Rappers drown out social justice warriors

Little-known Gui-Oui and ProtoZua strike a telling blow for all victims of direct sales

illustrations: 123rf; Art: Kanokthip Khunteeraprasert

The biggest worldwide viral sensation of late is a 51-second clip of a Japanese man rapping about a pen, an apple and a pineapple. Or rather, as he pronounces them, a "pear, a apple, a pie-apple" as he minces in his yellow polyester Elvis suit, leering like a sex tourist walking into Nana Plaza for the first time.

This earworm went from two million views last week to 51 million by last Wednesday. "Is this the new Gangnam Style?" CNN was asking early in the week; they were eating their words by Friday, since this viral fad, like so many before it, was already sputtering out by midweek. You know how you have to multiply your dog's age by six to get its equivalent in human years? For a viral sensation, it's six million.

While the social media world was obsessing over a "pineapple pair", here in Thailand we were getting more serious about an issue that made waves. That is, if a music video about direct selling can be deemed worthy of serious contemplation.

A local rap duo put out a music video called I Lost My Friend Because Of Direct Sales. It's a parody about a guy with no money deciding to directly sell products to all his friends, who in turn try to flee him whenever they catch sight of him. It's low-budget but kind of funny. Though not to everyone.

The music video caught the eye, and ire, of a woman who runs a group called the People Power Network. Kritanong Suwannawong is affiliated with the Thai Direct Selling Association. She led a concerted campaign to denigrate the music video and the rap duo, who go by the names of Gui-Oui and ProtoZua. No, dear reader, one should never take illicit drugs while registering your newborns.

But back to the underdogs.

The direct sales people claimed the video was casting them in a negative light. It portrayed them as persistent unyielding sociopaths who preyed on their friends. It became so big it even threatened to consume more column inches than the dirty old man singing about the pineapple pen.

How interesting, for a number of reasons. First, it is another example of how the truth is no defence when one's face is in danger. Thai society is heavily dependent on retaining one's face, and parodies such as this video find it difficult to exist in such a culture. Yes, the video is funny, and there is truth in its message -- but all that is trumped if the Thai Direct Selling Association feels it has lost face.

Ms Kritanong is an SJW, an abbreviation you're going to be hearing more of in these modern times. It stands for social justice warrior. It is a person who fights, tooth and nail, for a cause close to that person's heart but in the very public forum of the internet.

An SJW's fight is always blanketed in political correctness. It used to be known as a storm in a tea cup, with a pinch of self-aggrandisement replacing the lump of sugar. The fight is designed to stamp out inequality and miscarriages of justice. It also tends to stamp out any remaining humour in our modern world.

I do understand Ms Kritanong's point of view. After all, she is in direct sales.

But Ms Kritanong and her society also need to understand something: those of us on the periphery of her profession do not like her profession one bit. You want me to love direct salespersons? I need to love terminal disease first.

Like most Thais, I have had friends who have thrust their newly found profession of direct selling on me quite unexpectedly; so quickly, in fact, that I missed the moment I changed from friend into customer. Do you detect a slight bitter and twisted tone to my voice? Pardon me if it's slight. It should be resounding.

"I've signed up to Amway," my friend Pornphen once announced on a lunch date. She handed me a brochure. "From now on, you don't have to waste time going to the supermarket. You can order everything from me."

"But I like going to the supermarket," I tried to explain. How else could I end up with secret stashes of Snickers and Lay's Sour Cream and Onion Chips in the drawer beside my bed? Where is Smirnoff in the Amway brochure? Pornphen rolled her eyes and dived into an explanation of the products I had the privilege of purchasing off her and her only. In no time lunches morphed from acerbic gossip sessions into demonstrations of the wonders of Amway's incredible dishwashing liquid.

"This is a gift for you," she said sweetly one time, pushing a tube of toothpaste across the table on the occasion of my birthday. Toothpaste? For my birthday? A week later Pornphen was calling me. "Is the toothpaste finished? Would you like to order some now? How many tubes? And what about some detergent?"

That wasn't the worst of it.

My work colleague Wipa had also signed up to Amway, as did my other work colleague Porntip, and my friend Lek's wife Gift as well. Soon I was being bombarded with phone calls and visits from Thai women with irresistible smiles clutching Amway brochures … and heaven forbid if I chose one product from Wipa and the news got out to Porntip or Gift! I'd have a gaggle of Amway sellers pouting, shouting then flouting order forms demanding I order something from them "because it's not fair you ordered from Wipa and not me".

Meanwhile, my other friend Jira began supplementing his teaching income. He was selling chicken from a co-op that, like Amway, was demanding he attend monthly pep-up sessions in inner-city Bangkok hotels where they held hands, sang hymns and worshipped the great gods -- namely, agents who had surpassed insurmountable sales targets.

Soon our conversations stopped being full of dirty jokes and news analysis in favour of … chicken.

"Did you know you can get 70% of your daily protein from just one small portion of chicken?" Jira asked me once. I reeled in shock at his instant foray into the Red Zone of the Boring Meter. When I suggested I could also get 100% of my daily botulism, he found that unfunny. The old Jira would have roared with laughter.

Jira's love affair with all things chicken lasted not a year. Pornphen's went on much longer, but the level of frenetic hard sell by friends who succumbed to such schemes has died down of late. Or perhaps I just don't have as many friends as I used to.

Like Gui-Oui and ProtoZua, they backed down and made changes thanks to the direct sales society's unyielding online media pressure -- and let's face it, unyielding pressure is a fundamental characteristic of any direct salesman.

So three cheers for the direct sales SJWs who won their battle. Three big cheers, too, for GuiPui and Protozua for being clever enough to realise that simply changing the name of the video, without making any changes to the content, evoked even more publicity. It now has a new title, I Lost My Friends Because Of Indirect Sales. Which of course is even more ludicrous than the original name.

Plus it's a big hit! Their otherwise innocuous and not very popular song is now a hit with a million views. That's a heck of a lot more people watching the video and understanding the perils of direct sales. Thank you, the Thai Direct Selling Association, for bringing that to our attention. n

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