Byravee Iyer
Aug 20, 2013

Critics pan Subway’s satirical campaign

SINGAPORE - Subway Singapore’s attempt to promote its SG$5 combos using a stereotypical character with an exaggerated local accent has backfired, according to industry veterans.

“I wouldn't even call this advertising," said Hari Ramanathan, regional strategy director, Y&R Asia. "I hope it's a satire on the industry, or perhaps some sort of experiment where they got some plumbers to do ads.” 

Subway launched two ads, the first in April (below) and a second spot last week (above). The latest features an archetypal "ah lian" character who calls herself ‘Rose Wah Chin Swee’. Both campaigns focus on ‘eating fresh at the right price’ and have garnered about 70,000 views each. It is believed that a unit within Saatchi & Saatchi worked on the spots. 

Needless to say, comments on YouTube and social networking sites are scathing. “It's not the use of 'Singlish' that's the problem, it's just the way this girl does it," said one commenter. "Totally cringe-worthy.” Others have expressed their distaste for the accent itself, “Really? Is this how we speak in Singapore?” said another.

“Ideally I think a brand should use this kind of humour when it's feeling suicidal, when it wants to skip a gradual decline and just wants a quick death," Ramanathan said. "There are some occasions when you can say, ‘It’s so bad it's good’. Well this isn't one of them. It’s just bad."

Valerie Cheng, chief creative officer, JWT Singapore was just as critical. “By definition, satire means the use of humour—so according to the literal definition, yes they were trying to do that. But as we can see from this campaign, humour is not an easy thing to accomplish successfully.”

According to Cheng, delivery is key to satire. “It needs to be authentic and inherent in the talent and should come across naturally," she said. "That’s why casting is so important, regardless of TVC or movie-making.”

Joseph Baladi, head of consulting, Leo Burnett Institute of Behaviour, is also not a fan of the Subway spots. Whether such an approach works for a brand depends on several issues, but most centrally on the brand’s blueprint, he said. The blueprint, in turn, focuses on three drivers: brand purpose, brand values and the brand’s personality.

“These are fixed and not dynamic characteristics that change from campaign idea to campaign idea or geography," he said. "They influence what the brand has permission to say and how to say it. What the brand promises will vary from time to time and be driven by need and opportunities—these are value propositions.”

Cheng doesn’t believe one needs to be a local brand to achieve success with a satirical tone. “It can be an international brand trying to relate to a local audience, but it has to be done with taste and respect, not ridicule,” she said.

As successful examples of satirical ads, Cheng cited the example of a 2012 campaign from ESPN featuring Michael Jordan—not the basketball player, just a guy with the same name. She also commended a 2009 campaign promoting the Singapore Merlion.



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