Backlash Against ‘Poverty Porn’ Thai Life Insurance Ad

BANGKOK — Yad doesn’t know anything about the new normal, and doesn’t seem to be aware of silly issues like unemployment and inflation. He’s a simple-minded rural man who plants rice with his bare hands, while a piano cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” plays in the background.

That’s how Thai Life Insurance portrayed Yad in its latest emotional commercial, which was panned by many for its condescending, simplistic, and tone-deaf “poverty porn” content that seems to downplay real problems faced by Thailand’s poor. 

“Yad graduated at fourth grade. He is an ordinary man who asks himself who we really are. What we should do. What we really need. How we should live,” the voiceover says.

The ad features a poor security guard with a sick son and loan sharks on his tail who decides to move back to his upcountry home, and lives an idyllic life off the land. 

Shots of rice fields and grilled catfish are contrasted against the cruel city, where he lives on the streets begging for food, and a montage of the coronavirus crisis worldwide.  

The ad, titled “Life Purpose,” faced a backlash almost immediately after its launch on Thursday. 

Design for Life, a page that makes pro-democracy graphics, berated the ads in a series of posts Monday. The page’s admin, who is from a very rural background, said that in reality, farming in Thailand is difficult, heavy labor with little money in return.

“Recently, I had to help my elderly parents dry husks of rice…if those damn ad people came and saw us, they would quickly take some panorama shots of the golden sun and add in some soft piano music and a voiceover to talk about how wonderful village life is,” he wrote. 

“But when I sweep up and carry 50 bags of rice, there’s nothing freaking beautiful about it,” the admin added. “Ad agencies in Bangkok have eternally frozen this image of rural people…but nowadays, nobody wants their hardship and poverty to be used for a romanticized, seven-figure production ad.”

Many netizens also said that recommending upcountry workers to “go home and farm” is widely simplistic – not only is it a hard way to make a living, there are also cycles of drought and few farmers actually own land. 

“The ad is saying that poor people should stay poor, and be happy in their poor lives, with no right to strive to be richer or even to dream of it,” the top comment on the YouTube video by Adisak Yamdee said. “Many people do not own land that they can farm on. And agriculture is not a simple, easy task.” 

“Nonsense. The ad maker doesn’t even know how rice is planted, farmers’ real problems, why they can’t live off the land and have to come to Bangkok to work,”  tweeted @Sittiporn, a lecturer at Uttaradit Rajabhat University. 

“They just made it using the simple mindset of telling rural people to go home and farm so they will have food to eat.” 

Commercials espousing the philosophy of por piang, or “sufficiency economy,” popularized by the late King Rama IX are common, and they often feature characters returning to the Thai countryside to live a simpler life. 

A por piang ad by Isuzu that launched in 2016 and played in Major Cineplex movie theaters also faced intense criticism online, for glorifying a story of two university graduates who decide to live a rural life farming in Surin.