Clown sent to schools by enrichment company leads to backlash
Enrichment centre apologises for PR stunt, Tan Chuan-Jin describes it as 'just plain dangerous'
A marketing campaign by an enrichment centre to send clowns to approach pupils and their parents outside primary schools to sign up for free trials has backfired, causing panic among parents, some of whom made police reports.
It also got the attention of two MPs, one of whom, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, posted a photograph of a clown outside a school, and urged parents to remind their children not to follow strangers.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin also called for a stop to the "viral marketing nonsense", saying it was "not amusing" and "just plain dangerous".
The public relations (PR) stunt by enrichment centre Speech Academy Asia was part of a roadshow campaign to get parents to sign their children up for a free trial and give their phone numbers so they could be contacted later.
When one clown was spotted outside Tao Nan School in Marine Parade, it reportedly prompted the principal of the primary school to send an alert to parents, advising their children to avoid following it.
Clowns were also reportedly spotted in Katong and Tampines.
Mr Kelvin Tan, the director of Speech Academy Asia, a public speaking school that has five branches, told The New Paper the centre's roadshow team had been going to schools over the last two weeks to promote their courses.
He said the same employee had donned the clown costume at all the schools.
Mr Tan added: "Because of the pandemic, there are fewer people in malls and public areas, and we were thinking where else can we go? Then we thought of going to schools, because parents drop off their children there."
He added: "We really apologise. I think this whole commotion has caused quite a stir and we are putting a stop to this."
He denied suggestions that his employee in the clown suit had tried to persuade pupils to follow him.
Being a parent himself, he said he understood the concerns and added that the roadshow team will use the incident as a learning opportunity for future campaigns.
The centre posted an apology on Facebook yesterday, which garnered more than 600 comments from netizens, most of whom were critical of the centre's marketing gimmick.
One parent, Madam Shawalati, who goes by one name, told TNP she was startled by the sight of a man dressed as a clown when she went to pick up her daughter from Angsana Primary School in Tampines last Wednesday.
He approached her and asked if she was interested in signing up her daughter - who is in Primary 2 - for a free trial class for public speaking.
Said Madam Shawalati, 36, who works at the airport: "Though it seemed like he was approaching only parents, it is quite worrying if such behaviour is normalised, and it may encourage those with ill intentions to dress up and wait outside schools."
A police spokesman said multiple reports regarding persons allegedly dressed as clowns and approaching children at various primary schools have been lodged, and that they are verifying the facts with an education centre on its alleged involvement in the incidents.
Other than Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng also took to Facebook and implored parents to remind their children to be vigilant and stay within school grounds while waiting to be picked up, and to approach school staff if they need assistance.
This is not the first marketing gaffe by an enrichment agency in Singapore.
In 2014, a full-page advertisement by a tuition agency to promote a workshop carried a picture of a child crushed under a vehicle beneath the words "Breaking news: Child trapped under 4 tonnes truck!" It asked concerned parents of children taking the GCE O- and A-level examinations what they would do to "save" their child.
Public relation experts TNP spoke to questioned the use of a clown to appeal to children.
Mr Edwin Yeo, general manager of SPRG Singapore, an integrated communications consultancy, said: "A man dressed weirdly and loitering around schools with young children, who might be swayed into following the man dressed as a clown... you can't really blame anyone for being disturbed by it.
"From a marketing perspective, it is even weirder. What does a clown have to do with public speaking? Clearly they didn't think this through carefully."
Marketing to children is a contentious issue that should always be handled with care, with the safety and wellness of the children a key consideration, added Mr Yeo.
Marketers also need to ensure the messages are not manipulative, as children may not always have the ability to tell what is real or not.
Dr Seshan Ramaswami, associate professor of marketing education at Singapore Management University, said using a clown to appeal to children is "a wrong-headed move", as it is their parents who make decisions on enrichment programs.
"Focusing on parents by advertising on social media and on search platforms will likely be a more productive means of growing its business," he added.