Multicultural marketing and the language of empathy

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A COUPLE of weeks ago, I was appalled by one of the most derogatory headlines ever presented on the front page of a local newspaper. Even by that paper’s notoriously provocative standards, the experience was shocking.

I didn’t see the headline in its physical form, but rather by way of a post shared on social media by a close acquaintance who happens to be a prominent news anchor – a Thai national of Indian heritage.
The title roughly translated into English as “Manage the peanut-selling Indians”, with a subsequent subheading “and the mafia that trades fabric/distributes underground loans”.
If you have just landed in Bangkok for the first time or have been under a rock all of your life, you could be excused for not knowing the various terms used to identify the diverse ethnic groups that represent people who can proudly (or not) call themselves Thai.
I reference in particular to the controversial term “Khaek”, used to describe a person of Asian sub-continental descent, notably Indian or someone visibly associated with the Islamic religion.
The original definition stems from the term “guest”, which makes it even more ambiguous.

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For decades, the word khaek has had an arduous relationship with the Thai language, its culture and society. Its use in the mainstream can be misleading, even when spoken without malice, and has caused friction in the past. Just like the headline mentioned above.
Yes, we are a nation of Buddhist majority, but we are far from being homogeneous.
The exact number of Thai Muslims is inconclusive, but is estimated to be around 5 million to 7 million people – not small by any means. The Indian-Thai population is significantly less than that, with just under 100,000, concentrated mainly in urban areas.
These two markets are grossly underrepresented in the realms of marketing communications and entertainment.
When was the last time you saw a protagonist wearing a taqiyah cap or a hijab scarf in any of the 30-second adverts on TV or short-to-long-form content on digital media?
Apart from “halal” labels on some food products available in the market, have you ever seen any variants that cater specifically to the palate of this small but significant group of people? I’m thinking no again.

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The exact opposite is experienced by Thais of Chinese descent, who have assimilated into mainstream Thai society seamlessly and have continued to be a mainstay in all facets of a nation going through one of the biggest identity crises in recent times, politically and culturally.
There are many hypotheses for the success of the Chinese and the ongoing failures to integrate by the subjects of this article, but they are beyond the scope of this piece.
The problem is compounded by the skincare market’s repeated attempt to convince consumers that having fair, white skin with a pinkish hue gets you further in society. Sadly, it has become the norm.
At the turn of the New Year, a huge controversy was caused when a Korean skin-whitening brand depicted a blatant comparison between a renowned Thai actress mirroring herself, one with black skin tone and the other white.
The implied message was “just being white will make you victorious”. The locally produced ad was immediately taken off the air after much commotion.

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Not too long ago, a similar ad was released in China when a fair-skinned housewife animatedly shoved what obviously appeared to be a worker of African descent down a top-load washing machine followed by a cubic detergent.
The surprising result was a clean-cut, fair-skinned Chinese man wearing a white shirt appearing out of the washing machine to the amazement of the housewife. And like they say, the rest is history.
In an era when business growth has somewhat stagnated, marketers need not look too far for new opportunities, but rather, investigate deeper into the diversity of our culture, to see what unique and new offerings we can create and, at the same time, be culturally sensitive and responsible to society.
To conclude, let’s just agree that we don’t live in an ideal world.
There will continue to be racism, and some long-held prejudices will inevitably prevail.
But change can happen if you are brave enough to brush off entrenched habits and embrace the evolving world. I challenge you to be the change you believe in.

Pradon Sirakovit is associate director for corporate communications at IPG Mediabrands Thailand. Facebook: IPG Mediabrands. Thailand E-mail: pradon.sirakovit@mbww.com.