Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Thailand, Skin Colour and the 'Voice' Chocolate Sandwich Bar Debate

This billboard advert for, what my Thai teacher tells me, is a chocolate sandwich bar called 'Voice' raises an inner chuckle each time I pass it at Sala Daeng BTS station, where its currently getting an ambling audience of hundreds every two or three minutes. More important than my momentary amusement twice a week, or the taste and texture combo of a sandwich bar I'm postively itching to try, are the questions it raises about skin colour - a national obsession here in Thailand.

One thing is sure: this advert would kick up a storm about race in my homeland, the UK (and wider Europe, and the US for that matter). The Guardian would have palpitations, it'd make the evening news, heads would likely roll.
And, that's if it got past the UK advertising standards authority:
"Marketers should be aware of the potential to cause serious or widespread offence when referring to different races, nationalities or ethnic groups; even apparently light-hearted humour revolving around racial stereotypes has the potential to seriously offend. Marketers should consider carefully the likely acceptability of their intended approach."
So here in multi-hued Bangkok what, if anything, is wrong or in bad taste about this advert? Has this the potential to seriously offend? And did the marketeers behind it consider carefully the possible consequences of using skin colour to sell sweets?

In the adverts favour, it doesn't suggest what is commonly held here in Thailand - that dark skin is lowly, undesirable and the unofficial uniform of the poor. In fact, here the chocolate skinned boy stands centreplace, is in fact synonymous with the bar's bliss-yielding chocolaty core. This is, as any discerning sweet tooth knows, the best bit, the piece de resistance, the payoff for indulging in even the most miserable of wafer bars.

If anything, here its pale skin that's cast in a disparaging light: the 'sii khao' (white) boys seen suggestively sandwiching their 'sii dum' (dark) brother are the tough, brittle outer biscuit - the bit that usually disintegrates into an annoying avalanche of crumbs but, because it’s flavorless and bland, is entirely expendable and so briskly scuffed into the carpet while nobody's looking.

Ok ok, so this argument is wafer thin (scoff, scoff). However, my point is that this ad isn't incendiary, not in Thailand anyway: it’s meant to be humorous, is in a puerile unimaginative rather lazy way, and is unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence amongst Thais.

That said, just because you invoke skin colour to sell confectionery in a benign, non-offensive manner, doesn't make it right. No matter how innocuous or innocent or light-hearted your message, does race really have any place in advertising, especially the marketing of a product whose core consumer is likely to be children? Isn’t skin colour already too much a Thai national obsession?


Street Smart Sukhumvit said...

It sure is~!! I have also a blog entry about the Thais' obsession on skin color -

thaistory said...

I also saw the ad on an air-con bus on Ladprao Road!

bkkguy said...

I think you are missing the obvious here if all you think about is the colour question!

In O Lucky Man a "chocolate sandwich" was a cabaret sex act performed by a black man and two white strippers, but this appears to be a gay variation.

the flawed gent said...

bkkguy: ok smartypants, i did say that the white guys can be seen "suggestively sandwiching" the dark guy, so no the homoerotic element wasn't lost on me.

I'll keep an eye out for O Lucky Man though, thanks..

Siamerican Wanderer said...

The major difference in western country's sensitivity to 'race' is based on nationality classification and nationality based 'racism' wouldn't be accepted openly in open ASEAN or Thai media as well without easily offending the public. As you might recall the big deal that was made when Thais made a movie about Lao national football team going to world cup.

IMO, there is nothing 'racist' about marketing people exploiting the social norm of Thais/Asians' fascination of skin tone and color. If it were discrimination of job and opportunity based on skin color, than that's a different arena altogether.

Even in the UK or the Americas, I don't think it would be a big deal if advertisers made advertisements punning and joking off of skin tone to sell their products, which I bet you there are plenty already i.e. for skin tanning oil and lotion advertising.



chump said...

How very English, to go to another country set up shop there and then moan about the way that the locals choose to live their lives and see their own world. If you dont like it . . .

the flawed gent said...

How very chump-like, to go to someone’s blog, put on your indignant cap and then moan about the questions they ask of the world around them. This was not a moan about why Thais see the world in a particular way, more an extended question: why do a select group of boardroom execs chose to invoke race in the advertising of a chocolate bar? Is it healthy? Asking questions is part of what makes us all so human, cultural contrasts and comparisons part of what makes the world so interesting, and I don’t see why living in Thailand should change that. If you don’t like it…

Kapitano said...

Do Thai's think of the image as gay? Even slightly? How would they react to a westerner seeing it that way?

And if they do see it as sexual, how would it be changed if it were two dark guys on the outside and a light one in the middle?

Just a few thoughts from someone who surfed in quite by accident.