Last weekend, PM Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech that the government would repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code to decriminalise gay sex in Singapore. However, the definition of a family unit and marriage would remain unchanged. The government said that it has no intention of changing advertising standards and film classification in Singapore and that it will maintain “prevailing norms and values” of Singapore society. PM Lee added that most Singaporeans do not want the repeal to trigger a “drastic shift” in Singapore’s societal norms.
“Many national policies rely upon this definition of marriage, including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards, film classification. The government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage, nor these policies,” PM Lee said in his annual National Day Rally speech yesterday (August 21).
According to the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), LGBTQ+ media content will continue to warrant higher age ratings despite the repeal of Section 377A. MCI said that this "does not mean that we are changing the tone of society".
We ask the industry in Singapore how the repealing of Section 377A will impact the depiction and representation of LGBTQ+ people in ads. We also ask them if more brands and organisations might be more vocal about issues pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community.
Johnson Ong, an applicant in the S377A constitutional challenge, and director of BZNZ Singapore
I am ecstatic that this day has finally come, though it did take a little longer than we all expected. Nonetheless, this country is a better country today than it was yesterday. Now we begin the hard work, to heal the hurt and pain this law has done to countless numbers of LGBTQ+ Singaporeans and their families. I hope that on a national level our government will dismantle the systemic discrimination LGBTQ+ Singaporeans will continue to face even after the repeal.
Many in the conservative segments believe our next priority is to battle for marriage equality, and now want to enshrine in Singapore’s Constitution the definition of marriage to be only between a man and a woman. Even after acknowledging that 377A has through the decades caused considerable hardship, emotional damage and harmed the lives and families of those affected by the law, they continue to beat us down, instead of lifting us up and helping us heal. Their lack of empathy and love for their fellow citizens is cruel and disappointing. However, personally and for many LGBTQ+ Singaporeans, we will continue to forge ahead and rise above the hateful rhetoric that we continue to be inundated with every day.
I am hopeful that it will remove the perceived fear and stigma surrounding advertising to the LGBTQ+ market in Singapore. I personally would like to see more representation and positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ Singaporeans in ad campaigns carried out by brands.
Ian Lee, associate director, Cognito
On paper, 377A was a law that made homosexual sexual intercourse illegal in Singapore. In spirit, it represented codifying discrimination and othering of queer people within legislation, and many government policies, including implicit and explicit guidelines on LGBTQ+ representation, took their cue from the law.
With this repeal, it does potentially open the door to greater LGBTQ+ community representation in ads. However, it’s still important to note that pushback against the LGBTQ+ community does not hinge on 377A alone. Take, for example, the affirmation by the government that the repeal will not have any effect on what their stance on queer content being shown on free-to-air television.
Taking a quick look at recent history, we were already seeing brands and organisations being vocal about LGBTQ+ issues locally—and a lot of this was driven by large international MNCs that understood the importance of being corporate allies. A lot of this support was channelled into Pink Dot in their earlier years, but we saw a drop-off when the government banned international companies from supporting Pink Dot financially.
What happened then was that a lot of local brands then took up the mantle of support. Coming into more recent times, and even before the repeal happened, we continued to see a gradual increase in brands (both local brands and international brands with local presence) openly voicing their support.
With the repeal of 377A, it does remove one barrier to brands being more vocal about their support for the community, particularly from brands that were on the fence. That being said, I do hope brands that do make the brave decision to be more LGBTQ+ inclusive do so in a way that is truly authentic and not merely paying lip service to a community that continues to fight for true equality.
Andrew Wong, managing director, Blue Totem Communications
I am glad that S377A will be repealed and hope that it will bring comfort to the many LGBTQ+ people who have been hurt by the statute and what it represents. However, I am also concerned that the proposed constitutional ban will harm the Singapore brand as we seek to attract high-calibre talent, many of whom come from places where same-sex marriage is the norm.
Rupen Desai, VP for WFA, Asia-Pacific, and chief marketing officer for Dole
We must celebrate this amazing step towards a more equitable world. As well as brands that stand for a world we want to live in, not just the one we live in, today. I believe brands that depict and represent everyone in the society will increase step-by-step as will businesses playing an important role in creating an equitable world, fuelled by this historic step.
Turaiya Noor, customer marketing manager, GudSht
National Day Rally 2022 certainly sent Gud vibes to the LGBTQ+ community. GudSht supports the government's decision to make the stand to repeal Section 377A. We believe that it is the first small step towards a more inclusive society, where there is the freedom to love and that love is love.
