Nets and Havas apologise for hurt caused by 'brownface' ad, advertising authority says it did not breach guidelines

The ad on, an e-payments website, features Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew as four characters. PHOTO: DENNISZHOUCHONGQING / INSTAGRAM

SINGAPORE - A recent advertisement which featured a Chinese actor in "brownface" was in "poor taste", but did not breach guidelines, said the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (Asas) on Thursday (Aug 1).

It also said that as the ad has been removed, "no further action is currently required".

The ad to promote cashless payments, which politicians and web users described as offensive and insensitive, featured Mediacorp celebrity Dennis Chew portraying characters such as a woman in a tudung and a man with visibly darker skin.

Asas chairman Professor Ang Peng Hwa said its council had determined that the ad by creative agency Havas Worldwide Singapore did not explicitly put down any ethnic groups or employ harmful stereotypes.

"The council also notes Havas' explanation that this was not its intention. Hence, it did not breach the SCAP (Singapore Code of Advertising Practice)," Prof Ang said.

"We also note that the advertisement has been removed and that Havas has issued a public apology; as the advertisement has ceased, no further action is currently required," he added.

E-payment firm Nets and Havas had earlier in the day apologised for any hurt caused by the ad, saying the intention of the ad was to communicate that e-payment is for everyone.

Their apologies come a day after a police report was made against the ad - the subject of a controversial rap video on racism by local YouTuber Preeti Nair and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair. Police are investigating the rap video.

Havas said: "Our multicultural society defines us as a nation, and we regret if anyone has been offended by the campaign."

The "brownface" ad campaign was for a unified e-payment solution being deployed at hawker centres, canteens and coffeeshops.

It comes under a multi-agency effort led by Enterprise Singapore to promote cashless payments. Nets was appointed as the "master acquirer" to handle payment transactions and drive adoption of e-payment in small food businesses.

The other agencies involved are the Housing Board, National Environment Agency and JTC Corp.

The Straits Times contacted Enterprise Singapore on Wednesday for comment. It has yet to respond.

Politicians have criticised both the e-payment ad and the rap video, and stressed the importance of maintaining racial harmony in Singapore.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Tuesday said the rap video aimed to make minorities angry with Chinese Singaporeans, and had crossed the line.

The video, uploaded on social media on Monday, was taken down a day later by the siblings. But others have reuploaded and shared the clip on social media.

The authorities have advised people to refrain from circulating the video.

News broadcaster CNA removed Mr Nair from its upcoming music documentary, saying it will not associate with individuals who intentionally create offensive content threatening racial harmony.

Mr Nair had worked with Migrants Band Singapore, a band made up of foreign workers, for the documentary.

A petition has been started on the website asking CNA to reconsider their position to drop Mr Nair, saying that the band and its message should be heard. More than 1,400 people had signed the petition as of 9pm Thursday night.

Meanwhile, marketing and media website Mumbrella Asia highlighted the recent resignation of Havas Southeast Asia's chief creative officer Valerie Madon in a report on Wednesday. Citing sources, it said she had oversight of the "brownface" ad campaign.

Asked about this, Havas said Ms Madon is moving on to pursue other opportunities.

A source in Havas on Thursday rubbished the Mumbrella report, saying Ms Madon's resignation was unrelated to the recent debacle.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said the project involving Nets and Mediacorp was fully handled by a creative director, and Ms Madon was not involved.

In response, Havas told ST: "An advertising campaign is always a collective effort for any agency, as was this. We do not condone any article or statement that suggests otherwise."

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