Analysis: What Makes Thai TV Commercials Work?9 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
The advertising world is an industry of sharp contradictions. On one hand, they can seem philistine and sinister. On the other, they are seen as an intricate art form worthy of passionate analysis and discussion. The end goal of all adverts and brand films is unmistakable but the means to reach it hardly is.
The primary focus of all advertising is to get potential customers to spend money on advertised products. The filmmaking craft and its power to influence is a natural fit for the industry. Over the years, advertising has bubbled into a high-stakes arena of large-scale productions with budgets that dwarf even modest feature-length films. Yet, time and time again, it has been proven that a large budget is hardly a guarantor of success in the advertising world — above all else, persuasion is key.
For decades, Thailand has stood amongst titans in the global advertising industry. Despite ad spending being comparatively lower than the giants in the field, the country is home to countless award-winning commercials that have moved and fascinated the world over. Thai commercials are known for both their hilarious, over-the-top skits and their merciless tearjerkers. Many have looked to emulate their style — especially of the latter kind — but none have been quite as successful as them.
To break down what is it about Thai commercial that works, we examine the psychology behind advertising, and how television commercial (TVC) directors have finessed with the modes of persuasion in their works. Then, we examine the film language used in Thai commercials before magnifying the importance of commercials as cultural bookmarks.
The Modes of Persuasion
Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that there are three main ways to influence an audience. They are based on the idea that the speaker’s character — or in this case, brand image — is integral in persuasion.
“Ethos” appeals through authority, where persuasion is established through the credibility of the speaker. Toothpaste and health supplement commercials come to mind, where they usually feature statements by doctors and medical professionals. In the same vein, celebrity endorsements are a common tactic. Ethos does a lot of heavy-lifting in film marketing, where a film’s stars and accolades are always prominently featured in marketing collaterals.
These are examples of ethos through figures with in-built credibility. Doctors must know what they are talking about when it comes to medicine. The film must be good if it won an Oscar.
The lack of ethos can be disastrous. It may be the key reason why many are turned off by commercials requesting their time — even if it’s just 35 seconds — when who is speaking to them hasn’t established their authority or knowledge. Ads that don’t feature in-built credibility can posture to suggest otherwise. This is where camera techniques can come in, such as through filming actors at an eye level with flattering lighting.
“Pathos” is the appeal to emotions. It is the form that is perhaps most familiar in today’s advertising space. Whether it’s through humour, fear, or sadness, the idea is to find common ground on an emotional level. The key is emotional manipulation; just about every ad for beauty products appeals to fear. Filmmaking techniques bring the finishing touches to any pathos-focused commercial, such as through intense close-ups of interlocked hands, scrounged-up faces, or juicy steaks sizzling on the grill.
“Logos” appeals to logic and reason by presenting apparent facts or statistics. Numbers, commonly confused for precision, accuracy or greatness, are often used in advertising to legitimise a product and make purchases a sensible choice. This is seen in commercials for health supplements and commercials for tech products. However, unlike print adverts where numbers are static, keen editing is necessary for statistics to make an impact.
The three modes of persuasion form the basis of advertising and marketing. However, there are a few more nuances required to stand out in today’s saturated market. “Kairos”, or timeliness of a message, is just as important as an ad’s content. It’s integral to understand the audience and to give them what they need to hear the most when they need to hear it.
Above all, having a memorable ad — barring for the wrong reasons — will always triumph over anything else. It’s an obvious statement worth repeating because it highlights the importance of creativity and storytelling. This, especially when finding the behind-the-scenes credits for any advertisement is an unnecessarily tedious exercise. There are definitely teachable tactics for effective advertising. What isn’t is the eye, mind and style that each filmmaker brings to the table.
What Makes Thai Commercials so Effective?
Multinational ad agencies played a noteworthy role in forming Thailand’s advertising industry; key figures in the industry today were trained by these corporations. The industry began making waves as early as the 1970s, with several local agencies and advertising awards established during this decade.
A larger role, however, should be attributed to the industry’s bouts with government regulations over the decades. For most of the 20th century, the Thai government looked to wrangle and control the media’s voice to protect their interests and traditional Thai culture. In turn, this formed a strong culture amongst the people where creativity and freedom of expression are prized.
