I was walking down Silom a few weeks back when this poster stopped me in my tracks.
The tag line of the print ad says "you can do it" and at the bottom of the panel says "bring out the English speaker in you" (or something to that effect). Well, the message is clear that the school markets itself as a place that can pretty much train you to speak like a native English speaker.
I hope the photos are clear, but what we see in the ad is a (presumably Thai) woman and man unzipping themselves to bring out blond hair, blue eyes, and much-fairer skin. What the photos tell is that not only can the school help you speak better English (say like a native speaker), but it will figuratively turn you into a farang (the term for Westerner in Thai).
There are many implicit messages in these photos. The people who conceptualized the ad might not have realized the images' deeper implications. The ad might have instead said outright: "bring out the farang in you!", or "come to our school and you will act like a farang in no time!", or "there's a farang inside you and it's just waiting to come out!".
In societies that are more sensitive to race, perhaps people would immediately express their disapproval of a similar ad because of its racial undertones. Somewhere else, this ad would not last a day in the street!
But perhaps because Thailand does not have a history of Western colonization, they don't have hang-ups on racial and colonized-colonizer relations. Instead, the image is just seen at face value here.
Recently, a humongous billboard of Adolf Hitler's photo, with a caption that says "Hitler is not dead" (or something to that effect), was erected in the highway to Pattaya (see article here) to announce the opening of Louis Tussaud's Waxworks in Pattaya. The German Ambassador to Thailand reportedly commented that the billboard was tasteless and the Israeli Ambassador found it unacceptable. The manager of the museum replied that the billboard did not intend to offend anyone.
There was likewise a similar incident involving Vogue Paris showing model Lara Stone in blackface in a fashion editorial shot by Steven Meisel and styled by Carine Roitfeld. For the French readers, the photographs were purely artistic, whereas many Americans were aghast at the supposed blatant racism of the images.Take note of the difference in historical experiences between France and the US.
As with the example of the English language school in Bangkok, the images were originally conceptualized without the motive of offending anyone, other than they want to present something eye-catching or perhaps artistic. On the other hand, images are always subjectively interpreted in dozens of ways by different people.
Because the English language school is marketed to Thais, their advertisements should be viewed from Thai eyes as well. But still, I cannot help cringing at sight of these images.