The following essay by Renyi Hong won first place in our student writing competition, held as part of our call for essays for our recently published essay collection, “The Good Life in Asia’s Digital 21st Century.”
In May 2014, Coca-Cola released an advertisement titled “#CokeDrones” in Singapore as part of its “Open Happiness” campaign in Asia (Coca-Cola, 2014). The ad was directed by Ogilvy & Mather and produced collaboratively with the Singapore Kindness Movement, a state-backed program which aims to cultivate “considerate social behavior” among its citizenry (SKM, 2015). It begins with a view of skyscrapers which is soon contrasted with a black screen overlaid with white text. “Singapore is a first world country that is built by a large migrant workforce,” it writes, “Far away from home and isolated from the local community, they are Singapore’s invisible people.” The ad then shows various South Asian construction workers that the viewers identify as the “invisible people.” Footage shifts between tired, unhappy faces before zooming in for close-ups where the construction workers deliver testimonies about their struggle with loneliness in Singapore. At this, music turns upbeat, and we see crowds of Singaporeans writing cards, expressing words of thanks to the migrant workers for building their homes. These cards are then delivered to the workers along with cans of Coke by drones. “2734 messages of gratitude were delivered,” we are told, “each bringing a little happiness.”
Taking the ad’s connection between recognition and happiness as a starting point, this essay will consider how “the good life” may be employed as a means of governance, a way of enforcing proper conduct for a disenfranchised population through a logic of affective reciprocity. Engaging with Berlant (2004), this essay seeks to highlight how extending compassion towards a suffering population – an ethical impulse to offer them a “good life” by alleviating their suffering – may ironically constitute a form of oppression. In one respect, the scenes of the ad clearly depict the political economy of the good life: the ones who are able to reside in the towering buildings are the Singaporean citizens, and the ones who built the buildings but are excluded from the comfort of these homes are the migrant workers. Yet, the gratitude offered by Singaporeans and the tearful expressions of joy from workers suggest a convergence of the good life imaginary, as if the migrant workers have been accepted into the fold of national recognition and its promises of state protection that would enable them to have a better life. Clearly, it is impossible for thankfulness to bring the migrant workers any substantive semblance of the good life – a notion grounded in upward mobility and experiential happiness. Still, the expression of happiness elicited by the extension of recognition conveys the virtuosity typical of a narrative of social justice, where injustice is identified and corrected for a suffering community.
This essay argues that the feelings stimulated through these enactments of virtuosity may be used to deflect attention away from substantive political work for justice. As Brown (2008) explains, it has become increasingly common for elites to substitute a substantive political response with a soothing cultural response designed to indicate that they care about the suffering of a given population. This may take the shape of recognition – reassurance offered to a subordinated community that their suffering is taken into consideration – that is not followed by the political changes needed to rectify the situation (Markell, 2003). Such substitution is evident in the #CokeDrones ad, where migrant workers are seemingly brought close to achieving the good life through the recognition of their existence, as if recognition alone can eliminate the institutionalized forms of oppression that they face. But fantasy is not the most troubling aspect of this cultural response. The ad was a response to a riot by migrant workers that happened four months before and it restates the meaning of the migrants’ presence. Implying that the State has fulfilled its obligation in recognizing the suffering of migrant workers, the ad suggests that they now need to dutifully do what the State desires: be docile subjects who do not cause trouble for their hosts, and whose sole purpose is to fulfill their role as laborers serving the nation’s economic ambitions.
The fantasy conveyed in this ad is not surprising given that it was explicitly developed to capitalize on a heroic narrative of benevolence. Explaining the choice of subjects for the ad, Eugene Cheong, who leads the creative team at Ogilvy & Mather, remarks that the South Asian construction workers were chosen precisely because of their difficult circumstances (Journey Staff, 2014). He explains that migrant workers “tend to be ‘invisible’ as they are working in areas that are not accessible to the average person” and that “to appreciate them, we first need to see them” (Journey Staff, 2014). Cheong references a term – “invisible labor” – which has long been associated with states of economic, social, and political exclusion (Fortunati, 1996). As feminists have noted, invisibility may be used as a way of denying the wealth generating potential of labor (Jarrett, 2013). Household chores and childrearing, for instance, are often perceived as economically valueless because they are removed from the public eye (Fortunati, 1996). Still, there is a substantial difference in the definition of invisibility proposed by Cheong and the one employed by feminist scholarship.
For the former, invisibility is premised on the literal omission from visual sight, but for the latter, invisibility is centered on states of exclusion – denial of rights that render a group vulnerable to exploitation. As Nelkin (1972) offers, a group may be understood as invisible even if they are within plain sight. What is important is the symbolic meaning of a group’s presence: “Despite their physical presence in a community, they are not part of it. The migrant is an outsider, an element to be dealt with as a problem” (Nelkin, 1972, p. 36-7). In this vein, the non-presence of migrant workers is not as innocuous as Cheong claims. Rather, invisibility for the migrant worker is a politically engineered condition produced through urban zoning that places them away from sight because, as Hage (2003) notes, migrant workers are necessary for their cheap labor, but are otherwise an “aesthetic nuisance” that might render the nation less appealing to foreign investment (Hage, 2003, p. 20).
#CokeDrones relies upon commercial language to bring the migrant workers to visibility. Visual and textual narratives are used to convey a simple but emotionally arresting message. The unhappy state of migrant workers is narrowed and reduced to a single cause – loneliness – which is similarly simplified. No mention is made of the laws in Singapore that prohibit migrant workers from bringing their families along (Ministry of Manpower, 2015), or the fact that the presence of migrant workers are often only tolerated – not accepted – by Singaporean locals (Pheng, Ying, & Shan, 2008). Instead, the expressed loneliness is centered on a heteronormative family far from the shores of Singapore; the workers in the ad take turns to express longing for their wives, children, and parents, verbalizing a conventional narrative that is aesthetically powerful but holds neither the nation nor its subjects accountable for their suffering.
