BANGKOK — Think of “advertising” and it usually conjures TV spots and billboards touting insurance, sugary drinks and skin products.
That’s why many were surprised to learn the nation’s fourth largest advertiser last month was the Prime Minister’s Office, which spent 129.4 million baht in June. The same agency spent 205.6 million baht in June 2016, more than Coca Cola (135.1 million baht) and Toyota (197.7 million baht).
The report, published recently by international media monitoring and ratings firm Nielsen, also found the government spends more on advertising than megacorps such as Isuzu and ThaiBev. The only advertiser consistently outspending the office in the time periods tracked was Unilever, which spent 329.1 million baht last month and 448.8 million baht in June 2016.
A government spokesman said Wednesday that the data is misleading.
“The information does not convey reality,” Lt. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said by phone.
According to Sansern, the paper lumped together numerous agencies that answer to the prime minister, such as the Thai Health Foundation, Royal Thai Police and Office of the Narcotics Control Board.
“In the past, they were part of the Prime Minister’s Office, but at present, they are separate entities. They have their own structures and planning,” Sansern said, adding that the Thai Health Foundation alone accounted for 29 million baht of ad spending.
But transparency activist Srisuwan Janya questioned why the government must pay for publicity in the first place when it already has broadcasting agencies for its own use.
“It’s strange, because the state has many media agencies in its own hands, such as the National News Agencies, MCOT and the military radio network,” said Srisuwan, who often denounces financial irregularities in government.
Srisuwan also said the constitution requires the state to only publicize information that is “beneficial” to the public, and not publicity campaigns for any particular government or official.
“They have to tell people what the state will be doing, where and how,” the activist said. “If they do PR to improve the image of the prime minister, the ministers or certain state agencies, it may violate the constitution.”
Government spokesman Sansern wouldn’t say how much the Prime Minister’s Office has actually spent on publicity.
“If you want that information, you can always file a request to see it,” he said.
Anytime a government engages in marketing efforts it risks propagandizing.
In February 2016, the military government spent an undisclosed amount to wrap several major newspapers in advertorial covers promoting its plans and burnishing its image.
— Bob James (@NotThatBobJames) February 25, 2016
Critics of successive governments have long made nonpartisan complaints that taxpayer money has been used on publicity campaigns verging on propaganda. And state-sponsored ads are highly coveted by media agencies as a lucrative source of income.
The current military government has frequently launched public relations blitzes aimed at winning hearts and minds.
June’s top 10 advertisers by spending, excluding classifieds and real estate, per Nielsen:
1. UNILEVER (THAI) HOLDINGS 329.1 million baht
2. TOYOTA MOTOR THAILAND CO.,LTD. 147.1 million baht
3. COCA-COLA (THAILAND) 135.1 million baht
4. OFFICE OF THE PRIME MINISTER 129.4 million baht
5. TRI PETCH ISUZU SALES CO.,LTD. 129 million baht
6. THAI LIFE INSURANCE PCL. 103.7 million baht
7. PROCTER & GAMBLE (THAILAND) 103.6 million baht
8. THAI BEVERAGE (PUBLIC) CO.,LTD. 99.4 million baht
9. ADVANCE INFO SERVICE PCL. 98.2 million baht
10. COLGATE-PALMOLIVE (THAILAND) LTD 95 million baht