Do We Really Open Our Eyes?

The Axe Brand front page ad shows that The Straits Times is staffed by those insensitive to their surroundings and the tasks before them

These are difficult and sensitive times. The two stories on the front page of today’s issue of The Straits Times (both print and digital) tell us that. But the appearance of the sole, quarter-page advertisement that runs beneath the cover stories is the proverbial rubbing the wound with salt. “Sec 1 student allegedly killed by Sec 4 student in school” and “local Covid-19 cases continue to spike…” are not exactly alerting readers to the bright spots in an increasingly distressing pandemic year. Sure, the Axe Brand Universal Oil (斧標驱风油) ad has nothing to do with the editorials above it, but even without reading the story related to the murdered student of the first report, many of us knew by yesterday afternoon, despite the authorities urging us “not to speculate”, that “an axe was seized by the police” in relation to the school homicide. How is it possible that no one in ST saw how crassly at odds the editorial and the advertisement are? Or, discerned I.N.S.E.N.S.I.T.I.V.E spelled across the page?

Appearing like an underscore of the two reports, the Axe Brand ad is, by itself, not wrong, but its very placement, positioning, and prominence are. It is unsurprising that ST’s oversight—or carelessness—is met with scorn and derision on social media. Axe Brand was quick to response (not ST), following the negative reactions on social media, posting on Facebook, “It has come to our company’s attention that our Axe Brand advertisement has been placed below an article on the Straits Times today concerning the recent alleged killing at the River Valley High School. The advertisement placement was not intentional by our company but a very unfortunate coincidence. The advertisement was arranged and booked in December 2020 with Straits Times. Our company is in deep sympathy and grief with the victim’s family.”

This is the cover of the main English paper of our city-state. Surely more than a pair of eyes would have given it a once-over—or twice?

This is, in all likelihood, an error of human judgment. But ST might think otherwise. In March 2019, an ad by AirAsia offering “free seats” appeared within close proximity of reports on the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. ST attributed that to the ad space bought through “programmatic channels”—basically third parties than through ST directly. It is not (yet) known if Axe Brand, the 93-year-old Singaporean name, booked the front page space through such a service (considered to be cheaper), which then would possibly have allowed the placement to escape ST’s own “safety filters”. But wouldn’t it be to ST’s gain to protect the interest of the brands that advertise with them? Moreover, this is the cover of the main English paper of our city-state. Surely more than a pair of eyes—other than the sub-editors’ (or their all-seeing AI’s)—would have given it at least a once-over—or twice?

Perhaps the on-going pandemic has really revealed our true nature, socially and professionally. We are totally indifferent to how our action would affect those around us. Or, inaction. We have seen too often, for example, the many individuals who, up till now, refuse to wear masks or social-distance. Just this morning, at a hawker centre, a woman (accompanied by three others) chose to sit on a fixed stool marked diagonally across with a bold red tape. When we drew her attention to the seat crossed out with the unmissable stripe, she replied with no regret, “Oh, cross-out mean (sic) cannot sit, ah? I don’t know, leh.” And we can’t be cross! We have no idea why ignorance can be used so conveniently and vehemently to cover bad behaviour or total disregard to the morally right thing to do. “I don’t know” and, just as often used, “I can’t see” have become the preferred and acceptable vindication. Don’t be surprised if they’re the ST editors’ lines of defence too.

Update (20 July 2021, 17:00): In what appears to be an e-mail reply to a reader’s enquiry that was shared online, editor-in-chief of The Straits Times Warren Fernandez wrote at 3.31pm, “The juxtaposition of the advertisement, which was book (sic) in advance, was unfortunate and inadvertent. It was insensitive; we regret and apologise for the anxiety and unease caused by this, especially in light of this tragic incident.” Inadvertent. Convenient. The apology was offered “for the anxiety and unease caused”, but not for the action and decision that caused the anxiety and unease. Charmed.

Update (21July 2021, 10:30): On the online edition of The Straits Times, a similar non-apology was posted at 5am this morning. “This juxtaposition was inadvertent and unfortunate, in the light of the tragic incident,” it read. “The Straits Times apologises for the distress caused.” Sounds familiar?

Photo: The Straits Times

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