Both of these created conditions where a career in the advertising industry is highly sought after, becoming the prime destination for Thailand’s best creative minds. Why Thai commercials are able to punch above their weight can be seen through this unduplicatable reverence and passion for the industry.
Today, Thai television commercials can fall under two main categories: hilarious skits and heart-tugging “sadvertising”. Why they are universally acclaimed can be attributed to their focus on pathos. Hardly do these advertisements feature statistics or details on the product. Celebrities are featured but rarely is their star power or endorsements leaned on. Thai commercials value ‘feeling’ over ‘thinking’, giving them their broad, cross-borders appeal.
Each category follows easily recognisable formulas. This familiarity almost always works in their favour; familiarity is the basis of any relationship. Comedic skits feature radical tonal shifts, often with emasculated characters involved in slapstick and over-the-top humour. Sex appeal is another common inclusion. Even when Thai culture is a consistent theme, these commercials transcend borders through their flurry of emotions and focus on physical humour.
“Sadvertising” almost always play with time, bouncing between the past and present to mimic nostalgia and timelessness. They rarely frame more than two subjects at a time, only breaking from this rule to signify disaster and distress. When the camera moves in for a close-up, they relay the important bits of life, such as touch, letters, or stress-inducing debt. These techniques create a sense of intimacy which invites viewers to graft their own memories and experiences onto the advertisement. If all these weren’t effective enough, heartrending pianos and a willingness to show macabre imagery should get the tears flowing.
In both categories, viewers are primed to expect twists and tropes. It is in this narrow space that further values creativity and keen storytelling.
Both categories almost always only feature the product at the end of the advert. In funny commercials, this placement allows the product to be part of the punchlines, further adding to their memorability. In sad commercials, the placement overcomes some of the traditional challenges in advertising. Insurance marketing has always been a conundrum for marketers with how they conjure up grim emotions that most would rather not think about.
Instead of suggesting the marketed product as the solution, this formula acquaints the product with touching, empowering, and human stories, tying brand recognition with everyday sights and characters. This places the product in a supporting role, but a role nonetheless.
No matter the category, mediocre performances are practically non-existent in Thai commercials. There is seemingly no qualms in being the butt of jokes, or in ripping themselves apart for tear-jerkers. Acting in television commercials favours a more theatrical approach, where expressions and emotions are exaggerated to achieve maximum impact — not many understand and execute this better than in the Thai industry.
Is Advertising Really Only About Selling Products?
Thai commercials’ focus on ethos melds with the country’s culture and religion, which prizes humility, compassion, and freedom of expression. While this attack on emotions has a universal appeal, the approach is not the most optimal everywhere else.
Japanese advertisements are similarly known to be wild and off-kilter but they are more focused on being unconventional than being relatable ala Thai commercials. This approach works in Japanese society where radical departures from conformity and uniformity can easily grab attention.
Over in America, ethos and logos are far more regarded. Celebrity culture has valued endorsements, while advertisements are peppered with reports, product specifications and infographics. The main role of pathos is in relating to the American culture of non-conformity and rebellion.
While ad agencies around the world struggled amidst the pandemic, this commercial, directed by industry giant Suthisak Sucharittanonta, proudly showcased the creative wit of the Thai advertising industry
“Sadvertising” will not work everywhere but a lot can still be picked up by storytellers and filmmakers, particularly of the film language used. Perhaps the biggest challenge for TVC directors is in the medium’s short-form format, where there is a need for balance between brevity and depth. This requires tact that has largely gone unappreciated outside of — and sometimes even within — the advertising world.
Similar to a world without lawyers, perhaps the world would be better off without advertising agencies and their seemingly manipulative agendas. Yet, a world without advertising would also lose a lot of its spark, excitement and even cultural significance.
Given their goal, commercials are forced to boil down and best capture zeitgeists into easily understandable forms. More than just through their aesthetics, they reflect the hopes and fears of the times. It’s the job of marketers to identify these. It’s the job of TVC directors to bring them to life.