Emslie Horniman Award – Bronwyn Alison Isaacs

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Award Holder: Bronwyn Alison Isaacs
University: Harvard University
Title of Research: Making Creativity Cheap: Embodied and Ethical Labor in Advertising Production, Bangkok

Introduction & Aims:

My RAI funded research investigated the relationship between media images, politics and value through an ethnographic exploration of advertising production processes in Bangkok. The project focused on the production of video commercials for TV and online screen platforms, produced for a variety of Thai and international clients. Approaching the entire spectrum of artistic and manual work in advertising production as inherently creative, my research had three main aims. In summary, these were 1) To investigate the historical and political and economic conditions under which Bangkok has grown local and international demand for its advertising production services. 2) To better understand the everyday ethical and economic challenges that Bangkok production workers experience. 3) To trace the value of creative labour as it travels through the processes of advertising production, circulating through different political and market configurations.


My research methods were primarily ethnographic but also included semi-structured interviews in addition to smaller projects focusing on archival and historical research. Originally, I had planned to order the ethnographic research and other research strategies sequentially. Owing to the long time that it took to expand contacts and research access across all levels of the advertising industry however, it proved more fortuitous to integrate the different kinds of research as opportunity arose.  When I began the research project in 2016 I had already established some useful contacts on previous short-term research trips. Some of these original contacts proved quite valuable, including one company who I visited and worked for regularly over the majority of my time on this research trip. For this company I visited often in a trainee capacity, but as time progressed I also took on more responsibility including providing services as an acting coach, translator and writer and assistant producer. Historical and archival research methods that I used included obtaining industry magazines from the 1980s and 1990s, interviewing people who had worked in the industry for several decades, reviewing local language books and unpublished theses at university libraries in Bangkok and working with a research assistant to review planning documents at the metropolitan office of planning.

Approximately half way through my research, King Bhumibol, the monarch of Thailand died. The King had reined in Thailand for seventy years and his death was a historic moment which affected every sector of politics, business and public life in Bangkok. The advertising industry was placed under a one month ban, and even after the ban advertising was restrained in its themes and content. This historic interruption influenced both my research questions and methodology.  

Prior to the King’s death, my experience of working with advertising production crews had opened my awareness to layers of political conservatism and censorship which the advertising industry practiced under the military-led government. During the King’s death and subsequent mourning period, I had the opportunity to better understand the social hierarchies that gave power to this form of compulsory and voluntary censorship of the media. During this time I deliberately pursued interview with Thai media companies, advertising industry associations and individuals working in different sectors of the Thai media industry who I hoped would help me better understand the informal and formal censorship processes at work. I also spent a few months working part time on a research project based at the area immediately around the palace where many public mourning activities took place. This side research strategy overlapped with my long-term research strategies, as advertising production companies visited and filmed patriotic advertising videos within at the mourning site.  

Challenges in the Field:

The industry that I had chosen to focus my research – the advertising industry in Bangkok, and my own position within it, offered several challenges to my anthropological research project.

Firstly, all sectors of the advertising industry in Thailand, from local equipment services to the regional offices of international corporations proved difficult to contact and access. For example, through a combination of pursing contacts and persisting in visits and phone calls, I finally secured an interview with one well known Thai production company after three years of occasional contact. Other companies would consider the possibility of a visit or interview through months of calls and emails before finally denying my request for a visit. While this guardedness called for greater patience than I would have liked, it did lead me to look for different reasons companies restricted access. These reasons included a high premium placed on client confidentiality and relationships, the existence of small production companies operating outside of official taxation and censorship processes and the extremely long work hours that many in the industry practiced.

A second challenge to my research, was the way in which my identity and status was interrupted by those around me. I learned that across all sectors of advertising, I was usually read as a foreign, educated and “respectable” white woman. When conducting interviews with media or advertising companies, this identity was, to some extent, an asset. When conducting ethnography with production teams however, it lead to many expressions of shyness or distancing.  In advertising production, men older than myself, at the top of the social hierarchy of authority, seemed most comfortable with my presence. These men readily read my social position towards them as Nong, (younger sibling), and subsequently often spoke with me confidently and openly as a teacher might treat a student.  While there were notable exceptions, including those people who grew more comfortable with me over time, I found that women working in production, and men younger than myself, often read me as intimidating, or socially ambiguous. In addition to this, my research sometimes did not progress in ways I had hoped because many working in advertising production did not think of me and my work as cool or trend-cutting. While these different readings of my status or position was frustrating and isolating at times, it did alert me to the strong hierarchy through which everyday social interactions in the industry were negotiated.

Contribution to Anthropology:

Across global media industries the lines between commercial, political, and social spheres are becoming increasingly blurred. My research offers evidence as to how the seemingly meaningless media of the twenty-first century does not occupy an uncontrolled, ungoverned space, but rather a diversity of overlapping spaces that distribute images, sound and information according to highly influential hierarchies of power, influence, and control.

