The online advertisement by Samsung Singapore was to promote its wearable tech devices.
Called Listen to your Heart, it showcased the warm relationships of four couples: an ex-convict father and his daughter, a woman battling depression and her fiancée, two best friends and a mother and her cross-dressing son.
The 4-minute video promotes the South Korean conglomerate’s noise-cancelling Galaxy Buds2 and Galaxy Watch4. But it was because of the mother and her cross-dressing son that it was hastily withdrawn. The company had given in to pressure from the more conservative segments of Singapore’s community to the chagrin of the liberal sector.
The film of the son who performs as a drag queen under the persona “Vyla Virus”, featured with his supportive Muslim mother Zainab, was the one that drew online vitriol.
The removal came with an apology as some netizens found the ad to be insensitive and offensive. It especially attracted strong criticisms from the Muslim community.
One Syed Dan wrote on Facebook, “We are against the ideology of mainstreaming homosexuality and transgenderism into a conservative society.”
Another, Muhammed Zuhaili, said the video had “surfaced much confusion and questions among the (Muslim) community” and called for the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to take action.
Yet, there were others who came out in support of the advertisement and made known their disappointment at Samsung’s decision to pull the campaign just hours after launching it.
A user on Instagram wrote, “Saddens me that we aren’t a progressive society yet, full of judgement when we have a community of all different types of people. I salute Samsung for being daring but sad that criticisms from a few brought this down.”
Pinkdot, a pro-LGBTQ+ movement in Singapore, described the advertisement as “beautiful” in a Facebook statement, before adding:
“To date, it is still unclear what these people were offended by — the fact that LGBTQ+ people exist in Singapore, or that we are deserving of loving relationships, or both.
LGBTQ+ people deserve love from our families, just like everyone else. We should also be able to express these loving relationships freely, regardless of those who want to shame us back into silence simply because they find us offensive. To those who are affected by these events, do not lose heart. Your stories are more precious and important than ever. We urge LGBTQ+ Singaporeans and allies to extend your support to those who are facing challenges and opposition, such as the family in this advertisement.”
LGBTQ+ issues remain a sensitive topic in Singapore, despite increasing support for gay rights among some.
But, greater public acceptance has been slow, due to resistance from religious groups.
The authorities have been unwilling to rock the boat, maintaining that Singaporean society remains fairly conservative, though it noted that people are becoming more liberal in their views on this subject.
Despite that, Singapore’s High Court, in 2020, dismissed three legal challenges to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises acts of “gross indecency” between men with a punishment of up to two years of imprisonment.
Under the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) regulations, the “promotion or glamorisation of homosexual lifestyle” is also prohibited.
According to LGBTQ+ activist and corporate attorney Paerin Choa, “a happy LGBTQ+ character, who has a good job or family support, isn’t allowed on Singaporean television”. “They have to be sad, troubled, or suicidal. In Chinese dramas, the gay character is often a serial killer or a comical sidekick,” he says.
In response to the controversy, Samsung removed the video and posted this statement on its Facebook page:
“We are aware of the feedback that one of our recent campaign films for our wearable products may be perceived as insensitive and offensive to some members of our local community. We acknowledge that we have fallen short in this instance, and have since removed the content from all public platforms.
Samsung believes that innovation and growth are driven by diversity and inclusivity. We will certainly be more mindful and thorough in considering all perspectives and viewpoints for our future marketing campaigns.”
While most of the criticisms were centred on the advertisement’s “agenda of promoting homosexuality and transgenderism”, it is important to note that the video did not portray either homosexuality or transgenderism.
Although it is commonly confused to be one and the same, transgenderism and dressing in drag are two separate concepts.
Transgenderism is defined as “the condition where someone is feeling that he or she is not the same gender or sex as the one assigned at birth”. On the other hand, dressing in drag is the use of clothing and makeup to imitate a different gender role for entertainment purposes.
Throughout the video, neither Vyla’s sexual orientation nor gender identity were ever mentioned, except that Vyla “does drag”.
Sharing his own thoughts about the advertisement in an Instagram post, Vyla Virus said “It’s all about mother’s love in that video, nothing else was mentioned but nonetheless thank you so much for the concern and I love you guys so much. Do spread the love. Love is love”.
It is not the first time that a person in drag is featured in mainstream media. In fact, people in drag had been featured on primetimeTV, in the cinemas and on stage without the associated repercussions.
Many Singaporeans can readily recall TV personas Liang Xi Mei and Liang Po Po, the characters actor, television host, comedian and film director Jack Neo played and occasionally still plays while in drag.
In the arena of stand-up comedy, there is also Kumar, who has since publicly come out as gay.
This begs the question, why did Samsung’s advertisement generate so much negativity then?
Assistant Professor Chen Lou from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), says that “playing the LGBTQ+ card (and) using minority representation is a bit bold for a conservative country like Singapore”. Dr Chen specialises in consumer psychology and social media marketing.
