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Is TikTok's CEO really Singaporean? What being Singaporean means through an ad lens

Is TikTok's CEO really Singaporean? What being Singaporean means through an ad lens

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TikTok's CEO, Shou Zi Chew has been making headlines lately for his calm and cool demeanor at the US Congress last week where he spent about five intense hours defending his app's right to remain legal in the US. However, as of late, a deeper question has risen amongst netizen and that is if the tech CEO is really Singaporean as he claimed to be in front of US lawmakers. 

While his poise made many Singaporeans proud, conversations have recently emerged on social media around his nationality and accent which some say sounds "American English" with a "Mandarin accent".

This then raised the question of what exactly it means to be Singaporean and what exactly we as a country need to see to be convinced of local authenticity. 

While arguably, many say Singaporeans can be well recognised from their beloved Singlish accents, we decided to turn to the advertising industry to find out what narratives and routes are typically taken to convey a sense of “Singaporean-ness”.  We ask if there are certain cultural elements subtly injected into local ads to convince consumers of its authenticity and to win them over without appearing too foreign.

According to independent boutique agency Formul8 managing director Fiona Bartholomeusz, who works with a range of local clients, language definitely tops the list.

“Language above all else, or more specifically the local patois that makes us Singaporean. We are fiercely protective over it because you really need to have spent enough time growing up and schooling here to intonate your “lahs” and “wahlau ehs” properly to gather any street cred,” she said.

This is likely why many Singaporeans are so fazed by the fact that Chew noted that he is Singaporean (he is born and based on our little red dot) when asked if was compelled to relinquish data to Chinese authorities. Simply because he did not sound Singaporean. 

When asked what are some themes that always make a comeback when localising ads, hilariously, Bartholomeusz pens down:

  1. Singlish (Gurmit Singh and Michelle Chong have carved out an entire career on this),
  2. Family (which usually revolves around the themes of filial piety and the long-suffering parent who works two jobs to ensure his/her child goes to university but keeps it from the family - only to be revealed at the tear-filled dramatic end),
  3. Racial harmony (every producer’s mandatory checklist for having all races portrayed in a shoot)
  4. Food (because nothing comes between a Singaporean and his bak chor mee),
  5. Work (our daily grind and gripe about the cost of living, bosses and millennials)

She added that unfortunately, many ads also resort to slapstick humor - usually involving one of the above formulas. “It’s a tried and tested formula but it works,” she said.

Like Bartholomeusz, Ali Shabaz, chief creative officer of M&C Saatchi added that one of the strongest cues we use to connect locally would be language.

“It’s the easiest and fastest way to establish emotion and relevance,” he said. Of course, if it’s “Singlish” then it all depends on the context it’s being used in. This means having good knowledge of local idioms and the likes, so it doesn’t come across the wrong way or also sound like the brand is trying too hard.

The other cues we do use are local icons – that would be places, types of food, and celebrities, he added.  But depending on the brand, other areas to explore include “Singaporean pride”, occasions that are unique to us and of course, humor. “Never offend anyone or have it at the expense of someone, rather, we tend to laugh at ourselves more,” he said.

Another creative agency managing director who asked to be kept anonymous, added that whenever the agency is asked to market to a Singapore audience, it isn’t uncommon fall back on social cliches as a sort of cultural shorthand to make the work feel local and relevant.

“These include the used trope of the nosy uncle in the coffeeshop, or the irresistible immediacy of using PCK to communicate a message,” she said, adding:

"We do it as marketers because it’s an easy frame and signal for ‘Singapore’."

Moving on from the tried and tested

However, Singapore’s diversity is, at the end of the day, more interesting and colorful than what we are often told in ad storytelling, and falling back on these tested tropes does the nation and citizens a disservice.

“For clutter breaking work, it serves marketers well to break out of this seductive, but ultimately hollow cultural shorthand, and reflect more honest and nuanced representations of what it means to live in Singapore,” she said.

“Ads that try to focus on character-based stereotypes walk a fine line between irrelevance and offence (remember that Nets ad?). Brands should instead focus on spaces, places, and activities to signal local relevance – all fertile ground to tell good brand and product stories that are grounded in the country,” she added.

Jeff Cheong, CEO of DDB Singapore shared that the Singaporean audience has matured rapidly over the years. “Our ability to code-switch to appreciate the various genres, themes, pushes story tellers to try different style of delivery,” he said.

He added that the value of emotional advertising deepens recall when you draw tears and laughter from your audience, but that the most powerful theme is to tap on ‘rawauthentic’ narrative that connects and mirrors life on the ground where people see themselves in it.

His three takeaways for the evolving nature of content are:

  1. We are all exposed to life/live stories being broadcasted on social platforms.
  2. It is raw, real and it resonates.
  3. As audiences mature, (thanks to the many streaming services), they are discerning enough to get to the core message if we plan it well.

All this leads back to the original of what it means to convince a Singapore audience of authenticity and why we persist that Chew is simply not it. After all, as a deeply diverse community, don't we all deserve a chance to have our stories told?

Content 360 is back on 10-11 May 2023 in Singapore. A hugely popular event over the years, Content 360 brings the most influential content creators to inspire you. Across two days, you can connect with 300+ brightest minds in the industry and learn how to overcome challenges to make your content stand out among the crowd. Tickets are on sale now, register today:

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