Global dispatches: Asia-Pacific tackles freedom of speech, innovation and a year of sport

The key issues that dominated the global ad scene over the first half of this year and how the industry is responding to them.

Elections: countries that recently went to the polls include India
Elections: countries that recently went to the polls include India

In Asia, we’re used to superlatives. Virtually every adland report shows this region leading the world: here you’ll find the largest market shares, the fastest-climbing profit margins, the greatest growth potential. We have the highest percentages of young people – more than half of the world’s youth, aged 10-25, live in Asia-Pacific – but Asia will also have the oldest population in the world in a couple of decades. And then we have China, the ultimate superlative magnet, where digital adspending already accounts for 69.5% of the total, the highest amount worldwide.

To work here is to feel a powerful energy as businesses navigate these opportunities and challenges, alongside major news events of the kind you’ll read about below. It’s also to feel uncertainty, as the work of digital, media and creative agencies consolidates and companies rush to service specialisms such as data analytics and business transformation. A new, unfamiliar landscape has been emerging, populated by "integrated services" and "multi-agency client teams", and no player is immune to that.

Yet perhaps because of the continent’s fast-changing nature, breeding as it does a culture of ingenuity and innovation, creativity in Asia feels stronger than ever. Work really can change the fortunes of not only brands but people’s lives – and it is doing so every day.

Fake news and freedom of speech

By Olivia Parker

The attempted curtailment of fake news by governments, the press and social-media platforms has been a high-stakes topic in Asia in recent months. Before the start of what was dubbed "India’s WhatsApp elections", Facebook and Twitter took measures to try to remove false news more effectively and WhatsApp – which has 230 million users in India – limited the number of chats that could be forwarded to just five per user in a bid to halt the spread of possible misinformation.

At the same time, newspapers such as The Hindu and Times of India banded together to run ads attempting to engage readers by positioning their own products as the only trustworthy news sources, with the slogan: "If we don’t have the facts, we don’t print the news."

But the spread of fake news is working against journalists – and by extension others in the media landscape – too. The head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk condemned as "Orwellian" a bill passed by the Singaporean parliament last month (May) that gives the government the right to take legal action when falsehoods – defined as statements of fact that are false or misleading – are disseminated in traditional or social media, or if the government deems the removal of such material to be "in the public interest". The law does not cover opinions, criticisms or parody, but it has been criticised for its vague wording that has prompted fears over how it might be abused by the government as a way of clamping down on free speech.

Malaysia prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is also a critic of Singapore’s new law, having voiced his worry that "when we have laws that prevent people from airing their views, then we are afraid the government may abuse the law". His government is currently seeking to repeal Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act 2018, which makes the publishing of "any news or information that is wholly or partly false" punishable with a jail term of up to six years.

Other governments have no qualms about adopting an increasingly hardline stance on journalism. Rappler, the government-critical Filipino website, was almost shut down last year on the grounds that it was found to have flouted a clause in the country’s constitution. While in Cambodia, which was downgraded this year in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index, the government has introduced the threat of imprisonment and fines for any website or social-media platform disseminating what it considers to be false information.

All change during election year

By Matthew Miller

What happens when the political fate of nearly a quarter of the global population goes up for grabs? Asia is in the midst of finding out right now, as the dust settles on four major elections – impacting 1.8 billion people – that took place through the first half of 2019: Thailand (population 69 million), Indonesia (269 million), India (1.35 billion) and the Philippines (105 million).

The final results will take a long time to play out – merely counting the votes is a months-long undertaking, particularly in India – but these contests will have far-reaching implications on not only the daily lives of citizens but also the overall development of some of the world’s most promising markets.

At play is secularism versus governance driven by religious beliefs, the rights of minority groups versus the will of the majority, and democratic reforms versus the threat of more authoritarian rule. Thailand’s election, for example, was the first in five years following a coup, and the military junta that overthrew the previous government did well in the polls. Of most concern to brands is the relative freedom of the media environment, as well as the economic investment and trade policies that drive commerce.

Whether the elections ultimately result in more certainty about the above issues, many brands will probably be relieved just to have the elections themselves in the past. Heated pre-election advertising by candidates created a noisy environment for brand messages to cut through, as well as potential landmines for brands that wanted to appear relevant by alluding to the issues on everyone’s mind. Relatively few brands waded in, and only in safe ways. For example, in India, Samsonite made a patriotic tale about traveling to one’s hometown to do one’s civic duty (with an attractive and useful suitcase in tow), while McDonald’s underscored the importance of exercising the right to choose with a video that showed counter staff cheerfully changing the orders of customers who hadn’t yet voted.

