Faaez Samadi
Sep 19, 2016

What taboos do APAC marketers still need to avoid?

From politicians to Ashley Madison, race or gay rights, which subjects in Asia-Pacific should the industry not touch? Are there any left?

What taboos do APAC marketers still need to avoid?

More often than not, it’s a wrench to say ‘no’. Some level of guilt is associated with this ubiquitous word when used in response to a request. The recipient is turned down, rejected, spurned, and perhaps you feel bad. 

In the media, marketing and communications industry, things are asked of you all the time, and it can be even more awkward when saying no is kissing goodbye to a healthy profit. 

Yet there are times when saying no comes guilt-free, when the request is so beyond the pale that you’re left with no option but to reject it. In the industry, these occasions often happen when a client crosses a line, a taboo of some sort, either within the brand itself or the campaign it is envisioning. 

Most are aware of the day-to-day good governance rules of many agencies, which include the more straightforward refusals, such as not working for tobacco or pornography brands. But there is a much wider web to consider when working in Asia-Pacific, and dealing with the cultural nuances and taboos that come with its many different nations. 

“In general, Asians are more sensitive when approaching any subject,” explains Anna Chew, general manager of Havas Siren in Singapore. “Anything that could carry a reputational risk should be avoided, since creative genius can be subjective, and missteps costly.”

Don’t go there

Trying to ensure you stay on the right side of the line across such a diverse region, particularly when you’re a multinational looking to roll out a global activation, can be extremely tricky. 

But battling against that is the inherent conflict for agencies that want to be associated with the most thought-provoking and game-changing work. That is often found in the fine line between what is an acceptable topic and what is not. 

I’m sure [Ashley Madison had] money to be spent, but you’ve got to balance the money against your own reputation and, perhaps more importantly, how your staff feels about it.
James Wright, Red Agency

As Adam Nelson, director at Flamingo Singapore, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific: “There’s an awful lot of desire to discuss these things even in societies that traditionally have been conservative or value the ‘we’ over the ‘I’. But these things that butt up against each other are interesting; it’s where the tension, grit and friction that makes great creative comes from.”

That said, there are some simple rules of thumb across most APAC countries that can help keep brands and agencies out of trouble. One of the most obvious is politics. 

While the likes of UK prime minister Theresa May and US president Barack Obama are steeped in a long history of public figure ridicule in their countries, few Asian states are open to such humiliation of their leaders.

Indeed, severe punishments can be invoked for those who cross the line — such as the sedition laws in Thailand punishable by imprisonment, or the well-documented issues in China around those who poke fun at president Xi Jinping. As such, bringing politics into a campaign becomes perilous for brands. 

“You can spin it many ways, but try to apply politics to a campaign and it comes with a warning sign that reads like a facial peel — apply a very thin layer,” Chew says.

“Selfies by prime ministers are already pushing the boundaries, while talking about political parties is almost always going to create unnecessary uneasiness.”

Despite this, a handful of brands have flirted with the political arena. One successful example is Nando’s, a company often held up as a shining example of marrying humour with a hint of edginess without ticking anyone off. 

The company’s ‘Janji de Peri-Peri’ campaign in Malaysia for its signature range of sauces played off the Barisan Nasional party’s election slogan ‘Janji ditepati’ (promise fulfilled). It isn’t exactly scandalous, but such is the difficulty of mixing politics and marketing in APAC.

Sex is another theme that can cause more trouble than it’s worth. However, agencies taking an educative, rather than pornographic, approach are experiencing more success, such as BBDO India’s ‘Touch the pickle’ campaign for Whisper sanitary towels, which tackled the taboo subject of menstruation.

‘Da da ding’: Nike’s female empowerment advert left it open to the charge of consumerist cultural imperialism.

“The focus was to drive awareness of the irrelevance of these taboos and encourage consumers to help change the social behaviour that restricts them,” says Josy Paul, BBDO India chairman and chief creative officer. “The campaign eventually got the media, social platforms, student organisations, stand-up comedians and even TEDx speakers talking about the subject openly.”

On the seedier side of things, difficulties remain. James Wright, managing director of Red Agency, explains how his PR firm turned down extramarital affairs dating website Ashley Madison for moral reasons. 

“We talked about the creative opportunity in terms of the work, and then the moral issue, and we strongly landed on turning it down,” he says. “I’m sure there was money to be spent, but you’ve just got to balance the money against your own reputation and, perhaps more importantly, how your staff feels about it.” 

Another big taboo is religion — simultaneously a source of great strength and bitter division across Asia-Pacific. Brands are generally advised to keep religious elements out of their campaigns — unless dealing with a religion-specific product, such as halal food — to avoid unintentionally offending millions of people if even vaguely perceived to promote one faith or, worse, denigrate another.

Alex Ooi, director at Roots Asia-Pacific, says religion gets to the heart of what can be very difficult for brands to assimilate in Asia: the struggle between traditional and liberal mindsets. 

