The King of BLING BLING
How an ad for a bar in a Philadelphia alt-weekly, featuring Thailandís monarch in full hip-hop regalia, nearly triggered an international incident.
By Howard Altman
Howard Altman is the executive editor of the Philadelphia City Paper. In nearly 20 years in journalism, Altman has been sued several times and has angered dozens, including the mob, the FBI and the White House. But he has never before stirred up international tensions.
Daryl Gale's whole body shook with convulsions of laughter as he pulled out a letter he'd been given by the manager of Saint Jack's, a small, dark bar that we newsroom rats like for its $5 hamburger special.
With his booming voice, senior writer Gale entertained City Paper's weekly news staff meeting June 19 with the message of the missive and the story behind its writing. The letter was a complaint written the day before to bar manager Sherry Levin about an ad in my newspaper.
It certainly was not the first advertising complaint City Paper had ever received, considering that we once printed an ad for a bar depicting the Virgin Mary with udders. But this complaint was different. It was from an unhappy representative of a foreign government.
Voravee Wirasamban, the consul general of the Royal Thai Consulate in New York, wrote to Levin because he was incensed about an ad portraying Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as a bling-bling hipster with stone-studded shades, blond highlights in his hair, lines shaved into his head and an Adidas logo on his royal uniform. The ad extolled the wonders of DJs Sean Oneal and Jolah and upcoming specials like $3 margaritas Sunday through Thursday.
Saint Jack's obviously thought the ad was effective.
Voravee found it offensive.
The ad is "an affront to the Thai people" and "an assault on the excellent and long-standing relations existing between our two countries," he wrote. And if Saint Jack's continued running the ad, he claimed, it would affect Thailand's efforts in the war on terrorism. "At a time," wrote Voravee, "when America has all the interests to strengthen its co-operation with allies through the world in the fight against terrorism, a mockery of one of your best friends will do no service to your own country." Voravee closed by demanding that Levin "make a reparation for this uncouth ridicule at the expense of our beloved King."
With Gale tied up working on a cover story about Islamic prisoners and another one about how easy it is to be a fake cop, I asked for the letter, knowing that it would surely make excellent fodder for my weekly Pretzel Logic column. But even my greatest delusions of grandeur didn't predict what would transpire over the next two weeks: a bizarre and Byzantine unguided tour through the minefield of international diplomacy, leading to the Royal Thai Palace. I would become the most hated man in Thailand and a target of death threats and invitations to have painful sex with pachyderms. And the country's prime minister would jump into the fray, asking the State Department to get me to stop publishing the ad.
The Saint Jack's ad made two appearances as a paid message in City Paper. Designed by Eric Weiss, a Philadelphia graphic artist, the ad offered up "A 100% DAILY RECOMMENDED ALLOWANCE OF BLING! BLING!"
"I was basically taking elements from Thai culture and combining it with elements of hip-hop," said Weiss, adding that he did so to "highlight the restaurant's Thai-themed menu." Sherry Levin had named her bar after the Paul Theroux novel of the same name--which is actually set in Singapore, but Levin was after a general Asian motif.
Being roughly 100 percent short of my daily recommended BLING! BLING! allowance, I'd never heard of the ad. I had no idea that it was even in City Paper. As a general rule, I try not to pay attention to advertising. But this was a very different situation, so I contacted Levin to find out about all the fuss.
I'd known Levin for a few years, ever since City Paper moved into the now-ritzy Old City section of Philadelphia and I needed to find cheap eats. With its luncheon special and its twin television sets blaring separate stations, Saint Jack's fits that bill in the daytime. By night, the 3rd Street club is a funky boite, all about electronica and the people who groove to that scene. Levin, a very animated 33-year-old mother of two, always has fun stories from her world.
The latest was about Thailand.
Calls had started pouring into the bar a week after the ad ran, Levin told me over the thumpity-thump-thumping of the house music video blasting from a television in one corner of the bar and the unfolding drama of kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart coming from a TV in another.
