Speak a different language, reach a different demographic? We definitely think it’s more complicated than that.
If you’re in the business of selling things, you’ve probably been fixated with the ads that come before the videos people actually wanted to watch, or the sponsored posts that appear as the first item on a page of intended search results.
While the heart of advertising is the art of appealing to emotion, it’s important to think about the assortment of ways they communicate with their audience. By optimising the method of delivering calls to action, ads connect with their consumers and build rapport with them.
This is good practice, because how things and ideas have been sold traditionally change through time and space.
Then came along Thai advertisements, a whole other league of marketing with an unusual recipe for success that dates back to the 1970s when the industry first started booming in the country.
With the Thai government breathing regulations and censorship down the back of the advertising industry for most of the 20th century, creativity was needed in spades such that advertisers compromised little on freedom of expression.
This creativity eventually built a reputation for itself, attracting more creative minds over the years and making it the vast, competitive playing field it is today. Split broadly into two categories — the comical ads and the emotional ads — these marketing marvels have made it all the way to Cannes, and they have even sparked a “Try not to cry” challenge on social media.
This is a hilarious imagination of metaverse marketing that’s actually an ad for First Class credit cards. Leo Burnett Thailand
won a Silver Lion in the consumer service category and a Bronze Lion in the Local Brand category at Cannes.
This ad for Thai Strepsils and Thai TCP also employs exaggerated comedy to sell apparently traditional values to a younger
audience. Phenomena won a Bronze Lion for this ad that melds comedy and compassion in a single package.
Thai ads tend to employ fully-established narratives with emotional and/or comedic twists, and usually relegate screen time for their product placement to the last three seconds or so of the ad.
Watch more of them and you’ll find that many of these ads focus entirely on a narrative that’s barely related, and that’s if you’re being generous. I mean, the one about Strepsils had a man emotionally text wounding messages to throat pathogens, and we see the same man wiping phlegm off a box with a woman sticking out of it.
Watching this video will have you go through an emotionally gripping, semi-epiphanic experience about the mileage of kindness and how far paying it forward can truly travel.
This ad was meant to promote a telecom company, with a punchline “Giving is the best communication” metaphorically — but rather loosely — and it ties story and brand together. Not to dramatise the expertise and compassion of any particular hospital chain, nor a health advisory, and not even an ad selling health insurance.
This ad eventually found itself in the hallows of Thai urban legend, such that the people began to believe that the ad was an adaptation of a true story. The lore of Dr Prajak Arunthong (the supposedly non-fictional doctor in the ad) as a doctor who repays his debt from 30 years ago is a dramatic one that speaks to gratitude as a virtue.
But wait, where did the conversation about how the ad communicated with its audience go?
Pathos and relatability are the lethal combination that enable Thai advertisements to successfully pull off the difficult feat of what’s known as ‘sadvertising.’ To capture the attention of their audience, they must first know them like, well, the back of their hands. This sense of closeness is achieved through the intimacy of the ads as well, and you’ll find this to be a more consistent element across all Thai ads.
This ad about the warmth shown to a prisoner of war during World War II aligns with — and therefore is an appeal to — Thai cultural values of humility, compassion and freedom of expression. And language is certainly inconsequential, both within the narrative and the presentation of the story. The feels remain off the charts regardless.
Take this ad as an example, Vizer turns things on its head in using a narrative of unseen kindness to promote its surveillance equipment, traditionally used for weeding out unseen malice. Vizer connects with its audience through communicating the value of trust, and the mileage of compassion via the tragedy of the homeless man.
But what’s noticeable is the similar structures of the narrative, as well as the ways in which it is presented. Within each category, you have similar tropes, like touch, similar music — strings are notably popular — and similar camera work.
The contact here is a little less tender, but it’s contact nonetheless and feeds the same narrative of
how climactic moments are set up in these ads.
If we think about it, Thai ads are selling values, ethos and ideas that the companies espouse far more than they are selling a product. Could Thai ads have been a pioneering force in the contemporary concept of content marketing? We’d definitely like to think so.
To put the unique qualities of Thai ads into perspective, let’s take a look at other famous advertising overseas, starting with Christmas ads in the UK. These (very) high-budget, epic campaigns are meant to inspire a range of reactions in audiences, from patriotism to consumerism.
The British supermarket Sainsbury’s adaptation of the Christmas Truce in 1914 features falling snow, congenial singing of a Christmas carol and stunning production value all around. There are many other Christmas ads like this one, but if you ask us, we think they’re all a bit disingenuous and serve to elicit a Pavlovian response to program consumerism in the human brain.
For one, the polished feel to these ads can be intimidating and they isolate the audience. This is exactly the opposite of how lower-budget Thai ads function. Adding to that, the epic proportions of British Christmas ads loses the intimacy of Thai ads, where it’s not common to have more than two or three subjects in the frame.
In fact, advertisers showed a little bit of their darker intentions when Christmas ads played in October last year, since they had missed out on 2020’s season to be jolly. This ad was tongue-in-cheek and combined Halloween and Christmas festivities, but we couldn’t help but feel it bordered on being a bit desperate to start raking in the big sales.
As a friend of mine once said, post Christmas in the UK is the worst time of the year because everyone is “poor, fat and cold.” Being inundated with ads that all have bank-breaking production value is nice, but can it touch your soul?
This one in particular worked very well, presenting IBM as an omniscient, oppressive entity and depicted Apple as saviour of the people from the brainwashing entrapment by IBM.
It’s hard not to blush at the irony when watching it in 2022, but the point is that American audiences love narratives championing choice and freedom, as well as a kind of reinstatement of equality.
This ad featuring Mel Gibson was produced after the supplement industry got tired of being so strictly policed by the Food and Drug Administration in the US is also gripping for the same reason. The threat of a police state can be dissolved, but only in the hands of American people!
Hopefully you’re noticing a pattern where American ads tend to focus on what can be done by the individual to inspire change. Because in Thai ads the focus seems to be on what can be done in response to change.
We also see that Thai ads tend to show how different parts of community factors into the main character’s life. This collectivist worldview is seen most clearly in the Thai ad below, through musings about the value of being kind to others.
The importance of community in improving lives is not so often seen in American ads as they are in Thai ads, but collectivism is actually more a feature of Asian ads, rather than being specific to Thai ones.
And who could forget the Zoloft blob? That bouncy, puffy ball of…sadness launched in 2003 as the mascot for the aforementioned antidepressant was culturally powerful enough to set off increasing focus on mental health worldwide…as well as inspire a range of spoofs about it, and rightly begin dialogue on mental illnesses.
But at home in the US, it worked because it focused on the individual; what they were feeling, how long they were having these symptoms for, why they felt this way. The punchline for the medication is: “When you know what’s wrong, you can help make it right.”
Individualism and empowerment, anyone?
Noting the US’s exclusivity in allowing prescription medications to be advertised on the little screen — actually New Zealand allows it too but we digress — demonstrates that this function of advertising in itself already points towards what Americans value.
So the way consumerism is approached very naturally varies with culture and time. It’s very clear that these days, people sell, philosophies sell, and that is why branding and image are receiving so much more attention. But it’s intriguing to think about how Thai ads resemble marketing models of the future so closely.
We might find our answers through thinking about the social climate we live in; a time where sincerity and being ‘real’ are heavily valued, and cancel culture is getting more prevalent. And maybe that’s something that the Thai Kingdom has always had to contend with.
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