By Jocelyn Gecker
BANGKOK (AP) — “You just need to be white to win.”
A skin-whitening ad in Thailand featuring that slogan alongside a famous actress in blackface makeup sparked such outrage that the company pulled it Friday, Jan. 8, just a day after releasing it. The retraction did little, however, to stem a debate the ad ignited about the regularity of racist advertisements in the Southeast Asian country.
The online video campaign for a new product called “Snowz” starred porcelain-skinned Thai movie star Cris Horwang. In the ad, she talks about being an aging actress in a competitive industry as gentle piano music plays in the background.
“If I stopped looking after myself, everything that I have worked for — all the investment I have made to keep myself white — would disappear,” says the 35-year-old starlet. “New stars would replace me, I would fade away.”
As she speaks, a smiling younger woman enters the picture and Cris’ own image darkens to charcoal black.
A male voice says “You just need to be white to win.”
A tirade of criticism erupted on social media after the video was launched online Thursday.
Online commentators labeled the ad as racist and ignorant, while some heaped criticism on the actress for accepting the job. Others called it a strategic way to attract wide attention for the product and boost sales.
One prominent critic was former beauty queen Nonthawan Thongleng, who was crowned Miss Thailand World in 2014. Media at the time described her as “Thailand’s Pocahontas” and as an “Amazonian Goddess” because of her olive-skinned complexion, and said that her victory over more fair-skinned competitors was a turning point for Thai beauty contests.
“Even if you are black, you can be a winner too,” Nonthawan said in a Facebook post Friday.
“We can prove ourselves by our abilities, white or black. If you are good, people will accept and look up to you,” she said, adding that people by their skin color was “such an old-fashioned value.”
Thai cosmetics company Seoul Secret issued a “heartfelt apology” in a statement on Jan. 8, saying it had pulled the video clip and related advertisements.
“Our company did not have any intention to convey discriminatory or racist messages,” the company said in the statement posted on its Facebook page. “What we intended to convey was that self-improvement in terms of personality, appearance, skills and professionalism is crucial.”
The ad by Seoul Secret is not the first to use racial stereotypes in Thai advertising, where beauty is defined as fair and delicate. Thais with darker skin are associated with the lower classes from the countryside, whose attempt to emulate the porcelain complexions of the Bangkok elite has fueled an enormous industry in skin-whitening products and cosmetic clinics.
In 2013, the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Thailand came under fire for using a female model in blackface makeup to promote a new chocolate flavored doughnut. The company’s CEO in Thailand initially dismissed complaints about racism, but the U.S. parent company quickly followed up with an apology and pulled the ad.
TV commercials for skin-whitening products regularly promote the idea that white is beautiful. An herbal Thai toothpaste says its dark-colored product “is black, but it’s good.” A longtime Thai brand of household mops and dustpans called “Black Man” uses a logo with a smiling black man in a tuxedo and bow tie. (end)
Associated Press writers Nattasuda Anusonadisai and Jason Corben contributed to this report.