Audrey Tsen Max Roche
Mar 31, 2016

Don't call it 'sad-vertising': Emotional storytelling evolves in SEA

At least some advertisers are moving on from weepy dramas and too-perfect happy endings, opting instead for subtler story arcs that reflect their customer base.

L-R: Max Roche, Audrey Tsen
L-R: Max Roche, Audrey Tsen

Emotional storytelling in advertisements has been prevalent across Southeast Asia for a number of years. Thai Life Insurance’s 'Unsung hero' is the seminal example: an emotive, long form piece that highlights some of the modern urban life’s difficulties before building to a crescendo of goodwill.

‘Tearjerkers’ and ‘sad-vertising’ are two terms that have been used to describe this style. And while Thai ads have become synonymous with this style of advertising (many examples can be found here), these heart-wrenching narratives are common of other markets within the region as well. The recent minute long Pioneer Generation ad that aired in Singapore and the classic Petronas Chinese New Year and Hari Raya ads in Malaysia are just some of the examples that come to mind.

These ads place particular emphasis on the emotional impact and memorability of the narrative, and might even draw comparisons to soap dramas or short films in their ability to move and emotionally engage. And in many of these markets, where the media landscapes are increasingly saturated and fragmented, emotional storytelling presents a viable way for brands to strike a chord with viewers, in the hopes that they might be organically shared (online), and that brand messages, along with the stories, might stick.

And whilst 'Unsung hero' and similar ads certainly did capture the attention of audiences (with 27 million YouTube views to date), it has been less clear whether the high viewing numbers have had a positive impact on brand and business growth. Some would argue that the level of product and brand integration in these ads is miniscule, playing a secondary role to the narrative and the characters within it, questioning whether the entertainment value and memorability make up for the lack of focus on the brand, product and category.

There does, however, remain a strong case for such narratives in product categories where the emotional attributes and values of a brand may be a bigger driver of brand choice than product intrinsics. Taking the example of insurance—a category closely related to one’s personal goals, fears and human vulnerabilities—these emotional narratives are a way for brands to engage beyond the product; to show empathy, build credibility and instil trust between brand and consumer. AIA Hong Kong’s viral ad based on the true story of a father and daughter’s 11-day tour of Taiwan, sought to articulate its brand promise, ‘The Real Life Company’, in this manner.

In other categories, the challenge often lies in the execution—striking the right balance between emotional resonance and the desired brand impact or product messaging. Brands that have done this well include Knorr in Thailand and Vietnam and Cellcard in Cambodia.

In both brand campaigns, the presence of the product and brand hovers in the background as a potential remedy to the problem or tension. Knorr conveys a mother’s love, no matter the distance, through home-cooked dishes, and Cellcard connects family members in times of need. The brand and product are central to the story being told.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Beyond a shift towards greater brand and product focus, this wave of ads also offers a change in tonality. They reflect a subtle divergence from the usual story arc that seeks to provide a satisfying ‘happy’ resolution. Instead these narratives choose to represent the everyday realities of life, which for many in developing Southeast Asia, are bound by difficult (often financial) circumstance. In the Knorr ads, the distance between family remains, only temporarily solved. In the Cellcard story, a short-term money solution is achieved, but no mention is made of the gangsters extorting him, less the father’s own failures of pride. These ads don’t aim to show an absolute triumph over life’s difficulties, an escape or a perfect ending but a muted acceptance of making the best of life as it is.

Perhaps this style of emotional storytelling is also indicative of a greater appetite for more inclusive, human stories. The Humans of New York phenomenon has become a cultural export, sweeping through Asia with local iterations from Hanoi to Mumbai. Many brands are now taking inspiration from real people, real situations and real stories. Nivea Thailand is one example that takes the unconventional approach of trailing the life of a mother and daughter duo as they manoeuvre the entertainment business. Once again, there is no classic ‘happy’ ending here—despite clearer skin, the young Thai girl still has to balance working late into the night as a performer with her school commitments.

On a cultural level, we see this as a manifestation on the changing sentiments in Southeast Asia—a shift away from blind optimism and striving, moving towards a vision of life that is less rose-tinted and more ‘making the most of what life hands you’. 

Max Roche and Audrey Tsen are both senior research executives at Flamingo Singapore


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