The first calls reached the night staff, said Levin, which is not surprising considering the 11-hour time difference between Bangkok and Philly. The callers were anonymous and angry.
By Monday, June 17, it was no longer just harangues and hang-ups. The Royal Thai government was stepping in to demand that further publication of the ad be canceled. "Monday, they started to bombard me," said Levin. "Even the Thai representative to the U.N. called. He said that five people from Philadelphia called New York to complain about the ad."
That representative, Kulkumut Singhara, officially repeated the Thai objection to the ad, said Levin, and demanded that she give him an answer about whether or not she would continue running it. Levin offered no definitive answer, saying she was still considering running the ad again. "When he didn't get the response he wanted, he passed it on to the Royal Thai Consulate," Levin said. "The next day, I started getting calls from them. [Royal Thai Deputy Consul General Boonsam Watanapanee] said she would pass her complaint on to 'higher authorities.' I said, 'What higher authorities?' She said, 'I will take this to the White House, I will call the local police, I will call your governor, the U.N. rep.' "
Levin was rather amazed by the attention. "She was threatening me, too," Levin said of Boonsam. "She said, 'We are going to have a protest. It is very bad for business.' "
Levin paused. "Bad for business?" she asked. "I was like, 'That is bad for business?' I don't have a big Thai population that comes in."
Maybe not, but the Royal Thai government seemed pretty steamed. I had to find out exactly how seriously they were taking this matter.
Thursday, June 20, I tried to reach Voravee and Kulkumut. But each time I was referred to Deputy Consul General Boonsam. "I know that U.S.A. is the land of freedom, but we request you withdraw the ad," Boonsam said. "There would be big trouble," she added, if we did not. "Thousands and thousands of Thai will come to your place, to the restaurant," she said. "It wouldn't be nice. We will protest to the U.S. government. We are sending a letter to the governor and the mayor and maybe the State Department in Bangkok."
Massive protests were only the beginning of Boonsam's dire predictions. "Of course this could disrupt U.S.-Thai relations," she said. "The ambassador is upset. Even myself. Even people in Thailand are upset that you put the king in that ad."
Each turn in the saga created tremendous buzz in the newsroom. At each twist, I stepped out of my office and updated the troops. There were the requisite bad jokes and, more important, lively debates about the ramifications. Should we run the ad? Should we apologize? Personally, I did not want to offend anyone, but when it comes to advertising, I don't want to be a censor, either. I would probably agree to run an ad from the Nazi Party.
My colleagues were also quite jazzed. The newsies were amazed at what was happening. The business folks were as well. Much to their credit, no one on the business staff mentioned the fact that there was money at stake. Salesman Mark Miranda, who counts Levin among his clients, was nonchalant about the whole situation.
King Bhumibol or no King Bhumibol, Levin's ads would continue to run.
When I first contacted Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker and Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street about the situation, their spokesmen expressed surprise and bemusement. At this point, neither man had heard about the ad or any letters from the Royal Thai government. A woman from the State Department let out a slight chuckle and asked that I fax her a copy of the ad. She told me she would find someone to speak with me.
An hour or so later, a man from the State Department called. He sighed when I asked him if State had received any letters or verbal complaints from the Thai regarding the Saint Jack's ad. "I'm not aware of it," he said.
Speaking to me on the condition that I not reveal his name, he explained that not only do the Thai people have a "deep reverence for their king" but that in Thailand, "there are laws about things they consider disrespectful of their monarchy. If the ad is something that the Thai government finds disrespectful, they might very well come to someone and say they have a problem."
It was now Friday afternoon. The clock was ticking and there was nobody in the federal, state or local governments who knew anything about this ad. Without confirmation that government officials in the U.S. actually cared enough to get involved, this story would lose a lot of its punch. I loaded up my notes into my overstuffed NBA All-Star carry bag and brought them home for the weekend.
