The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

Dunkin’ Donuts blackface poster in Thailand raises ire with NGO Human Rights Watch

Written By: herbrunbridge - Sep• 01•13

Dunkin' Donuts Thai advertDunkin’ Donuts Thailand is being called on the carpet by the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) for creating an advertising poster showing the CEO’s daughter in blackface, advertising a “charcoal donut.” Blackface comedy has been a staple in Morlam shows all over Thailand for decades, but it seems that the venerable doughnut institution crossed the line by introducing a model in dark-colored paint into an urban area, where HRW representatives were apparently enjoying coffee and doughnuts while discussing Khmer Rouge atrocities.

According to a recent AP article,  “Dunkin’ Donuts has apologized for the ‘insensitivity’ of an advertising campaign in Thailand featuring a woman in blackface makeup to promote a new chocolate flavored doughnut… the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Thailand came under criticism Friday after Human Rights Watch called the advertisements ‘bizarre and racist.’ The company’s chief executive in Thailand initially defended the campaign, but the U.S. headquarters quickly followed up with an apology.”

The article goes on to state  “The New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was shocked to see an American brand name running an advertising campaign that would draw ‘howls of outrage’ if released in the United States. ‘It’s both bizarre and racist that Dunkin’ Donuts thinks that it must color a woman’s skin black and accentuate her lips with bright pink lipstick to sell a chocolate doughnut,’ said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. ‘Dunkin’ Donuts should immediately withdraw this ad, publicly apologize to those it’s offended and ensure this never happens again.’ “

“Hours before the apology was issued by Dunkin’ Donuts headquarters, the company’s chief executive in Thailand dismissed the criticism as ‘paranoid American thinking.’  ‘It’s absolutely ridiculous,’ the CEO Nadim Salhani said in a telephone interview. ‘We’re not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don’t get it. What’s the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?’ Salhani said that the Thai franchise of Dunkin’ Donuts operates independently of the American operation and that doughnut sales have increased about 50 percent since the campaign was launched around two weeks ago, which he attributed to curiosity about the new advertisements. ‘Not everybody in the world is paranoid about racism, said Salhani, a Lebanese expatriate in Thailand who said his teenage daughter was the model featured in the campaign.”

Thailand is a nation where just about everything is considered “sanuk,”(fun)  and virtually everyone is a target for humor. Thais have no problem laughing at themselves. The United States, on the other hand, is a nation where just about everything is open to a lawsuit, virtually everyone is thin-skinned, and as far as humor is concerned, “That’s Not Funny!” U.S. citizens spend millions of dollars a year on therapy because they can’t laugh at themselves.

One Bangkok-based entertainment provider we know refers to those of African origin as “Chocolate People,” easier for her than “black” (not a definitive descriptive of skin color) or “African-Thai” (she says she hasn’t yet met a Thai born in Africa). She welcomes and charges the same to everyone, regardless of skin color. We would guess she’s representative of the vast majority of Thais.

A question that no one seems to be asking is whether Human Rights Watch is diluting its effectiveness by seeing racism around every corner. The proliferation of skin-lightening creams in Thailand is a serious health issue. Might HRW be more effective if it took the time to address the very real problem of companies selling products to those wishing to have lighter skin, rather than in busting a doughnut shop?

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