24 August, 2009

Intern Sweatshop: Sex sells in Thailand. Kinda.

We just can't seem to say goodbye to interns. Even when they leave us to travel half-way around the world, they're never far away thanks to the interwebs. Former intern Erica Campbell files this salacious dispatch from the sex tourism capital of the world:

When I came to Thailand three months ago, I didn’t think much about the sex industry or the prevalence of farangs (white people) as sex tourists. Walking around Patpong – an area with bars named “Star of Love” and “Super [Kitty]” – I realized I should have braced myself.

I hadn’t realized a 95% Buddhist country that frowns upon women in tank tops would accept prostitution so openly, let alone advertise it in neon with promoters hawking “Ping pong!” Or that the massive “massage” parlors, marked by few windows and billboard-size photos of the “masseurs,” would change the meaning of Thai massage for me. While struggling with my feelings about it, I wondered – how does this blatant display of sex-for-profit translate to advertising?
According to a study published in Investigating the Use of Sex in Media Promotion and Advertising, it translates consistently.

Female nudity was measured on a scale: 0 = fully clothed; 4 = nudity/bare bodies. Thailand and the U.S. showed the most female nudity in their advertising, especially compared to countries like China, South Korea and Brazil. Thai TV and magazine ads had the highest degrees of female nudity, challenging the assumption that Eastern values heavily influence advertising censorship.

But my own observations contradict this study’s findings.

During a half-hour talk show featuring a modeling reality show winner, commercials for brands like Dove, Sunsilk, Downy, Herbal Essences, B-ing (a diet drink), Nokia and Coca-Cola, didn’t show female nudity. The women were at 1 – covered shoulders, knee-length dresses or skirts, no cleavage. The billboards around Thailand are similarly scored. Magazine ads were around 2 or 3, which was proven in the study, but by no means equivalent to what’s seen in the U.K. or U.S.

My theory on this discrepancy is this: when you’re selling sex on the streets and in establishments dotted around the country (one can expect a “Happy? Happy?” even at the most respected massage parlors), sex doesn’t pack a punch in advertising. It’s for sale everywhere with many farangs visiting Thailand solely for this purpose. Sexuality in Thai ads isn’t used to sell products in the same way as other countries, perhaps because sex as a selling point is overdone outside advertising. I offer these commercials as evidence:

30-second spot for Low-fat Sealect Tuna

The woman is in the 2 - 3 range on the female nudity scale, but her sexuality is mocked by the end. It’s an illusion, something to be laughed about. The following ad is a similar example:

The apparent attractiveness of the slim woman is countered with the fat girl jiggling around – it makes a parody of the initial sexuality portrayed in the commercial, especially because the fat girl is more desired in the end (albeit for the wrong reasons).

And this last one features a katoi (ladyboy), so I feel obliged to include it:

First of all, prior to the katoi, is this commercial even sexy? The women’s shirts aren’t overwhelmingly revealing, but it seems a genuine attempt at sexiness. Secondly, the fact that the last person, whose shirt is actually revealing, is a katoi proves my point. The commercial goes from boobs, boobs, boobs, to SURPRISE! Fake man boobs! Gross! (Depending on your preference.)

Female nudity is parodied in such a way that, although it might be as prevalent as it is in The States, it’s used very differently. It’s not sexy for its own sake; rather, it’s sexuality as: look, it’s here, but it’s not going to sell the product on its own. This is surprising to me, because, on the most basic level, the amount and treatment of sexuality in advertising needs to appeal to the audience. One would assume that Bangkok’s seedy reputation would pervade its media and consumers, but these few examples demonstrate that Thais defy this misconception so that it's a punch line instead of a selling point.

I’m pleasantly surprised, and not in a “she can smoke a cigarette where?” kind of way.

Yet, transliterization is a topic to be broached another time.

I didn’t think Thais had the same fervor for hard drugs as Baltimoreans, but once again, consider me surprised.

Erica Campbell, Former Creative Intern

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