The opening shot of the now-viral commercial shows homes submerged by a flood, a familiar sight in Thailand’s news coverage of flood-prone regions. A man and a boy are seen stranded on one of the houses as the rain pours down all around them.
But they appear undisturbed by the deluge, taking delight instead from fishing in the water. A boat appears and hands them a dark green “Royal Donation” bag of food and necessities. In the next scene, the pair dines happily on the bag contents – canned food, bottled water, rice, boiled eggs and so on – neatly arranged on a large banana leaf to form the words “the happiest meal.”
“As always, hope and moral support continue to be sent to ease the suffering of the people,” the voiceover says. “[His Majesty] provided us Thais with much more than the items in the bags.”
The 1-minute video was commissioned by Boonrawd Brewery, the conglomerate that produces Singha beer, on the eve of King Vajilongkorn’s birthday celebration, apparently to showcase the monarch’s charity towards his subjects. But the video was soon being ridiculed by many on social media for its tone-deaf depiction of flood victims, giving rise to a flood of memes and parodies.
One Facebook page depicted the “happiest meal” being served to Jesus and his disciples during the Last Supper. Another cartoon showed the character played by Tom Hanks in “The Cast Away” receiving a donated meal from a ship, which leaves him stranded on the island.
Some businesses even took advantage of the trend to advertise their products with related memes. A company selling home construction materials in Chachoengsao offered roof products for those wanting to eat the “happiest meal” on the top of their homes. A famous ice cream brand also asserted that its products could be the “happiest meal” when shared with loved ones.
As of Tuesday, the phrase “the happiest meal” continued to trend on social media as many netizens poked fun at the commercial.
Humor aside, the video drew widespread criticism for its tone, which appeared to glorify the monarch’s work while romanticising the plight of those affected by natural disasters.
“Doing good by donating and providing assistance to people in need is an admirable thing to do, and this ad has the good intention of praising the generosity of King Rama X (and other Royal Family members, who also made similar donations),” writes Tootsy Review, a Facebook page known for its commentaries on current events.
“But personally speaking, I think the problem with this ad is … in its execution, which features an unrealistic portrayal of people suffering [natural disasters].”
The commentary continued, “When people face life crises, no human is happy or smiling cheerfully about donated goods. In reality, suffering like this really happens, yet the commercial employs emotional exaggeration. I wouldn’t feel happy on the roof of my house when the water almost reaches it.”
The video was first posted on Boonrawd Brewery’s Facebook page on July 27. As of publication time, it’s had over 1.2 million views – not counting the viewership of numerous copies that have since been posted elsewhere on the internet. Curiously, the original video has its comment section set to “limited,” so most viewers were unable to leave comments.
There are indications that even monarchy supporters were uneasy about the commercial’s message. One well-known royalist went as far as to suggest that the video was a “false flag” operation by anti-government activists, who infiltrated the ad agency and deliberately produced a commercial about the monarch’s charity in bad taste to provoke negative response.
“We should consider whether the people who came up with this commercial were actually members of the three-finger gang intentionally sabotaging the commercial,” Suphanat Aphinyan wrote on his Facebook.
“Perhaps the time has come for all organisations in the country, especially the media industry and leading firms everywhere, to eliminate these three-finger parasites and their vicious behavior,” he went on. “Otherwise, your company may be sabotaged and used as an instrument to cause division in the society.”
Another prominent monarchist argued the opposite. In an article for Thai Post, conservative columnist Plew Seengern praised the commercial as an exemplary demonstration of King Vajiralongkorn’s good deeds. It was the netizens who have ill intention toward the monarchy, he said, who twisted the ad into an attack on the royal institution.
“I watched it and understood the innocent intentions of both the commercial creators and Singha, who released it to honor His Majesty the King,” Plew Seengern wrote. “I’ve seen people posting and sharing it to stir up negativity and hate speeches, so I want to give my moral support to the creators and the publisher. ‘One person does the work, 100 others criticize it,’ this is the [reality] in the IT era.”
Boonrawd Brewery does not say in its post which advertising agency is responsible for the commercial, and the company has yet to issue a response to the debates on social media.
For the people, from the people?
Advertisements praising royal charities are nothing new in Thailand, where “reverence” for the monarchy is enshrined in the constitution, and public criticism of the royal institution can land offenders in prison for up to 15 years under Section 112 of the Criminal Code.
Traditionally, such videos have emphasised the late King Bhumibol’s teachings about humble living under the philosophy of ‘Sufficiency Economy. Others extol the virtues of Royal Family members and highlight their charitable works.
This familiar machinery of publicity appears to be facing a challenge in finding an audience in the era of social media, a platform dominated by many younger netizens who openly question the country’s key institutions. Since 2020, mass protests have been demanding monarchy reform.
Ending one-sided publicity about the monarchy is one of the key demands of protest leaders, who argue that the practice encourages personality cults.
“These days, when propaganda is deployed to move people and make them cry their hearts out, it just looks so lame,” a Twitter user wrote. “Times have changed.”
Sa-ard, a political cartoonist, drew a parody of Boonrawd’s ad by contrasting the “happiest meal” with the ongoing hunger strike staged by two activists, who have been imprisoned on charges of royal defamation and denied bail since early May.
— sa-ard สะอาด (@saart_tanis) July 29, 2022
Some critics argue that commercials made by state and private entities to glorify the Royal Family’s charitable projects are misleading by nature, since public records show that many of the initiatives are in fact funded by taxpayers. In October 2021, for instance, a disaster relief agency spent 151,000 baht of its budget on the “Royal donation” food bags – the same type that appeared in Boonrawd’s controversial ad.
A report by Prachatai citing expense records published by government agencies found that the state budgeted at least 29 million baht for “royal donation” bags from March 2018 to June 2022.
Saiseema Phutikarn, a blogger who monitors monarchy-related spending, also noted that even the royal charity foundation tasked with handing out relief packages to natural disaster victims receives half of its funding from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, with donations make up just a small portion of its revenues.
(Third line) A 'supporting money' amounting to 150 million baht listed as an income in a 2020 financial report from Rajaprajanugroh Foundation Under the Royal Patronage, a foundation tasked with handing out relief packages.
An explanation of the 'supporting money' in page 96 of the same financial budget state that the money comes from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.
The corporation behind the “happiest meal” video does not escape scrutiny either. Boonrawd Brewery is owned by tycoon Santi Bhirombhakdi and his family, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at about 2 billion US dollars. The family’s business empire also deals in manufacturing, real estate, and retailing.
In a post titled “the end of era for paying a shallow lip service to sustainability,” transparency advocate Sarinee Achavanuntakul said the commercial is an epitome of the hypocrisy exuded by many large corporations in Thailand.
“As a researcher who spent many years researching “sustainable development,” this video makes me think of the shallowness of such claims about sustainable development, sustainability, and sustainable business,” Sarinee wrote. “It’s a shame that we’re in the year 2022, but many companies still don’t recognise their shallowness.”
Sarinee points to the failure of the corporate sector in Thailand to mitigate the impacts of their businesses on the environment or crack down on practices that violate human rights in the supply chains, like poor working conditions and human trafficking.
The activist also said the universal negative reaction to the commercial produced by Boonrawd is proof that consumers can no longer be fooled into believing a company’s rhetoric about caring for the poor, when there is no concrete action to back it up.
“From now on, companies will have to stop polishing their images or doing trivial positive projects to make themselves look good without changing their business tactics and models to truly comply with the principles of sustainable development,” she wrote.