Facebook feels the pressure

By Faaez Samadi

Facebook has been bowed against a strong headwind these last months in Asia-Pacific, with condemnation reaching gale-force levels following the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Consumers and advertisers in the region have expressed their fury with the brand before, but this time the bark came with a bite: advertisers in New Zealand pulled money away, and legislators in Australia passed a social-media law to tackle harmful content.

That social media was suspended in Sri Lanka after the Easter attacks is a telling indicator of how far the pendulum has swung on the general reputation of Facebook et al. A few years ago these platforms were seen as liberators, purveyors of truth and democratic resistance, as during the Arab Spring. Now, they are seen as feared disseminators of lies and hate, and must be cut off rather than co-opted in a crisis.

But if there’s one thing Facebook has learned, it’s that all storms eventually pass. APAC remains the company’s growth engine in terms of users, and its second-largest market revenue-wise. Yes, some big advertisers have made a point, but as with those that have boycotted before them, eventually brands find they really need Facebook’s colossal reach and user base to advertise to. For countless APAC businesses, their entire digital presence is through Facebook, a situation that is only growing as emerging market economies mature. Where else would they go?

Even the unusual legislative step taken in Australia is widely regarded as knee-jerk, ham-fisted and unenforceable, serving only as a politically charged distraction from actually holding Facebook to account. The conversation around Facebook’s reputation in APAC is changing, for certain, but for now it remains an ocean liner in a sea of rowboats, and the horizon is settling down once more.

Bumper year of sport for Japan

By David Blecken

The approach of Tokyo 2020 and the Rugby World Cup (pictured, below) in September finds Japan in an unusually optimistic mood: the events reaffirm the country’s importance in the world and offer a rare branding opportunity both from a national standpoint and for commercial enterprises.

Dentsu has played a key role in bringing these events to Japan and its involvement has helped secure a record level ($3bn worth) of domestic Olympic sponsorship. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. As has become standard for the Olympics, the whiff of corruption hangs in the air. Questions over how Japan won the hosting rights could yet draw in the country’s biggest advertising agency.

Additionally, with Olympic sponsorship rights notoriously complex, a number of entry-level sponsors appear to be struggling to understand exactly what they have bought. The games are a seductive property, but recouping value is not as easy as it might at first look.

At a national level, the Olympics are a chance for Japan to prove that it can still be a global leader in terms of innovation. Outside expectations are sky high, with sports marketers predicting the most technologically advanced Olympics in history.

The scale of the event and its preparations have put the Rugby World Cup somewhat in the shade. Rugby itself has something of an awareness and image problem in Japan, which Dentsu is trying to change. Be that as it may, more than 400,000 people are expected to visit Japan during the event, and brands see it as an opportunity to connect with an affluent international audience.

Key for brands involved with either event will be thinking in terms of the unique experience they can offer and how it will travel: what happens in Japan will surely not stay in Japan. Beyond that, the question on people’s minds is how to sustain the momentum once all the excitement has died down.

Alibaba looks into the future

By Jenny Chan

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? Because we all want to hear from a robotic (but truthful) device how sexy we are, Alibaba’s artificial intelligence lab recently released a voice-controlled smart mirror, which responds to verbal commands just like the one humouring the evil queen in the 1937 Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Chinese consumers can adjust the eight-inch mirror’s brightness to recreate the effects of a dimly lit party atmosphere or that of natural sunlight to ensure their make-up matches their environments. Dubbed as one of three new iterations of the Tmall Genie smart speaker, the mirror also partnered with 14 brands, including La Roche-Posay, Kérastase, Sisley and Johnson & Johnson, to incorporate branded content such as skincare assessments, UV-exposure forecasts and beauty-routine reminders.

While being praised effusively for your looks by the clued-in mirror is not guaranteed, this voice-activated device serves as yet another touchpoint for users to buy more products. Just as Apple gave a pop to the mobile internet with its touchscreen technology, Alibaba is taking a leaf from the iconic US brand in the hope of revolutionising the "voice internet" (a term coined by Miffy Chen, head of Alibaba AI Labs) with its smart speakers, rivalling Apple’s HomePod and Amazon’s Echo.

Casual observers may think that this further cements Alibaba’s leadership in the domestic ecommerce sector. They’d be right, and Alibaba is not only trying to guard its dominance but is also attempting to break into spaces such as digital content distribution and shaping an even more extensive lifestyle ecosystem enveloping the Chinese consumer. Think about it: a voice assistant represents both a new shopping platform and a new user interface, analogous to earlier behavioural shifts to the webpage (click and surf) and smartphones (touch, swipe and pinch). Now, China can simply speak, ask or demand – in its own language.

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