Analysis: W Singapore's social post with same-sex couple gets praise from ad industry

W Singapore has recently uploaded a social media post featuring a same-sex couple. In its Facebook post, the Singapore-Taiwanese duo, Hugo Liu and Andy Chua, were dressed in bathrobes, laughing while holding drinks in their hands. Beside them were balloons with W Singapore's logo printed on it. The caption accompanying the post said: "Celebrate [heart emoji] [champagne emoji]. Fab #staycations await at W Singapore!" 

In a statement to Marketing, a spokesperson from W Singapore clarified that the social media post is not an ad by the hotel, but a repost of user-generated content of guests. "We are in the business of welcoming all and occasionally feature guests with their permission on our social platforms," the spokesperson added.

Commenting on the social post, netizens were divided with some showing their disapproval. One netizen reminded the public that "homosexual acts are still illegal in Singapore", and insinuated that W Singapore might be "promoting crime" and encouraging people to break the law". On the other hand, many other netizens applauded W Singapore for being inclusive in its content. Some netizens also said they will consider staying at W Singapore after seeing the post. As one member of the public put it: "Even if it’s ex[pensive], if [the hotel is] inclusive, I will pay for it."

While daring in nature, the post saw positive feedback from industry players such as Fiona Bartholomeusz, managing director of ad agency Formul8, who deemed the ad as "cheeky, daring, but timely". "I know of quite a number of LGBTQ+ friends having 'staycations' in Sentosa and kudos to W Singapore for talking to a captive audience when no other brand has," she said. Agreeing with Bartholomeusz, Nimesh Desai, CEO of Wunderman Thompson Singapore said in the context of Singapore, the post is a bold and very unconventional move. He added that social posts like these help lean into the aspect of diversity and inclusiveness. Desai said:

Hopefully, it paves the way for more to follow.

Meanwhile, Pat Law, founder of creative agency GOODSTUPH pointed out that she appreciates the fact that the post was not "a one-off expression of inclusivity" done in the month of June, in time for pride month. "I love that the post appears to be an always-on social post because inclusivity should be always-on, and I particularly appreciate the fact that the social post was taken by W hotel customers themselves," she added.

While W Singapore's post has garnered much support from both consumers and industry players, brands portraying the LGBTQ+ community in their ads can often find themselves in tricky situations. Just three years ago, the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore asked Cathay to amend an advertisement for Pink Dot displayed in its mall and remove the statement “supporting the freedom to love”. During the incident, Goh Shu Fen, co-founder and principal of R3 had also voiced her support against the discrimination. In a statement to Marketing then, Goh said her business had prospered from inclusivity, with staff, clients and partners who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. “So I’m well aware of the discrimination that exists. It means a lot to them that business leaders like myself make a public pledge that we’re supportive,” she added.

"If Singapore is not able to navigate the complexities of communicating different points of view, we will have no chance of achieving our ambition of being a regional hub for the creative sector," Goh said

Not long after, in 2018, jewellery brand Poh Heng also launched a daring photo exhibition called "A Journey of Trust", which featured images of local personalities and people with their loved ones. The exhibition ran across Orchard Road and featured images of two same-sex couples on an OOH billboard.

Meanwhile, a survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), published on The Straits Times in May last year, found there is greater acceptance of gay sex, gay marriage and adoption by gay couples compared with five years ago when the same survey was done. The survey said that slightly more than 20% of people polled said sexual relations between adults of the same sex were not wrong at all or not wrong most of the time, which was a rise from about 10% in 2013. The survey added that 27% felt the same way about gay marriage, and 30% did so about gay couples adopting a child. In 2013 the numbers stood at 15% and 24% respectively.

Although it seems that more and more Singaporeans are now accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, sensitivities do persist when advertising for the community. When asked how brands should safeguard themselves from potential backlash, Law said brands should "walk the talk", and be careful of corporate pandering. "It’s one thing to show support, it’s another to make it sound as though the LGBTQ+ community needs your validation," Law said. She also cautioned brands to "gay-check" their campaign to ensure the content is appropriate. She said:

Inclusivity in a brand starts from within.

This can range from a brand's internal HR policies to its political contributions, which should not contradict with their stated beliefs. Meanwhile, on an external front, authenticity is key. "Singapore has a long way to go, but normalising the image of two men having a staycation together is a good start," Law said. 

Adding to the conversation, Wunderman Thompson's Desai said it is hard to identify the pitfalls as social ads such as W Singapore's are also consumed by those outside of the LGBTQ+ community and their supporters. The backlash hence tends to come from those who don’t accept the community. "As with any piece of creative work, there will be people who disagree or do not like it," he added. 

"The simplest safeguard is for brands to be consistent and not lean in to only one audience. Brands have to demonstrate inclusiveness across the board. Be more transparent in the pillars and beliefs of the organisation," Desai said. He also agreed with Law that a brand's action should show inclusivity beyond ads and social posts. An effective way for brands to target the pink dollar in Singapore is to show they do not discriminate anyone, and that they act, treat and welcome people of all walks of life.

"Brands are never going to avoid the tidal wave of puritanical judgement" when advertising on the pink dollar, Bartholomeusz added. "As a brand that wants to stand for something, you’re always going to have your share of detractors. What’s important is to remember that you will one day be a movement of many and not be part of the minority. Times have changed and so should we."

She cautions brands of appearing as being opportunistic and not upholding the same values within the company. In that case, there will be a disconnect in appearing authentic and trustworthy, and this may drive consumers away instead. Bartholomeusz also said authenticity in the brand messaging, art direction and styling should show an innate understanding of the lifestyle needs of the community. This way, the brand can go a long way in endearing the brand. 

"The LGBTQ+ community can be very loyal to brands that support them and acknowledge that they deserve to be treated with equal rights like anyone. They’ve got great disposable income, a penchant for living life well, they're very sociable, well-travelled and well-read," Bartholomeusz added. 

Meanwhile, a study done by P&G AND GLAAD in July 2020 in the US saw respondents of the survey looking favorably upon companies who included LGBTQ+ people in their advertisements. More than 80% of the respondents said they believe the inclusion reflects the company’s support of LGBTQ+ rights, the company’s commitment to offer products to all types of customers, and the company’s value for all kinds of diversity. The study also found that 48% of respondents who had been exposed to LGBTQ+ people in the media said they are more accepting of gay and lesbian people over the past few years when compared to the respondents who had not recently seen LGBTQ+ people in the media (35%).

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