Nothing ever really disappears on the Internet. Panasonic Malaysia recently witnessed a resurgence of its "Trim your Rambut-an" ad which was launched in March this year. The ad aimed to promote electric shavers for men using a hairy rambutan and lychee fruit, accompanied with a topless man flaunting his abs. The ad starts off with a hairy rambutan telling the lychee that it is "as smooth as lychee". The ad then ended with the shaver wedged between the two fruits and with the phrase, "bros for life". To date, the ad has garnered more than 400,000 views on YouTube and majority of the comments for the ad on social media seemed to lean towards positive sentiments.
The ad supposedly regained attention after a netizen (Indra) tweeted screenshots of it, saying: "So Libresse’s vagina flower is not okay but this is fine?" The user was referring to vulva-inspired ad campaign which was called out by non-profit religious organisation YADIM Muslim Women's Council for misusing an image of a woman's private part on an ad design for its sanitary products, calling it a "dishonour to women". The Twitter post had more than 8,000 retweets and garnered more than 14,000 likes at the time of writing. A+M has reached out to Panasonic Malaysia for comment.
The controversy behind Libresse's vulva-inspired campaign started when Wardah Media called out the brand for "promoting porn". "Can you imagine what a man's imagination would be when he sees the motif on the flowers? Other than that, it's also an insult to Malaysian women because they use the flower motif on the national outfit - the kebaya," Wardah Media said. The campaign reimagined the Nyonya kebaya chrysanthemum and peony designs with the vulva as the heart of the floral embroidery. The brand eventually withdrew the ad campaign from various channels and explained that the intention was never to offend any woman or the community. Following the backlash, some netizens expressed their support for Libresse for its creative take on the campaign, while others agreed with the move to pull it down.
While one might say that Libresse was certainly under pressure to take down the campaign, Indra's twitter post questioned why Panasonic's ad was able to "get away with it" despite references to male anatomical parts. This then received a mix bag of reactions from netizens with some calling the move a "double standard" while others took a lighthearted tone, saying the Panasonic ad was simply"shaming a rambutan".
Understandably, when it comes to ads which might be sensitive in nature or "taboo" in some cultures to publicly speak about, there will be differences in opinion where some might laud it for speaking on a sensitive matter, while others might be displeased with the content. In the case of Panasonic, one obvious difference was also the use of humour. So does that then indicate humour can make something controversial more acceptable in society?
According to Naga DDB Tribal chief creative officer, Alvin Teoh, the issue is not an easy one to answer and added that there are in fact a few ways of looking at it. Firstly, it is about the reach of the advertisement or campaign.
"When it comes to anything borderline controversial, it depends on how great the reach is. The greater the reach, the greater the chance the ad might offend someone. This then has a domino effect, as the individual who is offended will then add fuel to the fire through the power of social media, and suddenly everyone who was offended jumps into the bandwagon. Eventually, some minister will make it an issue for brownie points and suddenly, it’s like a global extinction event is happening. In the case of Libresse, it feels like this is what happened," Teoh explained.
While Libresse's ad may come across as inappropriate to some, Teoh told A+M that he applauds the brand's decision to talk about feminine issues given many important feminine issues have still been branded negative or tabooed, and have been suppressed from conversations, said Teoh. He believes that if consumers truly understood the brand narrative of Libresse, and what it was trying to stand for, they would find it liberating.
In the case of Panasonic, Teoh attributes it to the possible lesser reach it had with the audience. By using objects such as fruits to represent a part of the human body, the brand managed to avoid too much controversy.
It is a male-centric thing. From observation, female-centric 'controversies' get more flak.
On the branding front, when asked how the industry can discuss controversial topics kept in the private more productively, Teoh explained that being controversial for no purpose is irresponsible. Hence, if brands would like to touch on any topic that can be potentially controversial, they must question their sincerity of the cause and if they are prepared to handle the aftermath.
"I think, for the most part, we are fearful of the backlash, justified or not. So we all play it safe and walk on eggshells," he explained. This then leaves little to make no space for dialogue or enlightenment, he added.
Agreeing with Teoh, Publicis Groupe Malaysia's executive creative director, Emir Shafri said when addressing controversial topics, it really all boils down to the brand's intentions. According to him, Libresse was sincere and consistent in its efforts to normalise conversations surrounding menstruation as well as vaginas and vulvas, from all its past campaigns and public outreach programmes.
