A Thai television commercial for Dunkin' Donuts yanked off the air days ago amid controversy has ignited a debate over what it meant and how it aired.
The advertisement opens with a fair-skinned teenager wearing a white dress standing in a white room. A close shot of the girl’s face reveals a flash of defiance in her doleful eyes before she bites into a chocolate doughnut. Then the camera cuts to a splash of chocolate, the girl takes another bite -- and suddenly her white face turns black.
After that, the camera pulls back to show the girl now painted in chocolate all over, including her hair, done up in a 1950’s beehive. Her lips are bright pink. Finally a tag line flashes across the screen: “Charcoal Donut: Break every rule of deliciousness."
The ad first aired in Thailand last month. Last week it was pulled after a leading human rights group based in New York said it would cause "howls of outrage" if it ran in the US.
“Discrimination in Thailand is directed toward citizens from neighboring countries, particularly Burma and Cambodia, as well as people from South Asia who are invariably tagged with the pejorative 'kaek' or 'guest' label,” says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “One hopes that this may have a positive impact in compelling people in Thailand to look more outwards and recognize people are people and should all be treated equally, without discrimination of any sort.”
Several US media outlets picked up on the story, pointing out the clear resemblance of the chocolate covered girl in the doughnut ad to blackface minstrel caricatures from America in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The American arm of the Dunkin' Donuts franchise promptly published a strongly worded statement apologizing for any offense caused and the ad was removed from airing. .
However in Thailand, the director of the company, whose teenage daughter stars in the controversial campaign, was unapologetic.
"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Nadim Salhani. "We're not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don't get it. What's the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?"
His views have been reinforced by a barrage of comments of support for Dunkin' Donuts on blogs, social media sites, and forums written by Thais and foreigners.
“I didn't see anything racist, she took a couple bites of the chocolate doughnut she turned into a chocolate lady,” reads one comment.
“If the doughnut was blue and this lady turned blue, would there still be a problem?” reads another.
One British blogger, Tim Footman, goes so far as to accuse America of cultural imperialism.
“If the DD [Dunkin' Donuts] ad were to run in the States or in Europe, I could see the problem. But it isn’t; it’s running in Thailand. And yet, because it offends the sensibilities of Americans, it gets pulled,” he says.
Commentary on concepts of beauty?
The issue, says Thai cultural commentator and writer, Kaewmala (a pen name), is that the ad may be controversial but it’s not a comment on black people in general, it’s about concepts of beauty and social snobbery in Asia.
“Dark skin is still associated with a lower social class, rural origins, and unsophisticated Thai society,” she says. “[The ad plays on] a strong Bangkok-centric view in which Bangkok traditions, people and lifestyles are deemed more refined and glamorous.”
Ms. Kaewmala says black people, and in particular black Americans, are not the target of this regional prejudice. She points out that Tiger Woods is widely adored in Thailand and was offered honorary citizenship (which he politely declined).
For Kaewmala, Americans objecting to this ad and lobbying for it to be pulled will do little to change people’s attitude in Thailand. The problem is an obsession with “white” or “fair” skin color, promoted widely by skin lightening product manufacturers across Asia, who link lightness to wealth and glamour.
“More should be done to dispel the obsessive preference for "white skin" in Thailand … not least because most Thais are not naturally fair,” she says, adding that presenting a woman covered in chocolate as dark and beautiful is a step in the right direction.
Mr. Robertson from Human Rights Watch, who was first among those to complain publicly, says that the ad was pulled shows how seriously authorities took the complaint and suggests progress, however small, toward tackling racist attitudes in South East Asia.