My research uncovers examples of ways in which the manual labor and social investments of Thai laborers have become a significant form of value enabling new forms of profit in the international advertising industry. The industry is quickly restructuring according to the new value chains of online media. Academic criticism of the unstable, precarious work conditions that predominate in post-fordist, creative, online economies has drawn attention to the representation of workers as individual, self-motivated agents. My research site is an example of this kind of flexible, creative work, but it belies the representation of workers as atomized agents working towards goals of self actualization. It also rebukes philosophical assumptions about creativity as the work of individual genius (Kant 1892). Rather, Thai production workers are motivated in both creativity and career based on primarily social considerations.

My research offers ethnographic description of how Bangkok based production workers cultivate specific forms of beauty, skill and social intimacy in their bodies such as providing each other with massages and physical affection in the work place, developing expertise in gendered performances of language and body movement. Bangkok workers also work hard to make their presence attractive to their colleagues and clients through building moral qualities such as “riap roi” (pleasant beauty) and “barami” (moral esteem). Mutuality, or substitute kinship, formed in Thai production houses through shared meals, sleeping spaces, physical intimacy, romantic relationships, and friendship is a crucial resource in the Thai advertising industry. The invisibility of this labor, and the misrecognition about the production process its invisibility produces, are crucial to maintaining industry and market fantasies about where creativity originates and what the communication tool of advertising represents.  

I further interpret this creative labor through the lens of what Michael Herzfeld (1988) calls “social poetics” that is, an anthropological analysis of the minute and subtle differences in language, gesture, dress, visual iconicity and other semiotic modalities that are powerful in the reifying and dissembling cultural stereotypes. Within the “global hierarchy of value” (Herzfeld 2004), the yardsticks of international capitalism, efficacy, affordability and civility demand particular kinds of working bodies, and it would appear in global advertising market that Thai working bodies have been deemed particularly suitable for the project of making video advertising. I argue that the value provided by the body in advertising is a culturally intimate value. It relies on relationships and experiences of sex and gender that are not seen on screen, but well known to the people who work behind the scenes. These bodies are working in assemblages with other bodies and forms of technology. But in the process of creating the perfect image, the body itself, performing, pretending, inhabiting otherness, is indispensable.

Simultaneous to the existence of a global hierarchy of value in which Thai labour is idealised, local ideals of value and beauty are cultivated in Bangkok and exported to the world. Bangkok based advertising production companies work for many Thai clients, but they also create commercials for a surprisingly high percentage of international clients from all across the world. Aesthetic trends popular in Bangkok video production such as skin whitening, the use of lighting to create “glowing” human bodies, using pale color palettes, and representing humans through exaggerated, extra-human visual style are all used by Thai production workers when producing advertising videos for regional and international audiences. My research therefore investigates the ways that powerful political and social hierarchies in Thailand have exerted and extended their influence throughout the South East Asian region and across the globe via a local Thai aesthetics of beauty and idealized conceptions of value.

Since the 2014 Thai military coup, a new genre of advertising has risen in Thailand which relies on emotionally laden and nostalgic narratives in order to connect with increasingly cynical and distrusting consumer audiences. In my field research, I discovered that the pedagogical content of this emotional advertising accelerated even further following the death of King Bhumibol in 2016. In my contribution to the anthropology of political media, I argue for the necessity of understanding contemporary class aspiration and stratification when pursuing meaning in seemingly senseless media images. During the period of my research, the conservative political, visual, and narrative messages in Thai advertising became increasingly similar to official military media and propaganda, revealing overlapping class and social hierarchies between market and political spheres. For example, political and commercial images in Thailand increasingly use similar editing and camera techniques to alter color palettes, and create ‘aura’ (circles of light and pale color) upon the image of authority figures. These include personages military, religious, celebrity, and monarchical.

My research reveals an attempt by political and social elites to use the power of visual imagery to reassert existing power inequalities and to silence social dissent and deter democratic activity. Jackson (2004) described the historical changes in political treatment of the Thai King’s image over his life time, as the building of a “regime of images”. Thai political elites, Jackson argues, attempted to create a representational politics of civilized nation building, through a heavy policing of public images simultaneously alongside a contradictory disinterest and lack of policing in private life. Since the 2014 coup however, I argue, that the non-policed “private” space has been shrinking and the “public” space is redefined through the pervading expansion of the “regime of images” through new forms of official and non-official censorship that deter criticism and public democratic activity. In tracing this changing boundary of image circulation and censorship, my research project also contributes to anthropological scholarship on the place of emotion and affect in politics. I attend to the changing relationship between self-censorship, image circulation and social-political imagination, with a view to understanding both Thai social experience and new market and political configurations within global media industries.

References Cited:

Herzfeld, Michael. 1988. The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Herzfeld, Michael. 2004. The Body Impolitic : Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jackson, Peter. 2004. “The Thai Regime of Images.” SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 181–218.
Kant, Immanuel. 1892. Critique of Judgment. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications