Ethical Marketing: 6 Examples of Brands that had Controversial Marketing Campaigns

Updated: Aug 20

Here’s what NOT to do when it comes to practicing ethics when marketing. We’ve picked out 6 case studies that happened in Singapore that we can learn from.

With COVID-19 sticking around for longer than we hoped, it’s likely that even more businesses will shift towards operating online. That translates to more digital content vying for our eyeballs. As a digital marketer, it’s crucial that your content grabs the attention of your target audience.

When businesses fail to keep ethics in check, it can make them stand out in the wrong way. In this world where “customer is king”, a misstep can be detrimental for their brand. Take for example the multiple sagas House of Seafood (Punggol) was embroiled in – the use of claw machines for customers to catch live crabs, the upselling of surgical masks during the height of the pandemic and more recently, taking their crabs for a walk. The restaurant has drawn flak from the public for throwing marketing stunts that are “in poor taste”. Consumers have taken to platforms such as Google Reviews, Facebook and TripAdvisor to voice their discontent, calling for petitions to revoke their license.

Unfortunately, it’s been rather common that businesses have gotten into trouble for unethical marketing. Let’s take a look at a few instances in Singapore where campaigns or companies faced criticism for unethical practices in sales and promotions.

1. Mediacorp Ad: Racial Insensitivity

The portrayal of blackface was popularised in the 19th century after the creation of a genre in entertainment: blackface minstrel shows. White performers darkened their skin with shoe polish, grease paint or burnt cork, and illustrated behaviour that perpetuated caricatures of African Americans. Humiliating and unjust stereotypes portrayed involved undesirable characteristics such as hypersexuality, criminality and laziness.

While it’s now deemed an intolerable act of discrimination in the United States, challenging the longstanding racism that’s plagued the country remains an uphill battle.

Though we don’t share the same racial history as the United States, the concept of blackface isn’t foreign to us here in Singapore. It just manifests in another form: brownface.

In 2019, brownface appeared in an advertisement, promoting e-payment as a convenient option for all. The banner featured an ethnically Chinese actor who darkened his skin to portray a Singaporean Indian man.