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A recap of the winning theme for this year’s CNY and how to avoid repetition

During any festive season, the theme for campaigns tend to lean towards evoking memories of childhood and feeling a sense of nostalgia. This year though, one aspect that really stood out through the numerous ads we saw over the past two weeks is play on generations, and sometimes its gaps, in forging family ties.

Prudential Singapore for example, dropped a #MindTheGenGap campaign, inspired by the culture of bringing people together during Chinese New Year. The purpose-driven initiative to minimise the generation gap and connect the young and old, was conceptualised by VaynerMedia Singapore. Speaking to Marketing, VaynerMedia’s associate creative director William Beale explained that insight is based off the fact that generations are divided by cultural identities, socio-political perspectives and a widening communication gap in the society.

“Sometimes it feels like Gen Z’s or Millennials on different sides of the planet relate more to each other than they do to their own grandparents. But there’s so much we can learn from them, and they can learn from us. On the flipside, some of us already have ultra cool aunties and uncles who put us to shame, while we’re the old souls who go to bed by 10pm. Generational differences can be funny like that,” he said, adding that this is a “rich and expansive” territory to play in.

Some ads on point with the generational theme

Riding on the generational differences, was also the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) who launched a three-minute film following the evolution of a father-and-son pair with large, identical facial birthmarks. Titled “Birthmark”, the spot aims to pass the message that the greatest sacrifices are the ones that cannot be seen, and also pays homage to the Merdeka Generation’s unconditional and often unrecognised acts of love for their families. The spot was conceptualised by independent creative agency BLKJ.

Meanwhile, Prudential Malaysia touched on themes of intergenerational expectations, filial piety, authenticity, and individuality with its latest spot titled “Noodle Noob”. The spot features the owner of a humble noodle restaurant attempting to teach and pass down ancestral secrets of the art of noodle-making to his teenage son.

Similarly, Apple opened up the floodgates when it released a video titled “Daughter”. The film showcases a story between three generations of women uniting over the holiday, and tells the story of a single mother who defies the cultural convention of dependence on a husband, which caused her to become estranged from her mother. The spot, done by TBWA\Media Arts Lab, has garnered over a million views in two weeks.

Time to adopt a fresh take

But coming up with a witty or interesting ideas for a Chinese New Year to cut through the clutter is by no means easy. Year after year, we have seen themes emerge around family, unity, reunion, or the importance of being grateful.

GREY Group Malaysia’s ECD Graham Drew said when it comes to festive films, it seems that the industry has been forced into two camps. It has to be either a reflective, nostalgic family sepia flashback tearjerker or a high-speed family high saturation cartoon slapstick fest, with very little room in between.

It’s not that the work is bad per se. There’s some great craft and story there, but because it’s just so familiar, great work starts to feel repetitive.

Drew added that the videos do not all have to be about family. “It’s easy to sit on a high horse and say ‘Be bold! Festive films come with the big budgets – it should be our big chance! But in the reality trench it’s far from easy,” Drew told Marketing. He explained that it is hard for clients to be brave when they are risking their “big play” of the year. As a result, agencies agencies default from giving that rejected wild card script one last try “through sheer exhaustion”.

Meanwhile, it is a known fact that festive films tend to be insight-led, but one needs to consider how big of a role the insight plays in the storytelling, compared with the creative execution, Kingdom Digital’s head of strategy Edmund Lou said. According to him, there are times when an adsentertainment value supersedes the human insight, which he feels defeats the purpose. Lou added that the industry can also move beyond the typical three-minute family stories to social video content such as conversational interviews, recipes, and DIYs, among others.

Also touching on the point of relevance and entertainment was The Clan’s chief creative Casey Loh, who said there needs to be a balance of both. Are brands today driven by purpose like how PETRONAS used to do in the days of delivering a potent mix of stirring emotions and hard-hitting questions? Or are brands simply putting out a film to tell a story that many will enjoy but few will remember?

“That fine balance is important and not easily achieved, but in an age where agency accountability is key to the industry’s survival, relevant festive ads have the ability to not only lighten the season but also brighten a brand,” he explained.

Stones left unturned

Alvin Teoh, ECD, Naga DDB Tribal told Marketing that brands have explored every possible angles for stories, including years of relationship issues being resolved just in time for reunion dinner; someone dies just to make a point; or tech can solve anything so let’s solve something Chinese.

“When all else fails, create a dong dong chiang music video, with rap! Young people will love this!” Teoh added. That said, Teoh explained that the Malaysian ad industry still has a handful amazing thinkers and storytellers who have “managed to pull a rabbit out of a new hole”.

Nonetheless there are still stones left unturned, and he listed six ways brands can switch things up – documercials, sci-fi, story-making, think “shorties”, wit and simplicity, mobile-first and multi-platform storytelling.

  • Documercials: Some of the most interesting stories are the real ones hidden in the nooks and crannies of Malaysia and Singapore, but brands have not spent enough energy seeking them out. Documercials are basically about creating or injecting a story into a real community and if done well, Teoh said consumers people won’t be able to figure out what’s real and what’s created. Films like these are rich in culture, beauty and depth, he added.
  • Sci-fi: A large part of what people are giving attention to these days are sci-fi-related: Multiverses, alternate realities, time travel and the looping of time in a universe filled with doppelgangers, monsters, robots and creatures of every shape, colour and character. “Apart from one Chinese content this year that’s kinda Groundhog Day-ish, no one has gone into this realm. Here’s the thing – most brands will feel this is risky but for audiences so exposed to amazing content out there, we’re loosing out,” Teoh explained.
  • Story-making: Not to be confused with storytelling, story-making is about creating an event, an experiment, a piece of tech-related installation, something that’s designed to make people to respond or behave in a certain kind of way for the sole purpose of capturing it on film. The story, which is unscripted, reveals itself and one is required to create on the go. It can also be applied to any issue or topic. However, Teoh said story-making still requires a high degree of creativity and good storytelling skills to drive the emotion you want to create in your audiences.
  • Think “Shorties”: While most Chinese New Year films in Malaysia are short films, Teoh does not consider them “shorties” because they require an “insane amount of attention” to craft. According to Teoh, many people who are in an era of speed and demand have no time for and painfully, no appreciation for. “Shorties are the stuff you’d pay money to watch in the film festival. It fills a void in people and you don’t need to push this into people’s faces,” he explained.
  • Wit and simplicity: While this sounds like a given, Teoh said there is not enough of it in festive films. This requires an understanding of something that has many names; a concept, the big idea, a creative idea and so on. It can be surreal, it can use symbolism or metaphors and it’s hardly the stuff found in long-winded family dramas that’s usually drowned in poorly written dialogue.
  • Mobile-first and multi-platform storytelling: When was the last time we used the vertical format as an idea? And when was the last time we’ve been able to tell a beautiful story without sound? Yeah, stuff to think about and we can have some fun here if done well. The other thing is multi-platform. Teoh likened this to a jig-saw-story-universe, where different parts of the story co-exist to form one big coherent picture across many platforms so audiences get to engage the full spectrum of the universe that brands are creating.

“In the end, we all want to create the sort of work that compels one to feel, think and react. And doing the same-old won’t cut it. The numbers might be sexy but if it doesn’t remain in people’s hearts, then you’ve got to keep at creating an endless array of content to keep people interested,” Teoh said.

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