Thai Culture Minister slams SNL 'Rosetta Stone' sketch

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 5, 2013 About two weeks ago, the long-running US-American TV-show "Saturday Night Live" on NBC* had a skit lampooning the language-learning software Rosetta Stone (see embedded video below). In the parody commercial, some of the testimonials claim to use the software to learn Thai, order "to go to Thailand - for a thing...!" Of course, given that these are sketchy-looking white male - that 'thing' could mean only one thing: these men are learning (surprisingly accurate) Thai phrases to engage with prostitutes - including the groan-inducing ping-pong reference.

Now, since the show is hardly shown anywhere but the United States and the 'meh'-sketch of course is tailored to an American audience by a comedy show that had its best days - you would think that this would go away very quickly, right? Not really: a bootleg was put on YouTube for the whole world to see until it eventually made its way to Thailand. And that's how the story kicked off.

While this doesn't qualify as 'viral' (that video only had slightly more than 120,000 views), the sketch sparked outrage and heated debate online among Thais. Most of the comments cannot be reproduced here, but you can read some of them (mostly in Thai) here. This story was quickly picked up by local mainstream media outlets like Channel 3, ThaiPBS and Thai Rath. While it is understandable that some Thais would take offense, some of the reactions were perhaps over the top.

And then the Thai Culture Minister chimed in...

Culture Minister Sonthaya Khunploem** said on Monday that the Culture Watch Centre is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an effort to have the video removed from the world's most popular video sharing website.

The government will also inform the United States embassy that the commercial spoof is tarnishing Thailand's image and will ask the embassy to explain the situation to the producer of Saturday Night Live, Mr Sonthaya said.

"Government to demand takedown of sex-trade spoof", Bangkok Post, February 4, 2013

Yes, the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything “Thai”-ness that we like to call the "ThaiMiniCult" are back and they inadvertently caused the Streisand effect to take place. While the YouTube video was removed, most likely because it too many people flagged it as spam (and not as Thai officials would like to think that YouTube has granted their request), more copies have popped up elsewhere, including the one embedded above.

And by moaning complaining to the US Embassy, it reveals the misguided conception by Thai officials that foreign officials can wield the same influence in their country as they do (or like to think they still can) here in Thailand, as the recent controversy over a cancelled soap opera and rumors about political interference has shown.

In general, Thailand tends to be very sensitive by negative perceptions of the country, especially if there are being pointed out by foreigners: Last summer upon her arrival in Bangkok, pop artist Lady Gaga tweeted her desire to buy a fake Rolex watch. The comment sparked outrage that climaxed with the Commerce Minister's official complaint at the US Embassy.

It is understandable that Thailand wants to protect its image, given the value of its booming tourism industry. However, there is no real attempt to address real and serious issues like the sex industry and in general, many inconvenient truths are being swept under the carpet for the sake of the Kingdom's image. It is an image (whether it is accurate or real is the topic for another debate) that Thais are strongly defending - while at the same time much of Thai entertainment promotes stereotypes about its neighboring countries and even about their own people - why else are people from the rural Northeast still being called 'water buffaloes'?

May be Thais can counter the SNL sketch. Global Post's Patrick Winn has a good suggestion:

So here's an idea for any Thais intent on a rebuttal. Film a Rosetta Stone parody of misfit Thais learning English. Why English? So they can fly to America and purchase assault rifles.

"Thai government aghast at SNL's "Rosetta Stone" sketch", by Patrick Winn,, February 4, 2013

*What a shame that the comedy series "30 Rock" has wrapped up its run - would have loved to see how they would have handled it!

**By the way: The current culture minister Sonthaya took the post not too long ago after his five-year ban from politics ended, during which time his wife kept this seat warm for him. Also, his father is currently in some serious trouble...!