A Thai company pulled an advert for skin-lightening pills on Friday following an outcry on social media over a product sold with the tagline “white makes you a winner”.
It is the latest marketing gaffe to draw accusations of racism in a kingdom obsessed with skin colour.
The advertisement for Seoul Secret’s “snowz” supplement pills featured a veteran Thai celebrity attributing her professional success to her pale complexion.
“It’s not easy to stay at this point for a long time,” the 35-year-old Thai model and actress, Cris Horwang, says in the video.
“If I stopped taking care of my body and white complexion, all that I have invested will be gone.”
The model is then shown in black make-up, casting an envious look at a second woman with light skin who appears by her side.
“A newcomer will replace me and turn me into a dark star,” she says in the video, using a Thai idiom to refer to her fame fading.
Whitening creams and pills are wildly popular in Thailand, where pale skin is upheld as the standard of beauty in the media and among many Thais who comment freely on the complexion of others.
Advertisements for the products are standard fare on billboards and TV spots, but some companies have faced a backlash in recent years for going too far.
Before its removal on Friday afternoon, the Seoul Secret video received more than 100,000 views on YouTube, as well as enquiries on the company’s Facebook page about how to order the product.
– ‘Clearly racist’ –
But other social media sites drew posts railing against the advert for being racially offensive and reinforcing the country’s narrow beauty ideals.
“It indicates that dark skin people are losers, and this is clearly racist,” a Thai commentator named Tammaijang wrote on the web forum Pantip.
Another post said: “Having dark skin can be beautiful – without being ashamed as well.”
The skincare company issued an apology on Friday, saying in a statement that it did not intend “to convey discriminatory or racist messages”.
“What we intended to convey was that self-improvement in terms of personality, appearance, skills, and professionality is crucial,” the statement said.
Yet some speculated that the advertisement was deliberately provocative as part of a marketing ploy to grab attention.
“I don’t think the ad agency made this ad out of ignorance,” a prominent Thai culture blogger, called Kaewmala on her thaiwomantalks.com website, told AFP.
“They haven’t been living on the moon, I’m certain they knew it would be controversial… It was most likely a calculated strategy, which in my view makes it even more objectionable.”
While there has been a growing awareness about racism among Thais in recent years, those views have yet to be reflected in a media which still readily equates dark skin with “low class”, she added.
In 2013, public criticism similarly led the US firm Dunkin’ Donuts to pull an advertisement in Thailand that featured a woman in “black-face” makeup promoting a new charcoal-flavoured donut.
Thai adverts for “Black Herbal” toothpaste, as well as other cosmetic brands, have also come under fire in recent years for causing racial offence.