Interview: Xiaxue responds as netizens pressure brands to ‘reconsider’ engagement

As Singapore gears up for the General Election on Friday, there has been a flurry of activity in the online space. Several individuals have come under the spotlight during this period, from former PAP candidate Ivan Lim, Workers' Party's Jamus Lim and Raeesah Khan, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Outside of politics, Singaporean blogger and influencer Wendy Cheng, also popularly known as Xiaxue, was also thrusted into the spotlight for comments made in 2010 about migrant workers. Her tweets made in 2019 concerning the transgender community have also resurfaced. These comments resurfaced in recent times as Cheng recently posted on her Instagram Stories that Workers’ Party candidate Khan should "stop trying to divide the nation with [her] race politics" and that political parties should "stop fielding radical feminists/leftists as candidates".

Following her comments, netizens have taken it upon themselves to reach out to brands that have worked with Cheng to "hold her accountable" and have them "reconsider" future partnerships with her. A Google document created by netizens and seen by Marketing compiled a list of brands that have worked with Cheng since January 2019. They include Benefit Cosmetics, Bio-essence Singapore, Clicknetwork, Sephora, AmorePacific, Lazada Singapore, Resorts World Sentosa, Liho Singapore, Domino's Pizza Singapore, OSIM, Magiclean, Dream Cruise Line, Daniel Wellington, Chir Chir Singapore, Caltex Singapore, Giga Experience, and Brother Singapore, among others.

The document also included screenshots of the brands and Cheng's past controversial tweets. "To make our voices matter, and to stop the harm Xiaxue is doing to racial minorities, the trans community, and immigrants, we need to raise awareness to the brands and companies that are financing her. This is one of the only ways to hold Xiaxue accountable," the document read.

When reached out to by Marketing, online buying and selling platform Reebonz said that the company last worked with Cheng in September 2019 for its Warehouse Sale campaign, where Cheng was hired to generate awareness for the sale via social media posts. It added that Reebonz believes in inclusiveness and its products and services are designed to make the experience of online luxury shopping accessible to the global community with no exceptions. “We do not support bigotry and are neither prejudiced against those from diverse backgrounds. As such, we will not be endorsing personalities who do," it said.

Printer manufacturer Brother Singapore told Marketing that it is currently not in partnership with Cheng and its last collaboration was for its limited-edition Hello Kitty label printer where Cheng helped promote the machine, as well as the new tape designs. It added that Brother International Singapore has been serving the local community since 1986 and it embraces and supports diversity and inclusion.

"If Cheng really expressed inappropriate comments, then her views contradict with our values. As such, we will not continue our partnership with her," it added. The brand also said that it recently supported a mask sewing campaign named MaskForce, which is aimed at protecting migrant workers and domestic helpers against COVID-19.

Ritz-Carlton's Mandapa told Marketing that it did not engage and does not endorse Cheng in any official and contractual partnership or collaborations in any capacity. "Racism has never had a place at Marriott and we believe in equality, justice and putting people first no matter what they look like, where they come from or what their abilities are," the hotel said. It added that this approach is also reflected in its selection process when collaborating with influencers and bloggers.

"It is our goal to maintain an environment that is respectful of various views and opinions and is appropriate for the community for which it is intended," Mandapa said.

Likewise, fried chicken brand Chir Chir also clarified that it worked with Cheng a year ago on a one-time engagement. "We would like to clarify that she is not an ambassador of Chir Chir. Her political and societal views are her own personal opinion and do not represent our brand in any way," the brand said.

Caltex Singapore, Bio-essence Singapore and digital mobile service provider Giga also said that they are currently not in any partnerships with Cheng and do not associate with her personal social media posts. 

On the other hand, Panos Fournarakis, MD of Sunrise Experience based in Zurich, Switzerland, said the company chose to work with Cheng because she has an opinion. "This is unique in the marketing business as people are paid to say what the advertisers want," he said. According to Fournarakis, Cheng is hired to say what she really thinks and while this is tough for most brands, this is the only reason why her opinion matters.

"As a true believer in Singapore and its cultural diversity, I believe that Cheng is an expression of the society. She represents only herself and she is willing to take the responsibility," he added. Sunrise Experience has collaborated with Cheng since 2014. It first sponsored a wedding experience and photoshoot in Santorini, Greece. The two parties collaborated again in 2018 for a honeymoon and photoshoot experience in Paris, Switzerland and Austria. Marketing understands that Cheng still has certain brands choosing to work with her, that would like to remain anonymous.

