Water Wally and Singapore’s campaign obsession

The schoolboy, the hawker auntie, the young lady and the taxi uncle – the spasms began as soon as Water Wally popped up in the background, lurking in the corner of every frame. First shocked, then jubilant, they found their bodies taken over by the urge to do the Shower Dance. "Keep it to five, keep it to five!" And don't forget to wash your bottom.

It's the latest offering from the Public Utilities' Board (PUB) campaign for water conservation, using its mascot Water Wally, a constantly-smiling light blue drop of water with arms and legs. At the time of writing, the music video has had over 72,000 hits on YouTube.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell how many of those hits came from people who were truly inspired by Water Wally. But it does seem more likely that the hits came from people who watched the video with cringing bewilderment. I watched it twice myself, then showed it to all my friends as yet another example of bizarre state efforts to be cool.

Singapore has had a campaign on water conservation for as long as I can remember, although music videos are a relatively new introduction; we used to have water-rationing exercises and colourful posters. But water conservation isn't the only campaign we've had.

We've got public information videos and/or campaigns on smoking in common areas, gracious behaviour on public transport, problem gambling, how to deal with SARS, how to speak good English, how to be filial to our elderly parents... the list goes on. Just recently Singa the ex-Courtesy Lion carried out a shock resignation which turned out to be part of the Singapore Kindness Movement's attempt to make Singaporeans nicer.

We may laugh at Singapore for being a Campaign City, but this strategy – sometimes known as 'public information', other times known as 'propaganda' – can be found everywhere. (Incidentally, the British National Library in London is hosting an exhibition on this very topic.)

"Public information campaigns are incredibly important at getting across key information on a range of issues and educating target audiences," says Mr Elliot Pill, a senior lecturer in International Public Relations and Global Communications Management at Cardiff University.

He doesn't find it a surprise that Singapore's campaigns are increasingly going digital, either. "Digital platforms give both scale and decreased costs so it is a right strategy to use those platforms but the communication needs to be compelling and connect with the audience, " he says.

But do campaigns like the Water Wally Shower Dance really work these days? What do Singaporeans think of it?

Mr Pill had mentioned that funding was often a problem for public information campaigns: "Public organisations can't afford the very best agencies to get their message across and therefore campaigns do lack creativity and impact."

However, Singaporeans don't feel that it's a money matter:

According to this video, children at 185 primary schools across the country will have learnt the Shower Dance. I wonder if this will have any effect, or if it'll just turn into another silly, slightly embarrassing exercise.

Sadly for the PUB, I have a feeling that it'll be the latter.