While pulling down the ad might have been a tough call to make, Emir said that this, by no means, should see the brand abandon the noble effort. Neither should they simply dismiss nor vilify those with more conservative views, he added. "I’d say listen more, understand the roots of these differing viewpoints, and engage these views with empathy through ads or through more public outreach programmes. Like any social discourse, there will be plenty of heated conversations and arguments, but as long as we stay true to the intent, then at the very least, we’re moving the conversation along," Emir explained.
He added that for Libresse, a significant number of consumers were also backing the brand for encouraging women to have positive conversations about their bodies. Emir explained that as a communicator, as much as we ourselves might vehemently disagree with some of these opinions, especially conversations on the body or sexuality, it would be wrong to make assumptions about what the majority thinks or to simply ignore or dismiss these differing opinions. "We would be living in a bubble if we did so and that is no place a communicator would want to be in," he said, adding:
While some might view Libresse's example as an exploitation of women's bodies, others might view the backlash as a reflection of Malaysia's body politics and how much (or little) agency women have over their body images compared to men.
At the same time, Reprise Digital's managing director Stanley Clement added that more than comparing the ads, the public needs to ask themselves why the conversations around gender or genitalia are so different across sexes. "Part of that conversation is about the different standards in portraying and glorifying male genitalia, while tactful and educational visualisations of female genitalia are deemed too sexual and controversial," he added.
While creatives have the power to challenge stereotypes, Clement told A+M these individuals should also acknowledge the cultural context and traditions that abound the topic. If done right, it is possible to hold a space in society for different views and conversations to thrive as the nation moves beyond prejudice, he explained.
Female creatives weigh in
Naga DDB Tribal's creative director, Rachel Hoo, told A+M she personally found both ad campaigns to be acceptable. However, personal preferences and views aside, Hoo said if she could just pick out one element - in terms of tone, the lychee rambutan ad was quirky, cheeky and light, and its goal was to make the audience laugh. And it did.
"Libresse’s ad was bold, artistic and beautiful. It was meant to be taken quite seriously. And that’s what people did," Hoo explained. She added that like Nike with former American football player Colin Kaepernick, Libresse took a stand. When a stand is taken, the brand is aligning itself to only those who view things in a similar manner.
It is a powerful thing, and sometimes backlash is a good indication of knowing that your stand was a strong one.
When it comes to toeing the line, some brands have to do so and some might need the buzz from tapping into more controversial topics, Hoo said. Despite all the chatter around Libresse's campaign, she explained that it is still considered a win for the brand. "When was the last time someone woke up and decided to Google search a pad brand’s packaging? Probably about once in never, unless you’re a designer for a pad brand looking for references," she said.
At the end of the day, the compass on how far a brand should go when it comes to topics such as these should tie back to the objective of the brand at that point in time. Other than sales - is it engagement, loyalists, aligning to a particular target audience, or defending the current pie that your brand needs? According to Hoo, these aspects should help guide the way.
On the other hand, the Panasonic and Libresse ads reflect the double standards society can demonstrate when it comes to depictions of male and female genitalia, Didi Pirinyuang, ECD of Ensemble Worldwide and UM Studios, said. Whether it is deemed acceptable, phallic images have been served to the public since day one. Take the most common form of communal bathroom graffiti depicting a male penis, as an example of this crude yet widely shared humour, which over time has desensitised and been "made it okay" or commonplace to laugh at depictions of male genitalia, Pirinyuang explained.
"This is the space where Panasonic was able to play with its recent campaign, widely accepted as 'harmless fun'. Unfortunately, this wink humour and bravado has not served to break down, but instead trivialise some of the sensitivities and taboos that men still experience when it comes to addressing more serious men’s health issues," she said.
Conversely, the female genitalia has commonly been depicted as something "hidden and sacred". According to Pirinyuang, in many cases, the female genitalia might come across as something that needs to be shrouded in shame, with no mention or depiction of its natural functions. She added that people are often uncomfortable with ideas and images that disagree with their own value of belief system. In her opinion, calling an illustration of the vulva a dishonour to women is a view that does not acknowledge the context or aim of the marketing campaign.
That said, when brands wish to toe the line between thinking out of the box while not being overly controversial, Pirinyuang said that context matters. Like Naga DDB Tribal's Hoo, she said it is important to be true to the brand's objectives, intentions and values.
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