I was eager to explain the dilemma to my wife and kids, who are homeschooled. It would make the perfect lesson in world geography, international diplomacy and cultural divides. My two oldest, 11 and 8, were impressed that City Paper had affected people so far away. But my 8-year-old wondered why we would run something that offended so many people.
While I was mulling over the controversy about whether to run the ad, it was becoming news 8,700 miles away in Bangkok. I learned this Monday morning, June 24, when I called Boonsam, who was even unhappier than she was the last time we spoke. Thairat, Thailand's largest newspaper, had run a story about the ad in its Sunday edition, she said. Pressure on the consulate was building up at home.
"It is big trouble now," Boonsam said angrily. "It is not a small issue. If you think it is a small issue, put the ad in your paper again."
Fortunately, the Thairat story wasn't on the front page, she added. "If it was on the front page, all of us would be in trouble. We would have to stop all the visas until the problem has been solved."
Boonsam reminded me pointedly that the consul general had mailed letters of complaint to my governor, my mayor and my State Department. She demanded to know what I was going to do about the ad. "Bangkok is waiting for our Telex," she said. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is waiting for us. They know about the situation and want to know what you will do."
I had no definitive answer for the Royal Thai deputy consul general. No decision had been made either way, I told her.
I could tell from the click of her tongue she was not pleased.
Tuesday, June 25, was deadline day for City Paper, and the pressure valves were starting to rattle. In addition to L'affaire Thai, I was working on a story about two Arab men disappeared by the FBI. Despite on-the-record comments from police and U.S. park rangers, the FBI held an official position that nothing had happened.
As executive editor, I was trying to publish a paper. There were many other stories. A deadline looming. Fires to put out. And there were still many unanswered questions about how U.S. officials would react to the Royal Thai threat to cut off relations.
In between other calls and meetings about headlines and artwork and hiring, I squeezed in a call to the governor's press officer. Spokesman Dave LaTorre confirmed that Gov. Schweiker had received a letter from Consul General Voravee. Though the governor was busy dealing with Philadelphia's attempts to get more money for its schools, LaTorre said his boss would take time to review the Royal Thai letter about a bar.
The mayor and the State Department had yet to receive their letters, but I now knew that Boonsam wasn't bluffing. The promised protests and diplomatic retaliation seemed more likely.
"It is definitely a unique case," said LaTorre.
Quite. Even before I had a chance to write about it, KYW, the local CBS affiliate, called. I had told a station staffer what I was working on and the staffer told the station's news director, thus putting this royal incident into the evening news pipeline.
Managing Editor Frank Lewis and I decided it was best to delay the TV interview until Wednesday, after deadline, so that the KYW story would break the night before ours, driving viewers to the paper and our Web site the next day.
Wednesday, June 26, KYW interviewed me. A day later, a few hours after my column--"Big Trouble From Little Thailand"--hit the streets and was posted on City Paper's Web site and Jim Romenesko's MediaNews site, I was interviewed by the Associated Press. Even the Philadelphia Inquirer inquired. Thursday night, the Great Thai King Ad Controversy was a top story on KYW, after nearly 10 minutes of thunderstorm coverage.
It was a rush to be the center of so much attention, and the play this was getting was great for the paper. But as much fun as we were having, I was also a mite chagrined.
This was an interesting story, no doubt. But the most important story we told in the June 27 issue was the one about the disappearing Arabs and the FBI reaction, which is to say that the feds tried to make like nothing had gone on. Media coverage of that was zilch. Disappointing, to say the least, given the ongoing Bush administration assault on civil liberties.
The comparatively innocuous Thai incident, however, only got wackier.
The next day, Friday, June 28, the State Department confirmed via telephone that it had received an "expression of concern, via a letter, from the Thai government." Meanwhile, the AP story was picked up worldwide. In the next few days, I was interviewed by the Philadelphia Daily News, CBS Radio News and the BBC. By Tuesday, July 2, the story had appeared in all three of Thailand's major English-language papers, as well as in the London Guardian, Newsday, the New York Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Washington Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Las Vegas Sun, not to mention the Inky. CNN and MSNBC also covered the brouhaha.
