Sugarbook CEO says controversial OOH ads were thought to be approved

A billboard ad by online dating platform Sugarbook recently caused a stir among Malaysians and led to city council DBKL labelling it as "sensitive and pornographic", demanding its removal. DBKL administers the city of KL and overlooks the vicinity's landscape including Bangsar and Bukit Kiara, where the ads were placed.

According to multiple media reports including New Straits Times and Malay Mail, the top half of the ad showed a young girl smiling next to an elderly man and the bottom half was in red with the words "Hey sugar, upgrade your love life!".

DBKL said in a recent Facebook post that it came across complaints on social media regarding Sugarbook's ad and after investigation, found that the billboard belonged to Yayasan Wilayah Persekutuan (YWP). The ads were not approved by DBKL or YWP, the statement said. According to DBKL, YWP had appointed a company named Out of Home to operate its digital billboards, and it has issued instructions to both parties to "immediately withdraw" the ads in both locations. "The LED operator has been notified of ad content that is sensitive to Malaysian society norms and must immediately remove the ad from the LED display," DBKL said.

Meanwhile, Sugarbook founder and CEO Darren Chan told A+M that he advice given to the company by its ad publishing company was that the ads were approved so the company went with it. "We were led to believe that this approval that I have attached, is the only approval needed to proceed. As such, it is clear that we were wrongly advised," he added.

The copies of the ads shown to A+M by Chan contained stamps with the words "Disahkan Bahasa Melayu dalam iklan ini betul" (The language used in this ad is correct). It also said "Perancang Bahasa" (language architect), "Bahagian Penguatkuasaan" (enforcement division), "Jabatan Pengembangan Bahasa dan Sastera" (Department of Language and Literature Development) and "Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka" (Language and Library Council).

Chan added that it hopes consumers would understand that Sugarbook was built to empower women by giving them a dating platform to choose freely what they want in an ideal relationship, without being scrutinised. Women empowerment is about elevating women by increasing the capacity for them to be able to choose freely, Chan said. "The keyword here is 'choice' and Sugarbook is about providing our people that precise choice," he added.

He explained that sugar babies "are not illegal sex workers", adding that they do not trade their bodies for monetary value. Instead, they are real people from all walks of life, e.g. struggling single mothers, housewives, widows, and divorcees. "While we believe the public’s intentions are good, it would be unjust to have us banned. Ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the freedoms and liberty of the Malaysian people," he told A+M.

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