Agreeing, advertising professional who only gave his name as Mark says, “Perhaps a combination of sexual minorities and religious sensitivities proved to be too controversial for some in the community to stomach all at once”.
Hadi, a member of the conservative Muslim community who does not want to give his full name for fear of reprisals, felt that the decision to include the hijab had sealed Samsung’s fate, as the religious headwear is “symbolic of an abiding Muslim which includes all aspects of the beliefs and rulings, and that conflicts with what the advertisement supports”.
He adds that “it would have been more acceptable if the story was angled towards the mother helping her son with his challenges rather than directly supporting the change”.
What was Samsung thinking?
Such nuances and the possibility of a backlash from the conservative segments of Singapore society could not possibly have been missed by Samsung when designing the campaign. After all, other brands in Singapore had featured LGBTQ+ actors in their ad campaigns. One such example is W Hotel which featured a gay couple in its social media campaign.
Despite similarly receiving homophobic comments for portraying homosexual elements, W Hotel stuck to its guns and did not remove the post. The difference in the two campaigns, however, is that W Hotel did not push the envelope too far by ignoring the sensitivities of the more conservative segments of Singapore’s society.
With more than a decade of experience in the advertising industry, Mark believes that Samsung’s original intention was probably to get people talking about its campaign.
“As brands find themselves in an increasingly crowded market, regular advertisements just do not generate as much attention as they used to. So, more brands are taking the leap to touch on more controversial topics in order to generate traction among consumers. Such an approach would naturally also attract more reprisals. The key is to be prepared to handle it”, the 36-year-old says.
“In practice, clients will give a general direction of the advertising campaign and the “guard rails” — topics or areas that are forbidden. The agency will then pitch a variety of ideas, to which the client will make the final decision,” says Mark. He adds that it is usually the client who makes the decision when to pull the campaign when the response is not as intended.
Whether Samsung did think it through, Mark says the answer is both yes and no. “They probably thought it would have been acceptable given the existence of Pink Dot, Kumar, and the increasingly tolerant views of the LGBT community. Both the agency and client thought that Singapore was ready. But if they have done some market research, they may have detected this possibility earlier on,” he says.
However, Samsung was clearly not prepared for the backlash.
“There was no preparation to respond to the critics. If the plan is to create a provocative piece, then the brand should stand by it. By taking down the campaign, Samsung has shown that it is responsive to its customers’ feedback, but at the same time it also gives the impression that it caves in very easily and appears weak. Standing firm, on the other hand, would have shown that Samsung has thought through it and was prepared to stand by its beliefs,” he adds.
Although there was also support for the advertising campaign, Samsung probably wanted to be the brand for everyone, and they did not want to upset any particular segment of the community.
A similar incident occurred in 2018 when Nike was threatened with a boycott in the United States for featuring a footballer who knelt during the national anthem. In the end, Nike decided to stand by its decision at the risk of losing some of its customers. “Love it or hate it, but everyone understood what Nike stood for and had a firm belief in. People might appreciate Samsung better if it stood for something,” Mark says.
Will Singapore ever be ready for LGBTQ+ on TV and in real life?
During a November 2021 dialogue at the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ (IPS-RSIS) conference on identity, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said the current age has given rise to “new tribalism”— where tribal lines or identity politics was not just drawn across racial lines, but across other markers of identity, including LGBTQ+.
He said members of the LGBTQ+ community feel that “society does not accept them or even recognise them as (being) different”, which was an important concern to be acknowledged.
So does this mean that Singapore is ready to accept the challenges of the LGBTQ+ community or is it the government placating people’s feelings?
Prof Chen thinks that “people (still) need time to accept the normalisation of LGBTQ+ in media representation first, before accepting it in real life”.
“The media has this exposure effect on audiences. The lack of representation (of LGBTQ in the media) is slowing the accepting process, to a certain extent”, adds Prof Chen.
She believes that “things will gradually change, and we need to have the media representation of the LGBTQ+ in Singapore to socialise the audiences with this idea and the values behind it”.
Besides media representation, Prof Chen also feels that awareness campaigns and public education are key to shaping the Singapore society’s understanding and recognition of the marginalised community.
Mark says that in this incident, “Samsung has decided to hand victory over to the conservatives by giving them an outsized voice”.
He feels that it was a pity that the campaign was taken down prematurely and missed out on the opportunity to have an open debate and hear the different voices. “Every campaign would have supporters and haters. There was probably too much overthinking and fear of backlash when the criticisms poured in that Samsung failed to give people the opportunity to appreciate the statement that it was trying to push.
Hadi sees a slow shift towards more acceptance or at least less resistance towards the LGBTQ+ among the Muslim community. “As it is still quite a conservative society, there will be limits to the shift”, says the 32-year-old.