The uncontroversial purity of the message accommodates the logic of visibility in the digital: it discloses a simple message that is emotionally resonant, likeable, and unusual enough for audiences to be attracted not just to view it, but also to spread its message, recommending it on their social media pages. What’s not to like? Unhappy workers are made happy, and Singaporeans can feel good because they can feel that they have contributed to the workers’ happiness. At the time of writing, this ad had acquired over half a million views, four thousand likes on Youtube, and has been shared on networked news and social platforms extensively. Part of the ad’s appeal is that it gives viewers the sense that they are doing a good deed merely by watching, commenting on, and sharing the video. Here, the simplicity of loneliness portrayed and the clear contrast between the two communities encourages viewers to see themselves as possessing compassionate agency. Just as the South Asian construction workers in the video were used to stand in for migrant workers generally, Singaporean viewers are made to identify with their fellow citizens in the video – grateful people who can ease the loneliness of others with their compassion. Implicitly then, “liking” or “sharing” the ad produces feelings of virtuous participation, as if taking these actions were the same as joining the chorus of individuals who wrote the cards of appreciation in the ad (Kristofferson, White, & Peloza, 2014).
It is important to recognize that this situation is not a simple case of slacktivism, where clicks replace the difficult work of social justice. Indeed, comments on YouTube show that viewers are not necessarily uncritical of the ad. However, the technological fetishism that is propagated by this ad has made it difficult to find any substantial value in the comments that are critical. A fetish legitimates a condition of “false causality,” where complex social relationships are imposed and distorted in material objects, usually to offer people a semblance of understanding and control (Chun, 2011, p. 50). In other words, instead of asking ‘How do we help these migrant workers improve their working and living conditions,’ the viewer is led by the video to ask, ‘Have you shared the video about these migrant workers?’ In an environment where people are constantly solicited for their opinions and responses, the Internet redirects attention away from what is said, to the literal act of saying itself (Dean, 2010). While there are many ways on the Internet that viewers can challenge the message of the ad, the audience’s unquestioned faith in the Internet smother dissent and critique.
Critical comments on the video include: “I think this [sic] guys have again been used” (Divjak, 2014), “The critic in me is skeptical of big brands taking advantage of emotions” (Nair, 2014), and the top comment, “This could be viewed as exploitation of the migrant workers’ plight for branding/publicity purposes. However, it does help to raise awareness somehow, and hopefully [sic] triggers affirmative action” (Lim, 2014). These comments are not without skepticism, but they go no further to provide material for discussion – an especially important point given the migrant population’s powerlessness. In such a situation, there is a certain seduction in returning to the technological fetish for hope. Lim’s (2014) comment highlights this dynamic: when the virtuosity of the good life message fails, we can still turn away from the message to the technology and the idolatry of attention – the suggestion that, ultimately, there is at least something redeeming in the fact that migrant workers were made visible in a video.
But what are the values of visibility here? A press release by Coca-cola suggests that they “were able to bring together two segments of the community who rarely interact” by “using technology in an innovative way” (Journey Staff, 2014). Yet, a close reading of the video would reveal that the interaction between the two communities – migrant workers and Singaporeans – was accomplished without having them meet face-to-face. All their interactions were mediated through drones, cards, and cans of coke. As such, this interaction, even when praised for its extension of visibility, was engineered to be familiar and un-disturbing: amongst their “own,” Singaporeans were allowed to express luminous feelings of compassion, without being made to feel uncomfortable by meeting the migrant workers in person. This underscores the fetishistic potential in the medium’s affordance of visibility: it creates a feeling of possibility, a tentative hope that media attention on migrant workers could bring about justice while simultaneously obscuring the social and political conditions that allow such comforting visibility to appear in the first place.
This essay is somewhat narrow, using only one ad as the case study for a cultural examination of good life politics in Singapore. However, there is particular contextual significance to the ad. As alluded to above, the ad was released just four months after the infamous “Little India Riot” in Singapore, where over 300 male South Asian migrant workers rioted in the district of Little India, overturning and torching government vehicles (Neo, 2015). Marilyn Peh, the spokesperson for the Singapore Kindness Movement, expressed that the campaign of gratitude was a means of diffusing “the negativity left by the recent incidents,” with the hope that “some empathy along with a small gesture of appreciation can easily spread goodwill” (Schonhardt & Watts, 2014). This statement needs to be understood in light of the general political stance of the State after the riot. Despite evidence to the contrary, political elites have refused to acknowledge the link between the riot and the living conditions for migrant workers (Neo, 2015). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for instance, insisted that the riot was “an isolated incident arising from the unlawful actions of an unruly mob” spurred by alcohol rather than by systematic mistreatment (Chan, 2014). After the riot, the State engaged in a variety of disciplinary measures, including the prohibition of alcohol sales in Little India, and circulated posters warning that errant workers would be punished (Kaur, 2014). One poster shows a handcuffed man of South Asian origin with the words, “Rioting achieves nothing but caning and imprisonment” (manju venugopal, 2013).
When contextualized within this disciplinary milieu, the ad with its message of recognition represents one in a series of instruments that seek to render docile the economically necessary but socially “undesirable” migrant labor that underpins Singapore’s growth. The route that the ad takes is softer, but no less troubling. Its underlying message of reciprocity, implying that migrant workers should return the State’s goodwill, alienates even the workers’ right to feel dissatisfied. After all, it is ungrateful, even shameful, to feel badly about a host who is kind. Migrant workers, then, are doubly alienated: from their labor and from their feelings.
Renyi Hong is a student at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California