An advertisement for Dunkin’ Donuts in Thailand has provoked outrage and embarrassment; not in Thailand but in the United States, where accusations of racism have been levelled.
OK, let’s look at this. It’s a picture of a woman with her skin painted black. Clearly in the US and elsewhere in the West, this has connotations of blackface and minstrelsy with which we are now distinctly uncomfortable. But in Thailand it doesn’t. It’s a picture of a woman with her skin painted black, to match the colour of the product being advertised; just as a British TV presenter appeared a few days ago with her skin painted silver. If the DD 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. It might be overstating matters to say that the withdrawal of the ad is in itself an act of racism, but it’s certainly an act of cultural imperialism, its close cousin. And yes, ultimately the Dunkin’ Donuts brand is owned by a US company; but doesn’t this whole story demonstrate the extent to which the American hegemony is maintained as much by twerking Miley and Affleck as Batman and crappy fast food as it is by threats to bomb Syria?
Of course, racism goes on in Thailand and it’s far closer to the surface; I don’t think there’s a Thai phrase analogous to “I’m not a racist but...” Thai racism, though, is inextricably bound up with class consciousness, with a distinction between those who work in the fields and those who lounge in air-conditioned luxury. When another doughnut brand, Krispy Kreme, launched in Thailand a few years ago, rich kids sent their maids and drivers to stand in the long queues on their behalf. This is the issue that’s been dividing Thai society over the past decade, provoking those running battles and burning buildings you occasionally see on TV. And if the activities of Dunkin’ Donuts’ Thai franchisee need any moral scrutiny, maybe it’s over the fact that the model in the advert is the daughter of the CEO.