Thai Sob Story Ads Make the World Sniffle… Not Change

 | Fri 18 Apr 2014 11:04 ICT

Another powerful Thai commercial has recently gone viral worldwide, with international newspapers and bloggers sharing the video and covering the content with either a cynical or teary-eyed touch. The commercial follows a strapping young lad on his daily rounds around town while he dishes out good deeds expecting no reward, although heartwarming results start flooding in towards the end of the commercial, and we see our hero paid back with “the feels”.

The commercial, ‘Unsung Hero‘, has reached a staggering 9.6 million views on Youtube. While eye-leaking techniques in adverts are a popular trend in Thailand, there are a few brands that have made sob stories their earmark. The third-largest mobile operator in Thailand, True Move, has been pushing out the sad 3-minute segments, with the most recent one gathering a preposterous 15.7 million views. Life insurance companies seem to have their hands in the pot of consumer tears as well, with one ad, ‘Silence of Love‘, telling the story of an ungrateful jerk of a daughter who struggles to love her dad because he’s deaf-mute and she’s being bullied by all the cruel kids at school. Much like an absurd Khantoke dinner performance, the girl ends up dramatically slitting her wrists and being rushed to the hospital, where poor dad loses his mind in grief. At the end of the commercial we see a nostalgic photo of a toddler holding daddy’s hand, and the caption “Remember to care for those who care for you.” which somehow justifies this story being a way to advertise life insurance. (So, wait, just to clear this up: I’m probably also a jerk to those I care about because I don’t have life insurance. Right?!)

Unfortunately, psychology tells us that our moving reactions to these sad segments in between empty-headed soap series and annoying slapstick game shows are, in fact, pretty superficial. By using negative emotions, guilt, and shaming, these over-reaching commercials are effectively failing to achieve their objectives, and will most likely end up not producing the desired response: getting us to buy their product and actually remember their brand five minutes after we get introduced. That’s because our sympathy hits a brick wall when no tangible solutions are offered to us, much the same way we feel helpless when watching a plea for help for starving children and other permanent, seemingly-unchangeable issues. By presenting an idealised version of reality, we feel a void that is immediately filled by the peace these fictional characters all miraculously find, or in the case of our Unsung Hero, a reward for all his good deeds. Our sadness is fleeting, and yet we feel so momentarily impacted that we yearn to be kinder, more patient and generous, and all-round better people. Good people. All for the duration of a toilet break or a takeaway heating up in the microwave. Then it’s back to our senseless series and dramatic movies, which actually go a lot further in influencing our ideas about the way we live our lives, due to their lack of a need to use guilt-triggers and psychological manipulation to win us over.

It might seem cynical, but the farce of modern advertising is still as painfully obvious as ever, except with better filming techniques and the power of social media as a tool for mass exposure. Ogilvy & Mather, an international advertising, marketing and public relations agency, has an impressive body of work spanning almost 60 years and thousands of creative hipster types fantasizing about landing a job with them. They’re also very good at emotionally manipulating the masses, however cool or succinct they might appear at a glance. The video, ‘Giving‘ follows the story of a noodle-shop owner who generously buys painkillers for a little boy who had been caught stealing them for his ill mother. The little boy then grows up to be a doctor, and when the noodle-shop owner becomes sick himself, the doctor repays him by wiping his hospital bill clean. Except, the video is much more emotionally-charged than its written description, and had viewers around the world clutching their tissues and promising to be kinder to strangers, more generous with their money, and never, never, slap sticky-fingered children. Other commenters were at a loss for words, and simply wrote things like “sobbing uncontrollably” or “omg all of the feels right now”. The video went on to grab Number 1 Advert of 2013 on USA Today and Most Ethical Advert of 2013 on Morally Marketed, and was touted around the internet by an endless stream of bloggers and tweeters, who hailed the advert as being a beacon of hope for wayward humanity. Guess which mega-firm was behind this global emotional breakdown? Yup, the “fathers” of advertising: Ogilvy & Mather.

It’s old news that advertisers have long played with our heartstrings by eliciting negative emotions through sad or unjust scenarios, and then offering us “relief reactions” by swiftly swiping the negative stimuli off the screen for good. Whew. Now we get to feel poignant and self-assured that we’re still good people by association, and we can have a good old sigh at the thought that there are Unsung Heroes doing their thoughtful business all over the world. The fresh cement has been relaid over the fact that there is always a “somebody else” to take care of every little one of life’s plots that might make us feel a bit down now and then. Somebody else will pay for that street kid to get an education, somebody else will feed a solitary old lady on a daily basis, somebody else will help the rather clumsy woman push her teetering food cart, and somebody else will definitely solve all the political hoo-ha in Thailand.

Funnily enough, it’s all this patronising reassurance that makes these adverts so salaciously addictive, just as craning your neck to get a glimpse of that car crash will make you feel sorry for the victims, sure, but ultimately it will make you feel better that it wasn’t you, and that’s what you’ll be left with. The sentimental Pantene ad ‘You Can Shine‘ is a great example of how Thailand adores cultural capitalism, and shares a ridiculous tale of a young deaf girl who dreams of playing the violin. In the opening segments, we see her bullied by a nasty young school girl (where are all these horrid Thai kids hiding?) who tells her she shouldn’t try and play the violin because she’s deaf, and managed to compare her to a duck trying to fly. The collective audience goes “Jeez, that was harsh”, and we now have a classic underdog/heroine. The girl makes friends with a homeless violinist (as young girls commonly do) and goes on to eventually play at a concert where she wins over the audience with her talents, which include the ability to whip her hair furiously around like a mad Medusa. These closing scenes naturally incorporate sprawling wheat fields and a butterfly blossoming from a cocoon in all its fast-motion CGI glory. The conclusion is an encore, a jealous bully put in her place, and the young violinist elegantly posed behind her perfectly sleek hair. Thanks, Pantene.

Don’t get me wrong, these advertisements are all beautifully captured and filled with gifted actors who should be put to better use in Oscar-worthy films. Reluctantly, I’ll admit to shedding a tear to nearly all of the videos I mentioned above, even while I know that I’m meant to be affronted by the corporations behind them (ahem, I’m looking at you, CP Group, aka The Richest Fat Cats in Thailand). But what’s important for me, and inspired me to write this piece, is that I want us all to remember that being a good person doesn’t come from shedding a tear for a fictional character that’s been served up by clever advertisers to evoke your goosebumps. Being a good person comes from caring for those around us, and being aware of those in need – both simple messages which seem to get lost in the swamp of these emotionally-convoluted commercials. But if these videos do in fact inspire you to do that, and leave a lasting impression rather than a transient shiver, then I truly am proud of our wayward humanity. So go out there and buy a homeless person a meal, help out a child in your neighbourhood, make friends with a scruffy street dog, and always be super kind and gracious to the elderly – you’ll actually be a better person for it, instead of just yearning to be one during a short-lived emotional reaction to a commercial.