Bangkok has an incredible variety of shopping opportunities, and with shopping, advertising inevitably follows. There are the standard billboards and commercials, and the not-so-standard-for-me commercial channel playing on screens in every car on the BTS (Bangkok’s light rail transit system). I have found it fascinating to observe both the sheer volume and the content of this advertising, and I’ve been reflecting on my experience as a captive audience for marketing, both in Canada and Bangkok.
When I was growing up, I liked to think that advertising didn’t affect my very much, that I was somehow “above” popular culture. I thought that my self-image was strong enough to withstand the barrage of advertisements and images that constantly bombarded me. When I was a young teenager, there may have been some truth to this – my parents’ house never had cable TV, I didn’t read many magazines, and I envisioned myself as a tragic classical musician, not someone who embraced trends.
As I’ve gotten older and emerged from the safe but isolated homeschooling bubble that I spent my teen years in, I realize that I am not as immune to advertising as I would like to believe. There are two types of advertising that have drawn my attention: the first is the kind of advertising that makes you believe that acquiring the advertised product will not only give you a product but a lifestyle. “Buying happiness” would be one way of putting it. This is the basis of advertising in general, and marketers succeed brilliantly at it. I suppose it’s the reason that many advertisers don’t even focus on the product that they’re selling – it’s why, for example, beer commercials center on beautiful women or outdoor adventures rather than the basic blend of hops and grains that they are trying to sell.
The other facet of advertising that consistently draws my attention in Canada is the relentless commoditization of women’s bodies. This takes a variety of forms, with two of the most obvious being the consistent hyper-sexualization of increasingly younger girls, and the equally consistent pressure for women to be thin. A more insidious but growing segment of the advertising market is the focus on being “fit and empowered,” for lack of a better phrase. This is the blend of advertising that asserts “you’re tough and fast and sexy. Now, you not only have to be thin, you have to be super toned and muscular and able to do it all because you are empowered.” I find this last one the toughest to deal with – even though the underlying message may not be as toxic as the purely sexual one, the emphasis is still on the body (and women’s bodies in particular) as a commodity. Although I’d like to deny it, I find myself susceptible to these messages, as do many women with whom I’ve spoken.
Whether they focus on the body specifically, or on a certain lifestyle more generally, most advertisements contribute to a cult of self. It’s all about your image, your possessions, your lifestyle. It creates dissatisfaction, and it contributes to an obsession with self. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’ve never found myself particularly satisfying – the more I focus on myself, the more I feel dragged into a place of dissatisfaction and unreality.
The analytical side of my brain can see the ruses that these advertisements present. I can see the strings that they are trying to pull, the areas of insecurity that they aim to manipulate. However, as much as I wish that knowing the ruses meant I could avoid being influenced, this isn’t true. I feel areas of nagging insecurity and dissatisfaction. This is often occurring in my subconscious mind, creating a vague sense of depression.
The reason that I have been contemplating advertising in Bangkok is that it suddenly dawned on me that I am no longer the primary target market for advertisers.* The billboards, ads on the train, and mall ads are not specifically directed at me, and so I am less affected by them. Often, I find them entertaining, because they reference cultural obsessions and hang-ups that I can’t identify with. My own culture has endowed me with a unique set of neuroses and insecurities, ones that are different from those in the Thai culture. To provide a somewhat superficial example, ads for soy milk, fish balls, and skin whitener don’t speak my cultural language, and therefore don’t contribute to a lack of fulfilment, or a belief that certain products will contribute to a more perfect lifestyle.
The commoditization of women’s bodies is still a major business in Thailand, but physically, I am far outside the Thai frame of reference. No matter how thin I am, I will always be a giant by Thai standards. I’m a bit of a freak show, and there is nothing I can do about it. In my limited experience, I have also found that the overarching female meme in Thai advertising plays on adjectives such as “cute,” “flirty,” “delicate,” which are subtly different from the “empowered,” “strong,” “muscular” adjectives that the Canadian market has conditioned me to accept.
In a sense then, I almost feel like I’ve been given a free pass. It is a bigger relief than I expected to find myself outside advertisers’ primary market. However, it has also made me more aware of how pervasive advertising is, whether in Canada where I am a target, Canada, or here in Thailand, where I can see the results even if I do not feel the effects.
* This is no doubt in part because I live in the suburbs, away from the areas that specifically cater to Westerners.