkok-based start-up AI.Agency

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