Asia's economic tigers are not burning bright. there is trouble in paradise. Plunging currencies and soaring debts mean that chaos and uncertainty have replaced decades of orderly economic growth.
In South Korea, four of the chaebol, the industrial conglomerates that dominate the economy, have gone bankrupt. From smoldering Indonesia, a pall of smoke swirls over the region, closing schools and factories and driving away tourists. Only a year ago, the World Bank forecast a decade of growth. And Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia's feisty prime minister, says financial woes have set his country's development back 10 years.
One of the first industries to feel the economic pinch has been advertising. In North Korea, growth has plummeted. In Indonesia, ad spending in newspapers may fall 40 percent this year, while Malaysian agencies could see zero growth in '98. But the greatest ironic twist to the ad industry in the Far East is taking place in Thailand.
The initial news is troubling. "Clients aren't making commitments," says Sodsoi Chamtavit, creative director of Spa, the largest Thai-owned agency. "The industry has come to a standstill."
Indeed, four newspapers have closed down: The Thailand Times, The Asia Times, both English-language dailies, plus Thai Thurakit Finance and Thai Financial. Bangkok agencies have cut staffers and axed regional expansion plans. Spa has delayed opening new offices in Indochina, while Ogilvy & Mather Thailand has axed staff handling client projects in neighboring countries.
Zero growth is expected in Thai billings in '97, while a 15 percent drop is predicted for '98. In '96, Thai billings were $1.4 billion. Factor in the 20 percent drop in the value of the Thai baht, and reality gets grimmer. "The picture of nonstop Asian growth was dangerous and illusive. The dollar yield [in 1998] from the ASEAN markets [will fall as much as] 20 percent," says Miles Young, O&M's president for Asia/Pacific.
Yet despite its fiscal problems, Thailand's advertising creativity has prospered. The growth years nurtured a confident, highly creative industry, drawing on rich cultural traditions and led by Thais rather than expatriates. "It's also strongly focused on brands, has great production values and is often funny," says Michael Holt, creative director international at Bozell Worldwide in Hong Kong.
"The key word is fun," says Rutaiwan Wongsirasawad, creative director of JWT in Bangkok. "Thai consumers respond to humor. You can make fun of the product, of yourself, nothing is out of bounds. Recently, ads have become consumer-oriented, and consumers are very responsive."
It's a humor and irreverence that often veer toward slapstick. A Results commercial for inexpensive Black Cat Whisky, which won a bronze at Cannes, shows a mobster and his gang hunting a man who owes money yet can seemingly afford to drink a premium Scotch whisky. After a confrontational tour de force of martial arts, it turns out the drink is not the well-known Johnnie Walker Black Label, but the working man's tipple Black Cat. The erroneous informer gets his just desserts, while the rest of the mob join in the drinking. "In 30 seconds of fun, the brand is clearly positioned to the target consumer, the name is mentioned several times and we are told the price," says Wongsirasawad.
Humor has its dry side, too. A champion weight lifter has to keep his load aloft while the timer is fixed. "You must be a little uncomfortable. Does it hurt?" asks the judge. The spot, by O&M-owned Results for Counter Pain muscle balm, was a prize winner at this year's TACT (Top Advertising Contest of Thailand) awards and a silver award winner at Cannes.
Not surprisingly, humor comforts as domestic news grows worse. "People are so depressed. Simplicity, entertainment, ideas that relate to life are appreciated much more. It lifts all our spirits to laugh," adds Ammirati Puris Lintas' chief creative officer Thongchai Chansevikul.
Humor is also used to poke fun at Thai politicians. For example, the economic skills of the country's leaders are taken to task in Flagship's ads for the Financial Daily newspaper. People at the low end of Thai society wow the upper crust with a financial savvy that has eluded the country's economic managers.
One spot shows a cleaning lady talking in local dialect to executives in the men's room: "The Dow closed down 43 points. And while we're expecting results from the Summit, interest rates might decrease. Boy, will that have an impact on the economics crisis!" "If this were real life, you wouldn't need to read the Financial Daily," says the voiceover. With two other merciless spots, the Financial Daily took this year's best campaign award at TACT.
Not even the generals who dominated much of the country's recent history are off limits. Trying to rescue a kidnapped beauty queen, a military bigwig says he'll try sweet talking the kidnapper into surrendering. His ineptness is rewarded with a gun blast that takes out his stomach. Heroic tractor-man, young and handsome, comes to the rescue. Driving his powerful-yet-tiny Mitsubishi tractor, he demolishes the kidnapper's hideaway and rescues a damsel in distress. It's a winning message for a rural population.
Jokes aside, Thai commercials don't pull any punches-especially when tackling social problems such as drug abuse. "Every time you pierce a needle through your body, it pierces through your loved ones' hearts as well," says an Ammirati Puris Lintas spot, which features wrenching scenes of a parent killed by the pain of a child's drug abuse. "The campaign had tremendous impact, but we softened some of the spots," says Chansevikul.
Emotional range is a Thai specialty. Look at the poetic lyricism of Bhanu Inkawat's Leo Burnett ads for the Thai Petroleum Authority that honored HRH King Bhumibol's jubilee. Amid the urban brashness of Bangkok, the spots evoke core values of gentleness, warmth and a love for country. One spot traces the true story of a girl who spent her life teaching in a deprived region in Thailand.
"Creatives have found their own ways to combine Thai values with basic principles of advertising and communication," says Inkawat, Burnett's chairman and executive creative director. Will this sparkle be subdued by weighty economic problems? "I don't think so," says Chansevikul. "It means challenge, more work, smaller budgets and greater value for clients and consumers. Less is more."
Simplicity is the key for Thailand's ad industry. Consumers are smart. They watch a lot of television and appreciate ideas. "We must listen to what the consumer says. Research and planning are important," notes Wongsirasawad.
Assisted by Thailand's creative prowess, Asian advertising is rising to its toughest challenges. "I still expect growth [regionally]. Global clients are not panicking but sticking to their strategic plans. We'll be looking to grow in Japan, China and India," says Young.
And Bangkok still retains its charms, surprises and the occasional elephant. Stuck in traffic, a driver will pull out his flute and play a haunting lament. At O&M, the comforts of middle-class Thai life prevail. The tea ladies, maids and messengers remind us that past and present reign in harmony in Thailand.