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AirAsia’s failed ad campaign is a reminder of the perils of word play

AirAsia’s failed ad campaign is a reminder of the perils of word play

My Thai experience is bookended with two memorable explanations of impolite English phrases. The first was 30 years ago; the second a few weeks ago.

By Bangkok Post

Tuesday 16 April 2019, 11:00AM

The notorious AirAsia advertisement. Photo: Collective Shout

The notorious AirAsia advertisement. Photo: Collective Shout

Last Monday your columnist spent an interesting evening on Twitter explaining the meaning of “get off” to his legion of Thai fans.

I teach English on Twitter and use headlines as source material. Before signing off I ask if there are any questions and I was hit with an enquiry about “get off” and why the term could be deemed offensive.

In a classroom, there is nothing like an explanation of rude English slang to snap bored students out of their daydreams or Tinder. And in fact, if you care to peruse my Twitter account you will find my cool and collected explanations of “Are you hitting on me?” two weeks ago, and more recently, “WTF”.

(The sentence construction for WTF in English is intriguing. We use the “TF” bit only to express shock or surprise. Thailand has similar slang mechanisms, only they don’t use a crude word for sexual intercourse to express shock or surprise. Thais use “monitor lizard” instead. Ask your Thai friends for an explanation.)

And so when a follower posted a pic of a bus with the words “Get off in Thailand”, I had some explaining to do. Shame on me for not knowing about it, especially since the story has direct roots in my hometown of Brisbane, Australia.

Recently AirAsia held a press conference in Bangkok to announce a new service from Bangkok to Brisbane, which gives me as much joy as it does shiver down my spine. It means more regular visits to my parents for me, but it may open the floodgates for long-lost friends and cousins twice-removed to take that Thailand holiday.

Last month AirAsia began promoting the new service in Brisbane with the catchphrase: “Get off in Thailand.” We live in the era of outrage. Fox News reported that the ad “drew outrage for appearing to promote sex tourism”. This outrage primarily came from a representative of a women’s rights group.

Interestingly, it didn’t measure a major blip in the Thai media, and I would guess that was because not many people understood the double entendre. In English textbooks, one is more prone to get off a bus or bicycle than Thailand.

I’m going to humbly request I pass on the outrage aspect of this news story. Getting outraged is the new chic but I’m not participating. Like other current trends – Korean boy bands, Cardi B, dress shoes with no socks – I’m gonna sit this one out. It’s exhausting to be outraged over everything. But how on earth did AirAsia think they could get away with such a campaign?

Being an Australian, I understand my home country’s tendency to enjoy irreverent humour that would not be tolerated overseas. My home country also remains a nanny state and goes out of its way not to offend minority groups in its attempts at cultural and social homogenisation. Was Thailand bumped off that list? Did they really think Thailand would not be offended by such a catchphrase?

To me, it is the kind of sentence you would throw out in a marketing brainstorming meeting, after which everybody would have a good laugh, make comments like “I wish we really could use that” and then move on to something a little more acceptable.

Are we still flogging the “Bangkok is the sex capital of the world” horse? In this era of outrage over the merest hint of scandal, how is it we still think it’s OK to label Bangkok in that manner?

It’s kind of sad, too, that an airline campaign is targeting men who need to hop a plane to travel 7,000km to “get off”. Inner-city Brisbane, in particular the adjoining seedy area known as the Valley, has for decades more than catered to such types.

But my explanation of “get off” this week did remind me of another explanation I was forced to make back in my first year in Thailand, hence the bookend analogy. I used to teach English to two women every Monday morning. They were accountants and their names were Wanphen and Wanphen.

Both were Chinese Thais with round faces and glasses and were a joy to teach. They also were on the road to being fluent. Pronunciation and sentence construction was still a little off kilter but nothing too serious.

One Monday morning the first Wanphen asked me: “Do you have a good weekend?”

“OK, Wanphen, try it again,” I said.

She didn’t miss a beat. “Did you have a good weekend?” she asked.

“Yes, I did, thank you. I went away.”

“Where do you go? No … where did you go?” the other Wanphen asked.

“Can you guess where I went?”

“Did you go to Chiang Mai for the cool weather?” Wanphen asked. I shook my head.

“Did you go to Chanthaburi to eat fruit?” asked the other Wanphen. I said no.

“I know!” the first one shouted. “Did you go to Pattaya to get laid?”

Surely I didn’t hear that correctly.

“Sorry? What did you say?”

The Wanphens were unfazed. “Did you go to Pattaya to get laid?”

She did say it! Now the other Wanphen could see there was something wrong. She touched her friend’s right arm as she said: “I think it should be “Did you went”, not “Did you go …”

The Wanphens launch into Thai. “No, ‘Did you go’ is right. It’s only the first verb you have to conjugate. ‘Go’ stays the same.”

“I know!” the other said. “It should be ‘Were you going to Pattaya to get laid’!”

Her friend was unconvinced. “I don’t think the past continuous tense is any better than the simple past in this situation.”

“It’s not the grammar!” I finally blurted out and the Wanphens went silent. Now I had really dug myself deep. Now I had to explain.

“You asked me if I got laid in Pattaya?”

Wanphen nodded happily. “Why?” she asks conspiratorially. “Is it wrong to get laid?”

“Yes – no! – er, well, not really but – get laid? G-e-t … l-a-i-d?” I ask.

Wanphen shakes her head. “No, no, no. G-e-t … r-e-d. You know, for your skin. The way farangs like to lie in the sun on the beach.”

That’s when the tidal wave of relief engulfs me. “Get red!!” I shout, loud enough for the two classrooms beside us to hear. “You mean get a suntan! Oh thank the lord!”

We quickly go through the rules of pronouncing “R” without the tongue trill and I’m eager to change the subject before the two Wanphens ask the inevitable question that I fear but oh no here it comes too late.

“Khun Andrew, what does ‘get laid’ mean?”

So this week I came full circle. From that first year, explaining “get laid”, to this week explaining “get off”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m just a little braver these days in explaining rude words. Back then, with Wanphen and Wanphen, I was too shy to tell them straight out, so I found a dictionary and handed it to them. Their studious faces deep in the dictionary turned to horror. Pale skin turned to red. The two Wanphens glanced at each other in prudish symmetry.

“Oh!” they cried. “We have the same idiom in Thai!”

“Well that’s settled then,” I said.

“Not yet,” ordered the first Wanphen as both opened their notebooks and picked up their pens in brisk accountant style. “Tell us all the other ways of saying it.”

– Andrew Biggs

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CaptainJack69 | 17 April 2019 - 23:05:16

What a fun story, linguistic confusion meets cultural clash. This current example being triggered by a (failed?) marketing campaign that I would say perfectly grasped it's target Australian audience's tendency for irreverence and good-natured coarseness. It all strikes me as spot-on, except the bit about a Thai using the word "idiom".


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