Samsung and BBDO Bangkok have developed an Android keyboard app that supposedly helps people respond in supportive ways to a friend or loved one who is feeling depressed, by suggesting alternative phrases as the user types—think of it as emotional autocorrect. The companies say the app works in Thai and English, and as an example, the film above shows it suggesting "We will make it together" as an alternative to "It will pass".
The underlying point is a valuable one. In the examples, the app replaces phrases that could be seen as judgemental or flippant with responses that are far better at communicating sincere concern and, perhaps more importantly, are free of any hint of blaming the person who is suffering.
Many people don't know what to say when someone's feeling depressed. So they tend to fall back on quick responses that suggest the problem is easy to fix. Too few people realise that if you want to help, the most important thing to do is acknowledge the person's pain, not minimise or dismiss it with a casual reponse along the lines of, "You'll get over it". Often, validating someone's feelings and listening, without judging or offering advice, can be enormously helpful.
Unfortunately, at one point in the the film, the companies go so far as to claim the app "actively prevents tragedy from depression".
While not quite as outrageous as the brand of diapers that claimed to prevent postpartum depression a couple of years ago, this claim is a clear over-reach. Ironically, by making this claim, the companies make the same error that they are pointing out in the film: they suggest a too-easy fix, thus minimising what can be a debilitating and even deadly disease.
No one should downplay depression. It kills. In some cases it requires professional treatment. And unless you happen to be a mental-healthcare provider, you probably can't tell the difference between a minor case of 'the blues' and a clinical condition that threatens someone's very existence. So people should always take it seriously and encourage or even compel a person who's suffering to seek real help. The stigma of depression means that people are often reluctant to seek help anyway, so supporting that course of action can be the difference between life and death.
Warm, positive, sincere texts are a good start, and I would truly applaud an effort to educate people about how to be more supportive—not only in texts but IRL. But while this app could conceivably help people, even the most supportive conversation may not be enough to "prevent tragedy". And Samsung and BBDO shouldn't suggest that it is. In fact, an initiative like this should include a callout explicitly encouraging people to seek professional help.
In addition, the app doesn't seem to work terribly well. We tried the keyboard on a couple of Android phones. On the first, it completely failed to work. Despite being installed and activated within a supposedly supported version of Android, the keyboard simply did not appear on the screen in any of several messaging apps.
On another phone, the keyboard functioned. However, after trying as many scenarios as we could think of, our impression was that it uses a fairly limited database of triggers. The app often made no suggestions at all for phrases we thought could have been more caring. It even failed to offer alternatives for slight variations (including minor typos) on the phrases used in the film. All of this calls into question the app's actual usefulness for its stated purpose. Perhaps future updates will improve it, or maybe it works better in Thai.
To be honest, the concept of an app intelligent enough to work as a viable tool for such a complex, fraught situation as this is dubious at best. When you think about how even simple word-by-word autocorrect can fail, and how poor machine translation is, I just don't think the technology is up to this challenge yet.
Now, factor in that this is the time of year that award entries are due (Cannes Lions entries were due on 20 April), and...say, what's that smell? Yep, I think it might be award bait.
Matthew Miller is the online editor of Campaign Asia-Pacific. Colleagues Jenny Chan and Rick Boost contributed by testing the app.