Cheng’s side of the story

In a phone conversation with Marketing, Cheng explained that the tweets highlighted in the document was born out of anger she experienced when she was younger, having been a victim of sexual assault by migrant workers when she was a teenager - something she has spoken about on her own platforms as well.

"My consideration at that point when I was angry was to protect females rather than the feelings of the group that I was accusing. I felt that it was an urgent problem and a bigger priority," Cheng said. "To tell us that we as women cannot talk about this, is silencing us and it is blatantly unfair. I think that instead of trying to arrest people for racism, the government should do something about it. But these were my feelings from years ago, and I don't have animosity towards this group of people anymore," she said.

Cheng also clarified that she does not mean to come across as getting "sob story points" by sharing her experience as a victim of sexual assault, and stressed that those were the emotions and thoughts she was experiencing at the point of time when the tweets were posted. 

Another tweet that also surfaced was of Cheng stating: "That's the difference between: 'You are a stupid worthless N-word' and 'You the coolest N-word I know bro!'. Cheng explained that people should be given a chance to grow and mature, and what was considered offensive 10 years ago is different now. According to her, words such as "tr*nny" or the N-word were nowhere as offensive in the past, as they are right now given culture and education evolves with time.

"You cannot judge what somebody said 10 years ago at the present time. The guidelines are different. What I said 10 years ago did not cause any racial disharmony and to have that be dug out now and have the police intervene is clearly the effort of the people who dislike me and want to cancel me," she said.

Cheng also said that it is unfair that individuals quote a snippet of her tweet without understanding the nuance and context behind it. "I have probably written millions of words in the 17 years of blogging but they have managed to find those two to three tweets to prove their point. Everyone has their own prejudices, what is important is how you act on those racist thoughts. Do not discriminate or abuse people. Try to better yourself, learn more and be open to listening. That is an important point versus what you say when you are angry. That is a lot less telling of someone's character," Cheng explained.

Separately, Cheng has also defended herself in a blog post, saying that she would never discriminate migrant workers to their face, shout abuse at them, or harm them in any way. "If I owned a company that needed their labour, I will still hire them. If I see one of them in need, I will help him," she said.

A word to brand partners from Cheng

Adding on to the topic of maintaining client relationships, Cheng told Marketing that she understands that not all brands know how to react when such a situation occurs, and there have been no prominent findings on whether there would be a difference in brand sales if they ignored the online furore or dissociated themselves with the influencer in question. "So far, the PR handbook is to follow what other brands have done, which is to either ignore or dissociate," she said, adding:

A lot of times, brands feel that it is safer for them to dissociate as there will be no harm. “I think it is ridiculous that brands are claiming I am against diversity or inclusion from a few decade old tweets that have no context to them, just because the mob told them to," Cheng said.

However, there is a lot of harm as cancel culture does not discriminate, she added. Cancel culture is the practice of boycotting companies or public figures after doing something offensive or deemed so.

Cheng added that at this point, there might be brands which back out because netizens have been flooding their pages accusing them of racism if they continue to support the influencer. However, she believes that brands should not “embolden the mob” as some might not have intentions riddled with "toxicity".

She stressed that this vocal group of individuals do not represent all. "When they say they will boycott a brand, the first thing to consider is also whether they were ever going to be customers in the first place. Brands should not pander to them. It tells people that brands agree with cancel culture," she explained.

Nonetheless, Cheng said she understands that such a situation can be scary for brands that have never dealt with controversy previously. She added that as a means of safeguarding, brands can clarify the type of work they are doing with an influencer, such as reviews or one-off projects. Working with a brand doesn’t make any influencer an automatic ambassador. "Most of the time, it is a review. It does not mean that the brand endorses absolutely every single thing that the influencer has said before in her life. It just means that the brand feels the influencer is suitable for the brand and he/she is able to help bring in sales," she explained.  

"Brands need to understand that influencers are not billboards. We are humans and humans have opinions. The fact that we have opinions is the very reason why people follow us and trust the things we say," she said, adding that:

Brands cannot leverage influencer marketing without being at risk of cancel culture. They need to understand how to deal with it when it comes.

Cheng added that brands need to understand and be able to explain that they worked with a particular influencer because it was effective. But that does not mean that they endorse everything he or she says and that they stand by the influencer's right to voice his or her opinion.

"I personally feel that every brand that has worked with me knows my history. This does not mean that they fully agree with me, but they still chose to work with me. There are brands out there who feel that they are bullied into disassociating with me,” she said.

“I genuinely feel that it is very sad that the mob is doing this to brands and companies are forced to take a stance. When they do dissociate with me, the mob then celebrates because they think this proves that the influencer is indeed a racist when in fact, the company might have been pressured to take such a stance," Cheng explained.

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