Thai labourers normally stay wrapped up to avoid the tropical sun. Photo: AseanEconomist
A cosmetics manufacturer in Thailand has withdrawn an advert for a skin-whitening pill after it was attacked for being racist.
The ‘Snowz’ advert features well-known Thai actress Cris Horwang attributing her success to fairer skin.
Manufacturer Seoul Secret apologised, saying it had not intended to cause offence.
The incident has reignited the debate about attitudes to skin colour in Thailand, which is never far beneath the surface.
Comments about skin shade are commonplace in a country with an abundance of skin-whitening products, although some younger Thais now refuse to accept the stereotypes associated with skin colour.
The Asia-Pacific region is the largest market in the world for skin lighteners and the global trade in the products is set to become a business worth US$23 billion by 2020, according to market research by Global Industry Analysts.
“In my world there is tough competition. If I don’t take care of myself, everything I have built, the whiteness I have invested in, could be gone,” Cris warns in the advert.
As she speaks her skin turns almost black and a younger, extremely white, rival appears next to her. She looks at her dark skin, saying: “If I was white, I would win”.
It ends with the phrase “Eternally white, I’m confident”.
For years, companies have aggressively marketed whiteness as the beauty standard in Asian cultures. Words like “radiance” and “perfect” have been used by multinational cosmetic firms in Asian markets.
But Thai firms in particular have been criticised for ridiculing young women with darker skin. The hunt for a lighter complexion has caused women to resort to unregulated and illegal products that can damage their skin.
The Thai company Vernena was accused of mocking people of African descent for an ad that featured a woman who used a berry drink to change her appearance from dark- to light-skinned. The advert showed an evolution from her old self compared with the African appearance and accent of a man who appears to be her father.
The recent Snowz advert has stirred up a storm of debate on Twitter.
One critic wrote on the Thai-language forum Pantip.com: “I’m perfectly fine being dark-skinned and now you’re saying I’ve lost? Hello? What?”
“Suggesting people with dark skin are losers is definitely racist,” wrote another.
Seoul Secret quickly withdrew the advert, although it was still on YouTube.
“What we intended to convey was that self-improvement in terms of personality, appearance, skills and professionalism is crucial,” the firm said.
The multitude of skin-whitening products sold in Thailand and the efforts many Thai women make to avoid exposure to the sun highlight the nation’s attitude.
When Nonthawan “Maeya” Thongleng won the 2014 Miss Thailand World beauty contest, many people referred to how dark her skin was compared to other contestants.
At the time she said she wanted to encourage all other women who felt insecure because of their darker skin.
Darker skin is often associated with manual, outdoor labour in Thailand, and therefore with being lower or working class.
Also much of the urban elite is ethnically Chinese, who tend to have lighter skin than the indigenous rural population.
“This is not a problem that is unique to Thailand. It’s a problem that exists all over the world,” says social commentator Lakkana Punwichai.
“The issue also underlines the issue of class in Thailand, where those with darker skin are viewed as the poor from the rural north-east. We look down on them, on Cambodians and Indians, with darker complexions.
“However, attitudes are changing as Thai elites start to look down on women who long to be white, the same way some westerners look down on ‘blonde bimbos’,” she said.