Opinion: Tone deaf luxury ad reinforces insulting romanticization of working class

Earlier this week, a Thai luxury fashion house BOYY Boutique released its latest social media campaign for Harvey Nichols on social media. It was not well received.

The ad placed its 42,275 baht (just under 1,000 pounds sterling) handbag against the backdrop of a fruit street vendor, tuktuk, public bus, motorcycle taxi, and a khlong. 

Apparently, this was meant to represent Thai uniqueness and authenticity for the British luxury store. The bag is called Bobby 23 Soft Truffle Cream.

Many users were quick to point out to the brand’s hypocrisy in trying to feign a connection between the two very separate realities of Thailand — the daily lives of the lower working class, and the privileged lives of the rich — as a means to sell their product to the international audience.

“Poverty is not an accessory,” one user commented. “Poverty is a problem. Stop romanticizing and dehumanizing. Nobody wants to be poor.”

“What the brand is representing is the grass-root Thais, not the wealthy class that the brand is targeting,” said another user. “It’s so ridiculous that you put a 1-2,xxx usd bag in front of those who earn very little and would never be able to afford the bag. This is not cool. It’s inequality.”

Responding to the criticisms, BOYY released a statement:

“We apologize for any perception of glorifying or exploiting trade workers,” the statement read. “The participants filmed in our video were aware that we were shooting a campaign for a fashion brand and were offered compensation for their time. Some refused, so we instead purchased their products.”

“The intent of the video was to promote the social fabric, beauty and flavour that makes Thailand unique,” it continued.

“Our Thai factory consistently meets and surpasses international audit standards for the ethical and fair treatment of workers. We are working to elevate ‘Made in Thailand’ for the benefit of all creatives and entrepreneurs looking to build something from scratch in a place that is not often considered a fashion city on the global stage.”

“This conversation is important and we’re reading all of your comments.”

And in her Instagram stories, co-founder Wannasiri Kongman seemed less than contrite. She responded to the criticisms with some feisty rhetorical questions.

Who are you to explain our campaign? Do you actually know, or are you guessing? This campaign was shot and created by a Thai crew, not foreigners. Did you finish reading the caption, or are you just unable to translate it [into Thai]? What you have written is probably more of a reflection on you, not our production team, our concept is to merely present the daily life of Bangkok. We see this on a daily basis and merely wanted to reflect it, so why would you automatically assume that those who are honestly doing their jobs are poor?”

Despite the backlash, the video wasn’t taken down. 

While acknowledging how problematic the ad appeared to be, the brand insisted that it was merely a misunderstanding — they were, after all, trying to promote the beauty that is uniquely “Thailand.” 

Is inequality the beauty that makes Thailand unique? Or is inequality a problematic issue that needs to be addressed?

There is actually a right answer here.

Romanticizing and branding poverty as a type of “charm” is not only ignorant, but extremely harmful. Situating these bags in places where they shouldn’t be is not only presenting a false reality but insulting.

These bags exist in a world of luxury malls and cars, an almost alternative reality to the Thailand of markets, taxis, motorcycles, and klongs.

To presume that one must go with the other is not only in poor taste, it is sinister. It creates an argument, long championed by the well-to-dos in Thai society that the peasant class is the romantic ideal, one which reinforces the backbone of the country and must exist.

To make matters worse, the ads are running in the middle of the pandemic when tens of thousands of Thais are struggling economically to meet ends meet – especially those within the working class.

If BOYY really wanted to represent Thai society accurately, it would place its bags on a giant pedestal being propped up on the backs of the working class.

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