Matthew Miller
May 23, 2019

Case-study videos and the veneer of amazing achievement

DDB Singapore's effort on behalf of an autism organisation is about as good as it gets when it comes to "award bait". So why does it still feel icky?

This is going to be the fourth post we've published about award bait in the last couple weeks. You should feel grateful, because unlike in the past few years, we've directed our pal Ad Nut not to catalog every single example that comes our way. With this post, I decided I needed to step in, because while Ad Nut is great at being vaguely sarcastic, this case needed more investigation than we can reasonably expect from a squirrel—no matter how witty and elequent said squirrel may be. Quick reminder: We're not using "award bait' as a pejorative; some material that's meant to win awards is perfectly fine, but some...not so much.

So, this is a piece of work from DDB Singapore for the Genesis School For Special Education. As you can see from the above video, the agency worked with the school on an app intended to help autistic children interact more with their family members. 

While the press release provided some details, it left a lot unclear, so I asked series of questions and got answers from a DDB spokesperson. You can see the entire exchange below.

If you read the release and the Q&A, which I encourage you to do, you'll see that the effort seems fairly serious and robust. But you're also likely to conclude, like I did, that it's not a project that can lay claim to any great success—at least not yet. The results so far are limited at best.

Which is totally normal and fine. With any kind of clinical intervention, it's difficult and time-consuming to do the kind of careful, controlled testing that's required in order to really be sure your efforts are having a positive impact. This is why medicines and medical devices take forever to come to market, and it's why peer review and reproduction of results by independent researchers are bedrock elements of the scientific method. 

Anyway, it's great that, unlike some award-bait we've seen in the past, this looks to be a genuine, heartfelt effort. All evidence points to an agency that's helping to investigate something alongside a client that has expertise and connections but probably not a lot in the way of resources. They're putting serious effort into it together, and planning to sustain that effort over time. They've also been careful, in the release and the Q&A, not to inflate their claims. You'll note that they're not actually saying the app improves children's lives, merely that they "showed significant engagement" (in other words, they played with it) and that their parents gave positive feedback about the experience.  

So all in all, this is about as good as it gets in terms of "award bait".

Now here comes the inevitable "but".

But, the agency still needed a case-study video to burnish its reputation and to enter awards shows. And because case-study videos are made to capture the attention of jurors who have to review thousands of case-study videos, a video that says, "We're working on something promising and the initial results are encouraging, but we can't really say much yet" is not going to cut it.

Therefore, the video makes a series of carefully crafted statements that make it seem—if you don't listen too carefully or think too hard—that this app is changing the world. We're told that this is "a tale about how technology and creativity can truly change lives", and the video asks "How do we turn their love for digital devices into an opportunity for learning?"

So there's a gap between the reality of what's actually being done (worthy work!)  and the thin veneer of amazing achievement that the agency apparently feels compelled to create. It's just tiresome, for everyone involved. No one likes a braggart. And this whole practice makes agencies look desperate to gin up attention. Worse, that desperation tends to devalue the actual work agencies do, which is almost always valuable, sometimes impressive, from time to time inspiring and on rare ocassions world-altering.

I don't blame DDB, or any agency, for trying to win awards, or for striving to help with important social issues while they try to do so—as long as they're genuinely working to help people and not, say, claiming diapers can cure depression or delivering fried chicken in wee boats or claiming a non-existent ability to watch over migrants at sea. I also fully acknowledge that award entries are a revenue stream for Campaign Asia-Pacific.

But it would be nice if everyone—agencies and jurors and journalists—would focus more on reality and less on artifice. If we'd acknowledge that problems like autism and climate change and prejudice and whatever else are hard to solve. If we'd apply more scepticism and dig deeper into the details to judge whether such efforts are worthy of awards or even attention. If the breathless, "we're saving the world" claims, and especially the formulaic case-study videos, would be retired.

Q&A with DDB

The video claims that among those who used the app, "Most of them showed significant engagement." Is there more detail available about exactly what that actually means?

“Significant engagement” refers to the willingness of the autistic children to interact with the app in the way that they are supposed to—according to the user experience planned for them.

Was the app studied in a scientific setting, i.e. with a control group?

The trials were conducted with the same group of children and educators, with the same educators monitoring the children designated to them.

Does the expert cited in the release (Alison Cheng, psychologist in the Child Development Unit at National University Hospital) vouch for the app's capability to make a difference for children with autism, and if so, exactly how?

The app is designed based on the later stages of the Naturalistic Intervention—practices that encourage behaviour based on the learners’ interests by building more complex skills that are naturally reinforcing and appropriate to the interaction. If used correctly, the app should help the children with better interaction and word recognition. The app has great potential to engage a mid- to high-functioning autistic child which it is developed for, but as with all kinds of therapy, there can be no guarantee of significant results.

What kind of improvement was observed? Was it quantified? Was it a lasting improvement?

We performed empirical trials on 10 children, observing their improvement in interaction and word recognition. However, we did not test for improvement beyond the trial period.

Will the app be studied more going forward?

There are plans to launch Phases 2 of the app with our client, Genesis School For Special Education. It will include more features which will require further research and trials.

What does science say about the kind of interaction the app can presumably help enable? Is that proven to be beneficial to kids with autism?

[Here DDB repeated the same description of Naturalistic Intervention shown above.]

For example, Prompt Strategy that helps a child perform a target skill or behaviour has been incorporated in audio and visual cues that prompt the child to ask for help when help is needed. Parents are encouraged to read the guide included in the app before they start using the app so as to make the best use of it.


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CREDITS

Client: Genesis School For Special Education (Singapore)
Advertising Agency: DDB, Singapore
Group Chief Creative Officer: Chris Chiu
Creative Director: Iu La Lueta
Creative Group Heads: Qihao Shum, Firrdaus Yusoff
Art Director:  Sithum Walter
Copywriter: Samantha Liew
Account Management: Melvin Kuek, Yih Cheng Yak
Project Management: Kylie Wong
Tech Support: Herry Budiyanto, Chun Guan Neo, Mike Tran
Production Support: Bettina Feng, Deborah Chia


Matthew Miller is Campaign Asia-Pacific's managing editor.

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