​​​​​​​Air Asia takes down ads after accusations of promoting sex tourism in Thailand 

An Air Asia ad that was criticised for promoting sex tourism in Thailand. (Photo: Melinda Liszewski)
An Air Asia ad that was criticised for promoting sex tourism in Thailand. (Photo: Melinda Liszewski)

A group of activists fighting against the objectification of women posted photos of Air Asia’s latest campaign in Australia, which advertised flights to Bangkok under the slogan “Get off in Thailand”. The expression “get off” is a double entendre that also means to receive sexual gratification.

In mid-February, suggestive ads for new direct flights from Brisbane to Bangkok on the Malaysian low-cost airline Air Asia began appearing on buses and airports in the eastern Australian coast city. “Get off in Thailand”, the banners read, the slogan set against a busy Bangkok street at night.

The campaign didn’t quite take off as planned.

Melinda Liszewski, a member of the Australian anti-objectification movement Collective Shout, saw the innuendo-filled ad plastered on a Brisbane bus on March 22 and posted a photo on Twitter to call out what she perceived as a wink to visitors seeking out sex tourism in Thailand.

“Bangkok is a hub of sexual exploitation of women and children and 250,000 Western male sex tourists visit Thailand every year,” Liszewski wrote.

In a Twitter thread, Liszewski also criticised Air Asia for earlier marketing campaigns that objectified women and questioned how the Thailand ads had been approved by the city of Brisbane.

The tweets soon drew the attention of local officials. Brisbane city councilor Kara Cook called the ads “completely inappropriate” and said she had asked the municipal transportation agency to remove them from buses.

Air Asia issued an apology after the public outcry. “We take community feedback extremely seriously and sincerely apologise for the concerns raised,” the airline said in a statement. A spokesperson told The Observers that the ad campaign had already ended and was “in the process of being removed” when the photos began circulating on Twitter.

“Using the bodies of women and children for sexual services should never be the punchline”

Coralie Alison, director of Collective Shout, said that these types of ads perpetuate the sexualisation and objectification of women.

We believed this ad was a direct invitation to sex tourists. This isn't the first time they have used sexualised advertising so there is a pattern that needs to stop.

This type of advertising shapes our culture and impacts the way society views these topics. Using the bodies of women and children for sexual services should never be the punchline.

Collective Shout would like to see Air Asia follow up on their apology with action. We repeatedly hear companies apologise, only to repeat the same behaviour. We question why we keep having to campaign against these things in the first place. Sexualisation, objectification and violence against women are normalised and perpetuated by ads like these. Sexualised advertising has become the wallpaper of society.

We contacted Air Asia directly yesterday… Regardless of how swiftly they act to get these ads down, the fact is the harm has already been done and society is left to clean up the damage. The ads appeared in an email blast, on the bus and at the airport. Many people were involved in the design, publication and installation of these ads and they are all complicit.

“It’s dishonouring to women who feel they have no other choice”

Thailand is known for its vast sex industry, which employs nearly 125,000 workers, according to a 2014 UNAIDS report. But activists say the actual number is much higher, and that at least 40 percent are under 18 years old. Many of those children are trafficked into Thailand from neighboring countries, including Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

Officials have increased efforts in recent years to fight human trafficking. The country launched a campaign in 2018 to discourage tourists from participating in the industry and to urge them to report potential cases.

Annie Dieselberg, CEO of NightLight International, a Bangkok-based organisation that provides support and employment opportunities to former sex workers, said that Air Asia’s ads further fuel the assumption that many women in Thailand willingly engage in prostitution.

An ad like that gives the impression that Thailand is a destination for sex tourism, and it increases the flow of traffickers who are looking to exploit vulnerable women. It’s so dishonoring to Thailand and to women who feel they have no other choice because of family pressure or a lack of skills and job opportunities.

It also leads foreign men to believe that prostitution is legal, that it’s fun and games and they can throw their money down and get a Thai smile. It gives them the impression that women are okay with it, when actually they aren’t.

The impact of Western tourists on the sex industry is huge. That’s where the money is. It’s commonly said that six out of 10 foreign men who come to Thailand participate in sex tourism. It has a big influence on the number of girls and women who believe that the answer is to come to the city to work in bars, where they can find foreign boyfriends to support their families. That’s the reason so many teenagers are in prostitution: it’s almost always about a retirement plan for their parents. In rural villages, where we do some work, there is a lot of pressure on daughters to come to Bangkok to do work in the industry, the assumption being that foreign men have more money and will treat them well.

This story was written by Jenny Che (@jsyche).