Chris J Reed, CEO and co-founder, Black Marketing
The fact that homosexuality will be decriminalised does not mean that suddenly you will see lots of gay orientated adverts in Singapore or more local firms supporting LGBTQ. There are still massive barriers for gay couples here from housing to medical as same sex marriage is still outlawed and worse now it will be part of the constitution which takes 2/3 parliament to overturn and that is decades away.
The PM was very careful to say that same-sex imagery and content will still not be allowed to be included in schools, films, TV and yes that means advertising too. It is still the law to depict marriage as between a man and woman not same-sex couples. Advertising will have to follow this law and can't communicate marriage in any other way. However, brands can present gay unmarried couples and gay people with more confidence to target the younger and more open-minded parts of our society beyond the homophobic religious right who tried to stop the repeal of the law but who still have massive sway here in Singapore.
You will also not see any local firms changing their logos to rainbow, as the international firms do here, as they have to still appeal to the section of society who would not understand or agree to being associated with a brand that is LGBTQ-friendly. There are a few exceptions here like Cathay but even brands like DBS and Grab who could get away with it don't do it for fear of backlashes amongst the religious evangelists. Pride festivals are a long way off in Singapore but repealing Section 377A and starting the debate on same sex marriage is a welcome step forward. There is still a long way to go before the advertising community can start incorporating any of this imagery in marketing without fear of retaliation from the more closed-minded parts of our society stuck in the past.
Shufen Goh, co-founder and principal, R3
This repeal should hopefully make storytellers and brands more confident and forward in their acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community as part of our society. They’re not people who should be hidden from our depiction of festive celebrations and important moments in brand stories. The worst thing that brands could do is to play to the stereotypes of 'gay lifestyles' and pink-washing. Homegrown brands who are supportive have been held back by this law and its now opportune to reassess how you stand behind your family, especially the minorities who have been marginalised.
Dharesheni Nedumaran, head of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Mediabrands
Even before this announcement we’ve seen inclusive advertising content work around current standards. NTUC Income featured a same-sex couple moving into a new home, and heritage brand, Poh Heng showcased a same-sex couple in their out-of-home photo campaign right smack in Orchard Road.
Media and advertising tend to reflect major social conversations. We know inclusive marketing drives trust and brand loyalty. As parliamentary discussion continues, there’s opportunities for brands to amplify their values and connect with pro-LGBTQ+ consumers. What a golden opportunity. Particularly when research shows there’s a pro-LGBTQ+ consumer base waiting for brands to connect with them.
Most exciting is the role that our industry will play in shifting attitudes and breaking stereotypes and GLAAD & P&G confirmed our suspicion that advertising and media representation leads to acceptance.
Prajakta Paranjpe, head of media planning, APAC, Essence
This is a great development for the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore. I do expect brands to support this change and consciously include the LGBTQ+ community in advertising. From a media perspective, brands will need to distribute this communication using the right audience, channel and messaging mix, with a greater reliance on digital channels.
As called out in PM Lee’s address, brands will need to be cognisant of what they show on television and in cinemas, as well as share with children. Brands will need to ensure that they portray this change in a way that is largely acceptable to the public. It is a long road ahead, where this is the first step in a new direction, but I am sure most brands will partner with Singaporeans to build an inclusive environment in the most acceptable manner for all stakeholders.
Laura Quigley, SVP APAC, Integral Ad Science
This is fantastic news indeed. As we move closer to a more inclusive world, advertising should be no different and reflect where the world is headed. I see change being brought across the spectrum of media planning, buying and creatives to tell more inclusive stories via inclusive imagery and language across all channel types by global and local brands.
According to research from Microsoft, inclusive marketing attracts a larger audience and builds trust. More than 60% of people said they are more trusting of brands that represent diversity in ads. Understanding that the human experience is diverse and has a broad spectrum of experiences is key. Inclusive marketing isn’t just about targeting niche segments or policy compliance. It’s about building genuine relationships with people that celebrate diverse values and respect them across various human experiences.
Last year P&G and GLAAD announced “The Visibility Project” to advance LGBTQ+ visibility in advertising, drive and sustain inclusion in ads and marketing and leverage the power of these mediums to accelerate their acceptance. This is a step in the right direction, and more brands will follow.
Workplaces should be venues for personal development or ‘safe spaces’ where staff can bring their authentic selves and express themselves. In my experience, businesses have become more vocal. They have been working to improve their brands and internal practices on LGBTQ+ issues, investing in culture and benefits and welcoming LGBTQ+ workers and customers with inclusion and openness.