Unilever has been forced to apologise after launching an advert for a skin whitening cream which appeared to offer scholarships to university students with fairer skin.
The “Citra 3D Brightening Girls Search” runs until the end of October and has cash prizes of scholarships up to £2,000.
The advert shows two presenters asking female students on a university campus what would make them look “outstanding in uniform”.
The first girl, with a darker complexion, appears to be confused by the question.
The second girl, with a fairer complexion – whom presenters described as “beautiful” – said Citra products would help.
Posts on social media sites have criticized the campaign for associating education with whiter skin, which is already seen as linked with a higher economic status in Thailand.
One user on the Bangkok Post wrote: “Now you can get a scholarship because of white skin – not because of good studying, not if you are poor and dark.”
Another poster said Thai people were “brainwashed” into wanting to be white.
Skin whitening products are popular in Thailand, helped by the popularity of fair-skinned models and actors.
The obsession with fairer skin tones in Thailand has a long history and can be seen in Thai literature and paintings. Darker skin tones had been associated with field workers whereas lighter skin tones had been associated with people with a higher economic or political status.
Yukti Mukdawijitra, an anthropology professor at Bangkok’s ThammasatUniversity told The Wall Street Journal that the desire for lighter skin tones was later influenced by the influx in the early 19th century of East Asian nationals, predominantly the Chinese and Japanese who generally have a lighter skin tone than Thais.
He said: “Having a lighter skin makes people feel that they belong to a higher class, or have a better chance to climb the social ladder.
“Those who have a naturally dark complexion have developed a self-esteem problem that is now becoming a national crisis.”
Unilever Thai Trading said in a statement: “The campaign, developed in Thailand, had no intent to suggest racial discrimination.
“We apologise for any misunderstanding regarding the campaign.
“The Citra brand will exercise greater sensitivity for brand activation campaigns that take place in the future.”