The Straits Times of Singapore reported that "Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Monday joined a chorus of protests" against Saint Jack's. "Mr. Thaksin said that his government has requested the U.S. government's help in having the advertisement withdrawn. But he acknowledged that U.S. laws have little powers to do so."
By the time Thaksin personally entered the fray, we had received hundreds and hundreds of angry e-mails from Thailand.
"Fuck you, your mother, your dad, your wife and all your family with the elephant's cock," wrote one particularly incensed individual. Someone claiming to be a member of "Pattaya's doctor group" wrote, "I will kill all Americans that enter all hospital in Pattaya." The U.S. State Department is investigating the threat.
Some of the e-mails referred to Levin's Judaism and said that the ad was another example of the evils of Zionism. Others called her a "slut." Some e-mails were less harsh, in fact quite well-reasoned, urging City Paper and Saint Jack's not to run the ad again. "Mrs. Sherry Levin and Mr. Howard Altman are totally ignorant," wrote Wichai Hanittinan. "They are disrespecting the cultures of the others and blind to learn the differences. Freedom with consciousness is enlightenment. Freedom with ignorance is absolutely asshole."
After my second column about the controversy hit the streets, and the Web, on July 3, e-mails started pouring in by the thousands--some now including death threats against me--even though the Bangkok Post reported on July 3 that Saint Jack's manager Levin and ad designer Eric Weiss had agreed to withdraw the ad, which had become the fifth most popular image on Yahoo!, just behind a woman in short shorts and well ahead of a picture of a young Palestinian boy dressed as a suicide bomber.
While proud of the popularity of the image he created, Weiss was quick to point out that he didn't mean any harm. "This was not to be taken seriously," he told me. "It was supposed to be absurd. I had no idea it would create an international incident. That is absurd."
Levin had voluntarily decided to stop running the ad. "Why antagonize anyone?" she said.
But that was not the end of it for Thailand.
On July 3, the Bangkok Post wrote that the Royal Thai foreign ministry "would consider whether or not legal action could be taken against the restaurant owner and the editor of the newspaper, which carried the ad."
Sudjai Karuchit, originally from Thailand and now a graduate student at Temple University, came into my office with a letter of protest and offered some insight into why the Thai government was still pressing the issue. Prime Minister Thaksin, said Sudjai, has a tense relationship with the king. He is playing this story to score points on the home front, the student explained.
So now the official Thai reaction was making sense. Armed with this information, I searched the Web and found a March Bangkok Post article taking Thaksin to task for threatening to expel two Far Eastern Economic Review reporters merely for writing about the tension between the king and himself.
The official Thai reaction to Levin's ad was not the first time Thaksin--a billionaire telecom tycoon, the richest man in all of Thailand--messed with the media. "Mr. Thaksin has a thin skin and is quick to blame others, especially foreigners, for his own mistakes," the Bangkok Post wrote in a March 5 editorial. "Elected with a huge majority last year, the country's richest man has since seen his popularity erode amid a series of economic policy blunders.... Now he's assailing the foreign press."
The furor over the Saint Jack's ad, it appears, had given Thaksin another chance to flex his political muscles at the media's expense. Yet it was another advertising blowback no one in Philadelphia could have envisioned.
A week or so after Levin gave in, the flood of e-mails had dried to a trickle, then to nothing. By the middle of July, when I took the news staff to lunch at Saint Jack's to bond with a new hire, it was almost as if nothing had happened. The televisions were still blaring, filling the room with a competing cacophony of hip-hop and the latest news--the big thing in Philly was now the Allen Iverson mess.
The woman behind the bar, who'd fielded calls from the Royal Thai U.N. representative, was on to new things, as were we. We were holding our weekly editorial meeting over $5 burgers. There were new stories to find. New wacky tales to tell.###