Malaysia-bound Part 5: the messages behind retail advertising

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One of the (many) things I’ve noticed since moving to KL is the pervasive advertising. It’s everywhere – from street signs, on the highways, on bridges… basically anywhere where there is enough space to put a banner. The advertisements range from schools advertising their version of the latest must-have for the success your 2.2 children, through to roadside graffiti advertising “cheese massages”. Oh yes, this a thing apparently.

cheese massage advertisement

Another thing you notice is the pervasive use of Caucasian models in advertising for a country which has predominantly South-Asian population.

I am of the view that advertising is merely a mode of communication – one that happens to have a commercial imperative. Sometime’s it’s an objective affair – here are some of the features of this product which is being offered at this price. Other times advertising appeals to the emotional core of a person. It will somehow change your life for the better, or elevate your social status or you’ll just love it (who cares what it does).

I’ve been wondering what the messages behind these advertisements featuring Caucasian models might be, given the intended audience is almost exclusively South-Asian (i.e. everyone except category “E”):


Typically, advertisements for fashion, beauty products and apparel appeal to the more emotive side of the intended viewer. Ergo, “if you wear this brand of clothing, shop here, or carry around this handbag, it will make you look this attractive/sophisticated/sexy”. The dominant message here is: “THIS COULD BE YOU.” However, when the model is Aryan-looking, 6ft4″, it’s pretty obvious that that wasn’t the intended message – buying that suitcase won’t exactly make your hair turn blonde make you look wistfully away from cameras.

Advertising messages in MY (8)

It seems to me the message might be: “This brand/suitcase is so good, it’s good enough for Caucasian people. Isn’t that reason enough to buy it?” If we break it down,  the message might be: “Look at how sophisticated standing jauntily leaning on your TUMI suitcase makes you look.” (after all, it speaks nothing of the features of the product on display). If we consider why the model looks sophisticated in the eyes of the average (South-Asian) viewer, I imagine some part of it is because the model Mat Salleh (a white person, or a foreigner).

Uncomfortable at best.

Advertising messages in MY (2)

I don’t think it is a conscious decision on the part of the advertiser to reinforce the idea that foreigners/Caucasians are more sophisticated and “set the standard” so to speak. It may well be that the fast-fashion retail chain shoots its campaigns in one go with its primary markets in mind, then distributes a single set of promotional mterials without localising the content. However, just because the message conveyed in an advertisement wasn’t an intentional one doesn’t make it any less potent.

Advertising messages in MY (6)

I don’t imagine this is unique to Malaysia – however I question whether conflating positive traits of being sophisticated, attractive, sexy, cultured, worldly with being foreign/Caucasian may have a negative influence on how Malaysians view themselves.

Advertising messages in MY (7)

I don’t really blame the advertisers (or the models – if you’ve got a sweet modelling gig then awesome.) Ultimately, advertisements are a message driven by a commercial imperative – to make consumers buy their products. If the target market would actually think lesser of a product if locals model their wares (as opposed to exotic imports from faraway wealthy countries) it makes perfect (commercial) sense to perpetuate this message by continuing to use Caucasian models to advertise your wares.

Advertising messages in MY (5)

At the same time, I wonder whether there is an opportunity here. I’d like to see commercial advertisements that portray Malaysians as the “next-gen sophisticated”. After all, how much more cultured can you get than coming from a country with a melting-pot of races ,with an English colonial history, where the average person speaks a multitude of languages?

Another thing. You can’t block out a message you aren’t conscious of. Until Malaysians recognise what the underlying message these advertisements convey I doubt we’ll see much done about it, and advertisers will continue to perpetuate the idea that anything foreign/Caucasian is inherently superior. >_<

Advertising messages in MY (9)

– Chris.

Author: Chris Park

One half of the Park Brothers. Purveyor of banter, curator of misc. Manage comms for @BuoyandMine. Read More

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