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

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. This is part 1 of a 2-part series on Ethical Marketing. To learn more about how you can be mindful about ethics when marketing, head over to part 2 here.

Digital Marketing
Gordon Chen

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. The ad sparked public outcry for its racist undertones in the portrayal of Indians and Malays.

Ethnically Chinese actor portraying four races
Actor portraying an Indian and a Malay Singaporean | Credit:

Like blackface, brownface is dehumanising and unethical because it uses someone’s skin tone as a costume. Whatever intentions the advertisers had is irrelevant, as the ad is fundamentally offensive. It effectively reduced the representation of an entire ethnic minority group to just their skin colour.

Ethnic Chinese actor in brownface for the ad
They even made a lanyard with the name K Muthusamy | Credit:

For the uninitiated, wearing brownface might be easily perceived as harmless fun that doesn’t warrant the huge reaction it got from the public. Even in their apology for this e-payment ad, the agency mentioned choosing this Chinese actor specifically as he could represent characters “in a light-hearted way”. In other words, though there was no joke behind the ad, having a comedic actor wear brownface gave viewers the idea that it was meant to be laughed at.

Unfair and inadequate race representation reflects poorly on a company, particularly in a country strongly advocating racial harmony like Singapore. It’s important to factor in an additional layer of sensitivity when working on marketing efforts to ensure that no particular group feels excluded or discriminated against.

2. Circles.Life Ad: Acts of Tokenism

Being ethical isn’t only about striking while the iron is hot. It should be something weaved into your company’s DNA, and reinforced consistently at every stage of the marketing process.

Tokenism is defined as the superficial practice of making a symbolic effort to do something, in order to give the impression that certain values are honoured by a company. In the context of marketing, it could look like exploiting the differences among people to highlight inclusivity and diversity, without actually committing to it.  

In early June 2021, Singapore’s fourth telco Circles.Life received a lot of heat when they released an ad stating they were “100% for the people”. It was reportedly a collective effort between “a Filipino, a Malay and a Chinese”.

This post was the telco’s attempt at trendjacking after racial issues had become significantly more sensitive. Cases of blatant racism like that of Beow Tan’s harassment of minorities, and a racist male verbally abusing and kicking a lady had surfaced, making race the topic on everyone’s minds. In a bid to appear inclusive, the advertisement did the exact opposite, coming off as mere tokenism instead.

When Circles.Life overtly stated the post was done by individuals from different races, they wanted to highlight their ethical and racially diverse hiring practices. But it backfired, as that’s how hiring employees should be in the first place. Furthermore, some detractors also pointed out that the post highlighted social hierarchies in Singapore. In the post, minority groups were classified as the lower-ranked employees working under the majority racial group in Singapore. Releasing this ad to promote their “race-blind” hiring at such a time was inappropriate, and did not serve its purpose.

While Circles.Life did not have ill intentions, the ad was not well designed and offensive, especially in a multiracial country like ours.

3. “Fire Sales”: False Advertisements

You’ve probably seen signs promoting a “Closing Down Sale”, or others touting a “Fire Sale”. These posters have been used by three retail brands – ABC Bargain Centre, ValuDollar and ABC Express – to attract more people to patronize their stores.

Numerous signboards for promotions all over the shop
These signs are all around the shop | Credit: Straits Times

The “Closing Down Sale” lasted almost two years. These claims were effective for sales, but they were inaccurate and unethical. Customers made purchases under the belief that the deals and discounts lasted only for a short while, when in actual fact, they were not. These promotion tactics have since been discontinued to stop misleading consumers.

Amidst the surge in popularity of e-commerce, there have been more unscrupulous sellers. A 2019 study conducted by consultancy Frontier Economics reported that two in three consumers fell prey to unfair business practices while shopping online.

These false claims consisted of the following:

  • Discounts (“Buy NOW and save UP TO 60%!”)
  • Deals (“Buy THREE for the price of TWO!”)
  • Time-limited Offers (“Quick, this deal is ENDING in 30 MINUTES!”)
  • Stock Running Low (“Grab the LAST ONE in stock NOW!”)

Promotions get a ton of attention, and it is how shady sellers earn their money. These deals rush consumers to make decisions on the fly, because their minds are focused on the fear of losing out.

“Last one? Faster buy faster buy”

“WAH DISCOUNT? Must buy!”

Unfortunately, these false deals are especially effective in a society such as Singapore, which embodies the kiasu mentality.

This is due to an idea called “loss aversion”, which states people would rather avoid making a loss than gain something.

Preventing a loss feels better than making a gain
Nothing lost > Something gained!

In reality, these “opportunities” don’t exist.

The prices reflected in these “discounts” and “deals”? They were the original prices sellers looked at, marked to profit without drawing suspicion.

“Time-based offers”? “Last in stock”? Many will notice they go on indefinitely. Any customer visiting the page, earlier or later, will see these phrases remain unchanged.

By marketing your products with these unethical tactics, you are not being fair to your customers. This is because they’ll be making decisions based on false information, and are being misled. Marketing your products with honesty matters if you want to build long-term relationships with your customers. What keeps them coming back ultimately, is being able to count on a company to have the best interests for their customers beyond mere profits.

