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National pride in Thai advertising
A shift in spokesperson choice
Kristian Gotthelf
1/30/2004

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Earlier this month reports announced that the ad for Toyota Altis featuring Brad Pitt has been banned in Malaysia. "...Why should we use their faces in our advertisements?..." was the comment from the country's deputy information minister Zainuddin Maidin according to the Malaysian national news agency Bernama.

The ban may be influenced by trade agreements and protecting domestic interests, but the choice of the words "their" and "our" opens an interesting discussion on spokespersons how they are used in advertising. Mr. Maidin seems to be referring to Westerners when talking about "them" and all of Asia when addressing "us", calling for unity among Asian countries against westernization and maybe even globalization itself.

The notion of such a unity is not new. The Japanese historian Okakura Tenshin declared that "Asia is one" citing a "common thought", which spans China to India.

However, the cultures of Asia are responding differently to the challenge of globalization and this can be seen in the advertising messages across the region. Thailand, is finding a way to look at its own identity in some of the advertising campaigns aired in the past year. This approach as a means to react to increased globalization is quite different from that of close neighbor Malaysia.

Banning ads in Thailand is not common practice, unless they are selling cigarettes of course. Indeed, pulling down a billboard with David Beckham or Britney Spears because they are not Asian would be absurd for most Thais. Thai consumers have no problems balancing their true Thai values with the values brought via globalization. There still seems to be a never ending demand for foreign brand names. However, there is a reaction towards the bombardment of foreign media and marketing onto Thai society and the reaction is seen in the local advertisement campaigns.

In an attempt to compete with foreign products, these campaigns are not trying to evoke an Asian identity in Thai consumers, but rather a sense of national pride. One such example is the Beer Chang TV commercials featuring famous folksinger At Karabao who sings about the beer "the Thais make them selves" in the spot. The TV ad aired frequently during this year's World Cup. Recently, At Karabao has re-appeared in another TV ad, this time with the entire Karabao band in a TV ad for energy drink Red Karabao. The production is on a grand scale and shows scenes where Thais fight and die for their country. Finally, the controversial ad for Krung Thai Bank showed Thais receiving training from foreigners in traditional Thai disciplines. The ad then asked "Are you embarrassed?" reminding the audience to protect their cultural heritage.

This doesn't mean that the Asian identity has no place in Thai advertising. Current TV ads use recognizable Asian icons such as Chinese drama heroes and Japanese school children. In other media areas such as cartoons and movies, Thais share with other Asians a unique content, which would not be popular outside of the continent. It should also be noted that using Thai history as a semiotic reference is not a novelty. In the past Thai ads have often drawn on Thai symbolic figures from myths and fairytales. However, the Thai advertising industry has not previously been this aggressive in the portrayal of national pride preferring messages where people help each other or travel within the country. Phone operator DTAC shows TV commercials in which Thais are able to trade agricultural goods using the DTAC network.

The ads carrying a patriotic theme come amidst a wave of films and TV shows about Thai history. Still, the spokespersons of choice in Thai ads continue to be local celebrities projecting their high profile image on to high involvement consumer products. But even within the realm of Thai spokespersons there are some new faces. The archetypical white skinned models and actors are under threat from scruffy looking rock singers and rappers. One current ad for cleaning liquid features the maid taking a bubble bath rather than the owner of the house.

Another prime example is the hilarious TV spot for yet another new energy drink brand, where an auto mechanic serenades a rich, young woman bedside a highway. "Let me be the lead actor of your heart" he croons. It looks like Thai advertising is choosing to live peacefully among the global ad campaigns, be truly Thai and let Malaysia be "truly Asia".

Kristian Gotthelf
Researcher
Research Institute of Bangkok University
Rama 4 Road, Klong Toey
Bangkok 10110
Thailand
Phone +66 2 350 3500 #772
kristian.g@bu.ac.th

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