Thursday 13 October 2016 was the day everything stopped in Thailand. It will be forever etched into the history and living memory of the country and its people, who that day mourned the death of their beloved king, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
King Bhumibol had been the world’s longest-reigning monarch after 70 years as head of state, and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s declaration of a one-year mourning period was testament to the deep reverence in which Thais held him.
It began with an immediate advertising blackout and a host of other restrictions that sent agencies and brands scrambling to comply and pay their respects to the king.
One year on, Thailand is preparing remembrance services and offerings on the anniversary of the king’s passing. We take a look back at how such a momentous and unprecedented tragedy affected those in the advertising world and what lessons were learned from such an event.
“It took us a while to come back”
Such is the sensitivity around King Bhumibol and the Thai royal family more broadly that many industry people declined to talk to Campaign for this story. Those that did explained that while there was, of course, complexity that came with the advertising restrictions, there was something more fundamental to deal with first: morale.
Seen as a figure of steadiness and the nation’s father throughout his 70-year reign, King Bhumibol was widely loved by his people, and that includes those at agencies tasked with handling the changes following his death.
“The whole office was very sad, for the whole month of October and the beginning of November,” recalls Tharaputh Charuvatana, CEO of IPG Mediabrands Thailand. “All the teams and especially the business teams, who had to deal with all the changes for our clients and media partners [immediately after the news]. It took us a while to come back.”
But the work had to carry on, and adjustments to media buys and plans had to be made in precious little time. To get a sense of how the industry was affected, data from Nielsen compiled one month after the king’s death estimated that nearly US$130 million of Thai ad spend was cancelled in October 2016.
What did that mean for agencies? It seems to depend on who you talk to. Triluj Navamarat, chairman of Publicis Media Exchange Thailand, and president of the Media Agency Association of Thailand, said it was relatively straightforward despite the time constraints.
“It was easy, because most clients now do not have a long-term media plan,” he says. “The longest term is around half a year. For many of them it’s a month-by-month basis in terms of allocating budget. A lot of clients now involve procurement in their marketing, and [budgeting] is very strict. So it’s a quarterly or monthly basis at the moment, mostly.”
For Charuvatana, it meant a fair few “hectic moments”. “It took about two or three weeks to adjust all the campaigns and everything around them,” he explains. “Some of our media partners came and tried to reassure us that advertisers could start their campaigns again after two weeks. But when we discussed it with clients, the earliest we came back with a live campaign was about mid-January.”
Although the official advertising restrictions were for seven days, most newspapers continued to print in black and white for a while after, and billboards remained focused on the king well into 2017.
In short, whatever the official rules, brands remained sensitive to the mood of the nation in mourning their king, which resulted in a difficult final quarter across the Thai advertising industry.
“Ad spend already reflected the country’s economy”
The numbers bear out the troubles in Thailand’s advertising industry. The latest Thailand Adex report from IPG Mediabrands shows double-digit decline in spend year-on-year for television, radio, newspapers and magazines.
But Navamarat says that while the king’s passing definitely affected the final quarter of 2016, ad spend in Thailand had been dropping for many months before it.
“If you look back to last year, even before the king’s passing, industry media spend dropped from 2015,” he said. “In 2017, the MAAT thought the picture would be brighter and things came back from January and February, as we expected. But it began dropping again until the middle of year, a 5 or 6 percent decline year-on-year from 2016.”
Charuvatana also points out that the Thai economy was “in a downward trend” long before the king’s death. The main reason for this: lingering political uncertainty following the 2014 military coup.
“We’re waiting for the general election, which people think will happen next year, but it may not,” says Navamarat. “So people are hesitant, especially with spending. So if you take the last quarter of last year, spending was very low, but it was already low. The average consumer is trying to save their money.”
The knock-on effect of this decline in consumer spending, unsurprisingly, has affected large multinational brands, who in turn have had to cut back their ad spend. This is the critical long-term issue facing Thailand’s economy, which both pre-dates and continues after the tragic event in October 2016.
One area bucking the trend in Thailand’s ad spend is digital, which has continued to grow despite both the political climate and the king’s passing, one of the few channels to do so. “Digital is on a different plane compared to other mediums,” says Charuvatana. “Even last year the Digital Agency Association of Thailand projected double-digit growth in digital ad spend.” He adds that the shift by traditional media outlets into digital has helped expand the country’s digital media infrastructure, allowing for growth.
With the rise of digital comes a change in budgets, according to Navamarat, which is another factor in the ad spend decline.
“People have started moving major money from television to online,” he explains. “But online is inexpensive compared to TV, so they spend less and save the rest.”
Fuelling this has been the proliferation of new digital news stations and content producers, Navamarat. “Similar to moving from major media to online, moving from major TV stations to new digital stations is cheaper. So TV money has dropped.”
“This month we are prepared”
For the anniversary of the king’s death this year, restrictions are fewer. Advertising can continue up until 13 October, and then there will be another effective blackout until the end of the month, covering the royal cremation scheduled for 26 October.
Again, entertainment will be toned down, events postponed. But things will understandably be much calmer, both across the nation and within advertising agencies.
“The lesson learned is probably planning,” Charuvatana says as he reflects on the events of last October. “We haven’t seen any moments like last year, everything is in place.”
Brands are allowed to publish messages of condolence in the media during October, so most agency bods are focused on ensuring the content is respectful and proper for the occasion. However, that won’t keep many busy, as Charuvatana says most brands have planned a media blackout for October into their schedules.
Of most importance once again, he says, is looking after the staff. The following weeks will be emotional once more and take their toll on Thais remembering their beloved king. At IPG Mediabrands, lots of training has been planned to “help keep people occupied”.
For Navamarat, it’s a very simple thing, one that puts advertising and just about anything else on hold.
“People need to pay their respects.”
Media Guidelines for the October 2017 anniversary
TV and radio channels are being advised to run normal programmes until 12 October, then to show "toned down colours and black dress" for the week up to 20 October. There should be no entertainment programmes between 21-24 October and thereafter only King Bhumibol documentaries and coverage of the royal cremation until 30 October, when normal programmes can resume.
Billboards should either be unlit or should air condolence ads, and newspapers will cease product advertising from 25-27 October.
Websites have also been advised to tone down their colours to grey and post condolence messages, while social media sites have been recommended to change their cover images to greyscale tones, run King Bhumibol content and add black ribbons to the corners of their websites for the month. There should be no advertising between 25-26 October.