4. Subway’s Meat Stack Sub: Hypocrisy

Ideally, there shouldn’t be discrepancies between advertised details and what a customer receives. I’m a big foodie, and I love an occasional trip to Subway. Getting a wide variety of ingredients and flavours in one edible submarine is all I ask for.

In September 2020, there was a new Sub – the “Meat Stack Sub”. In their slew of marketing campaigns, both online and offline, Subway stated it involved more meat and less advertising.

Illustration of Meat Stack Sub with tons of meat
That DOES look like a lot of meat | Credit: Subway Facebook

Yet, I saw these ads in many places around Singapore. Subway Singapore had also hired not one, but two well-known locals to promote the new Sub.

Well-known local YouTuber promoting Subway's new Sub on Facebook Live
YouTuber JianHao Tan promoting the Meat Stack | Credit: Subway Facebook

There was a contradiction: the ads about the Sub were made to look low in effort and cost, but there was so much ongoing promotion for it.

This campaign also gave the impression that the money saved on ads allowed the Sub to have a lot more meat in it. Because of that, people would think the sandwich is value for money. Yet, the Meat Stack was the most expensive option on the menu.

In my personal encounter with it, there wasn’t a significant increase in meat included either. It was clear that the advertisement had been exaggerated. This is a situation where the campaign had overstated things, and results turned out to be underwhelming. Subway had promoted one thing and produced another. The onus of accurate representations is on the company to deliver what was marketed. Though the ad was playful, it set unrealistic expectations on the experience of the product. In misleading the consumers, they alienated loyal consumers who answered the call to their ads for a Meat Stack.

5. Singapore Telcos: Smearing Competitors

Standing out in an increasingly crowded and competitive market is what makes or breaks businesses. However, it’s unethical to resort to underhand means to edge out competitors. The Singapore major Telco players in 2014 – SingTel, StarHub and M1 – were embroiled in a dispute over social media smears against SingTel’s competitors.

To promote a new mobile plan, SingTel employed social media agency Gushcloud to launch a campaign. Gushcloud had then incentivised social media influencers to make complaints on telco competitors StarHub and M1. SingTel engaged in what is called a “smear campaign”, defined as the deliberate attempt to undermine the credibility and reputation of its competitors by spreading false and disparaging comments.

SingTel's chief executive later made a public apology to StarHub and M1, both of which agreed not to pursue the matter. SingTel had also terminated their partnership with Gushcloud, with the latter taking full responsibility for the campaign.

Smear campaigns are unclassy and they often bite back at those who launch the campaign. In an ironic twist, during that period, SingTel’s own users flooded their social media page with immense dissatisfaction over SingTel’s services. The lesson here? You don’t have to love your competitors, but there are better ways to explore how you can beat the competition fairly, by focusing on improving within. When you highlight the positives and focus on delivering stellar customer service, the excellence of your product or service speaks for itself.

6. Beauty Salons: Aggressive Selling

In the past, my mother used to patronise this one hair salon near our house. I remember she always came back complaining.

They would sound something like this:

“Aiya, go cut hair only they want me to sign package again”

“This package haven’t end, they tell me buy another already”

The staff at the hair salon were often hard-selling packages to its customers. Some were nice, while others were more aggressive. But they all pressed customers just as much. I thought that it was just at this particular salon. Apparently, this was commonplace in the beauty industry.

Many hair salons and beauty parlours often adopt an aggressive approach to increase a customer’s lifetime value and engagement with their business.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) has mentioned that the beauty industry is often one of the “top” industries with complaints. In fact, in 2020, three beauty salons admitted to these unfair practices against customers. This was after many complaints were lodged for close to two years. Beyond pressuring customers to buy more treatments, some were charged additional costs. The salons had also charged consumers for even more packages without consent.

A fundamental rule that contributes to a strong, lasting business is to build rapport with your customers. Hard selling is unethical as it puts a high amount of pressure on customers; as if you’re shoving products down their throats. Psychologically, this puts customers on guard as they feel like their decisions are being dictated for them. They’re then more compelled to shut off and reject your pitch.

Doing Your Part as an Ethical Digital Marketer

While browsing through the case studies above, it’s easy to think: “Well duh, of course that’s unethical. Who in their right mind would approve these marketing efforts?” If it was that straightforward to determine the dichotomy between what’s ethical and what’s not, we wouldn’t be witnesses to these instances in marketing campaigns time and time again.

Some of the examples mentioned above are large corporations that have layers of personnel who gave their collective approval. You too, as digital marketers, are just as susceptible to making mistakes like these. The trick is acknowledging that it’s possible for you to make such mistakes and constantly checking yourself – be it adopting a customer’s perspective or taking a step back to evaluate a situation from the bigger picture of values and ethics.

How well you do depends on your marketing efforts, but it’s also based on how consumers receive it. If a particular marketing tactic doesn’t sit well with you, listen to that voice inside you and have a second take.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series on Ethical Marketing. To learn more about how you can be mindful about ethics when marketing, head over to part 2 here.

Hatch is an impact-driven business with the mission to make digital and design opportunities accessible for all.  That's why we are committed to sharing valuable resources like these freely and openly for the community.

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