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

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

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.

Controversial Marketing Campaigns (to be covered in article)

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