Thailand’s “Mad Men” are doing what they do best – creating tearjerker adverts that leave viewers scrambling for the tissue box.
“Sadvertising” has exploded around the world in recent years as brands jostle to engage customers and stand out from competitors.
An annual nostalgia-tinged Christmas commercial from the British retailer John Lewis has become a festive tradition in Britain, while Budweiser’s Lost Dog pulled heart strings and swept advertising awards in the United States.
But few are doing it with such devastating efficacy as the Thais, where the adverts are often as gruelling as they are memorable.
To outsiders, Thailand advertises itself as the Land of Smiles, but it is more emotionally complex than that.
The Thai language has more than 100 phrases that use the word heart – “jai” – to discuss a whole gamut of emotions, while its soap operas are renowned for their notoriously tragic storylines.
The same is true of adverts. One recent spot, for a lingerie brand, pivots on a woman diagnosed with cancer on the same day she discovers she is pregnant, leaving her with the heart-wrenching choice of risking the baby’s life with chemotherapy or her own.
Another, accompanied by the trademark soft piano music and a melancholic voice-over, is about a deaf and dumb father who saves his daughter with a blood transfusion after she attempts suicide.
The emotional punch packed by such adverts has flummoxed many international viewers, with videos of non-Thais trying not to weep through the adverts doing the rounds on YouTube.
“This is so horrible,” exclaims one viewer under the name Deadlox as he watches the advert featuring the girl who attempts suicide, which was commissioned by a life insurance company. “Why would they do that?” he asks of the filmmakers.
Jinn Powprapai, the founder of CJ Worx, a Bangkok agency that specialises in producing emotional viral adverts, offers an explanation. “Being a Buddhist is all about giving and caring. We tend to always have an emotional sympathy for people less fortunate than us.”
One of the company’s recent commissions was from Khrung Thai Bank, a state-owned entity looking to promote its scholarship fund.
After months of back and forth they settled on two long internet spots. One tells the tragic tale of a female student who learns to conquer her fear of the neighbourhood dog Olieng after his elderly owner dies.
Girl and dog then become inseparable, until she returns from school one day to find it fatally injured by a car. Olieng eventually dies in her arms as memories of his happy life with the girl flash before his fading canine eyes.
The advert then skips to the present day where the girl has become a vet and is patching up another person’s beloved pooch.
“While others were lost in life’s bad moments,” a voice-over states, “she recognises the good times are an inspiration to reach our dreams”.
Since its release on 11 January, the advert has racked up 12 million views and more than 350,000 shares on Facebook and 1.68 million views on YouTube.
Phil Townsend, the Asia-Pacific managing director of Unruly, which specialises in getting adverts to emotionally resonate with viewers, says creatives around the world are taking note of Thailand’s tearful output.
“We get a lot of people asking us: ‘How can we make videos like that?’,” he says.
Dave McCaughan, a veteran of advertising who spent nearly three decades across Asia with McCann, believes the rise of the genre is linked to rapid economic and social changes – and growing disquiet over what the future holds.
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