“As a developing region, there is always that struggle between what is taboo and what is progressive,” he says. 

The views and ideals of a particular religious group can also get to the heart of greater societal questions that an agency may not wish to be part of. 

One Australian agency head, who asked not to be identified, tells of a Catholic group in the country “with very strong views” opposing homosexuality, that was looking for a PR firm to promote its agenda in the run-up to a potential vote on gay marriage. 

“We turned it down point blank,” the head says. “We have people from those communities in our agency and they are very loved and liked, so we wouldn’t represent the group. Any brand that would actively alienate your own staff is a brand you should stay clear of.”

Treading carefully

Despite the obvious pitfalls, agencies are increasingly broaching taboo subjects in APAC, albeit some with more care than others. 

For Nelson at Flamingo, anything that remains a red flag for agencies should be patently obvious “if your teams and your planners have been in APAC for more than five minutes”.

“Great creative would not be, for example, a billboard in Indonesia with a lady in a bikini posing sexily, wearing a hijab,” he says. “The good stuff explores the boundaries and tensions. Once you’re in the space of full taboo, there isn’t a tension.”

Nelson says the industry dialogue around no-go areas in APAC has moved on from simply whether you can broach a subject. “The thing that’s most important isn’t what you’re addressing, but what permissions your brand has to play and leverage within that space and culture.”

Nowadays, a brand has to earn the right to push the boundaries on certain topics by fully understanding and being accepted as part of the cultural norms it is questioning. 

Brooke Bond tea’s ‘6 Pack Band’ campaign exemplifies this notion. While a Unilever-owned global tea brand, it is something of a cultural artefact in India, having operated in the country for more than a century. The brand’s award-winning campaign addressed the inequality faced by India’s transgender ‘hijra’ community, by creating a hijra pop band. The campaign’s unbridled success — the 6 Pack Band are now bona-fide celebrities in India — comes from a blend of addressing the delicate issue of hijra rights in a relatable, sensitive way, and Brooke Bond’s own authority in the Indian market as a trusted and almost local brand. 

To a tea: As a trusted brand in India, Brooke Bond was able to break ground for transgenders with ‘6 Pack Band’

Contrast this with Nike’s all-action ‘Da da ding’ female empowerment advert. While winning many plaudits in India, it also saw stinging criticism in the form of a response video titled ‘The other women’. The viral mashup contrasted footage from the Nike ad with scenes of less privileged Indian “women who have been doing it anyway, for centuries … without shoes that cost more than what they earn in a month”, showing Nike was vulnerable to the charge it cared more about selling its expensive trainers to aspirational, wealthy Indians, than highlighting issues faced by real Indian women.

Evidently, brands with a quiet understanding of a culture and a dialogue have earned the permission to challenge that culture, while others run the risk of appearing to be selling an external culture. 

“As an agency, the reason you want to have a conversation about taboos is because you don’t want your client pushing you to lowest-common-denominator work. There’s nothing exciting about that,” says Nelson. “The reality is that it isn’t the taboos you should worry about. What you need to do is understand your brand and culture to find out where you can push beyond the anodyne.”

As attitudes and societies change across APAC, we can expect more campaigns seeking to push the envelope and take consumers into difficult, taboo territory. 

For now though, there remain some topics that are not worth pursuing, and no matter how progressive a brand or agency is, there is one golden rule that should never be broken, says Chew at Siren. “Don’t use the word Nazi. Ever.” 

Touchy APAC: Pitfalls and perils aplenty

Anna Chew, general manager, Havas Siren 

In multicultural Asian countries, we do not openly make jokes about other races without feeling a tad guilty, or apologetic, nor is it common for us to openly speak ill about our politicians (there are clear exceptions all over social media, of course).

There are so many other underlying sensitivities, such as respect for elders and older folks, the issue of gay rights and many other cultural norms that need to be adhered to.

So do all these restrictions leave us limited to just butterflies, cats and children?

What about cats?

It is actually not about cats, but dogs, that an advertiser really needs to be aware of. Cute as they may be, a regional campaign which uses dogs may well have Thais and Taiwanese having the feels, but it will most likely be banned in Malaysia and Indonesia.  

Which brings us to religion

Preferably don’t go there. Unless it is a product directly tied in to religion, such as halal products. An angle is 360 degrees. Use the rest of the 359.


On a scale of 1 (Kim Jong-un, humourless) to 10 (Obama, cool), Asian politics and politicians probably have a blended rating at the lower end of the scale. If you are offended by Brexit jokes and shocked by Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, then you should probably choose other subjects.


Tread carefully, like a unicorn. There are officially no gay people around many parts of Asia, and gay sex is still punishable by law in some Asian countries. If a brand wants to identify them or be identified with them, prepare for consequences and crisis comms. 

Mind your language

Since English isn’t the first language in most Asian countries, there have been many instances of badly translated words riddled with grammatical errors. These campaigns have gone viral on social media—but for all the wrong reasons.

Using humour 

Don’t use it, unless you’re particularly witty! 


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