Undaunted by Pepsi and Tropicana Fiascos, Advertising's Anti-Midas Peter Arnell Thinks Thailand Needs His Magic Touch

Last Updated Feb 16, 2010 12:38 PM EST

Peter Arnell, mastermind of the Tropicana redesign fiasco, the Pepsi redesign fiasco, and General Motors' Peapod design fiasco, will now turn his attention to Thailand's tourism ad account.

Apparently, our false beliefs about Thailand -- that it's a fantastically beautiful tropical paradise -- need to be addressed. As with everything that the anti-Midas of advertising touches, it's triggering a backlash.

Here's Arnell's breathtakingly shallow take on Thailand's image problem. Arnell first visited the country a little more than a month ago, and stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for just 12 days. (We learn here that he flew first class, naturally, because that's the way most tourists travel, right?) Shortly he will present his plans to the Thai government:
Thailand is not the place of wacky bars or crazy nightlife that most people think it is ...

I think I can make this place famous for what it's famous for, instead of what we think it's famous for.

I felt very strongly that Thailand didn't have a symbol, like Switzerland has the cross or Canada has the maple leaf.
Sigh. Where do you start with this? First, Thailand already has a symbol: the Garuda (pictured), a mythical half-bird, half-human figure who is the steed of the Hindu god Vishnu. Arnell must have missed it during his 12-day in-depth probe.

Second, Thailand does indeed have a lot of wacky nightlife. Places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City have occasionally tried to distance themselves from their main attraction -- remember Vegas's ill-fated flirtation with family-oriented vacations? Neither does anyone else -- and it's failed. Pretending that Bangkok doesn't have a red light district could actually be unhelpful.

Third, this thing about Arnell making Thailand "famous for what it's famous for, instead of what we think its famous for," says more about Arnell's confused logic than it does about new tourism strategies.

More importantly, how much time is Arnell devoting to studying Thailand and preparing his pitch? It's a legit question because it turns out that at the same he was doing that, he was also working with Martha Stewart on an article for her magazine, taking 7,000 photos, and then appearing on her show in New York to discuss Thai tchotchkes and recipes (see images). We know it's the same trip because at the start of this video clip, Arnell says it was his first trip to the country, which is the same thing he told Thailand's The Nation newspaper.

As you can see from the photos on Stewart's site and the video, Arnell spent a lot of time with the homemaking mogul and her magazine staff. Only a cynic would suggest that he's burning the candle at both ends, right?

Already, Thais are restless. Here's Peter Nielsen, in a letter to the Nation on the "preposterous assertion that Thailand has an image problem":
So, let's get this straight. Peter Arnell pops into the Mandarin Oriental for 12 days a few months ago, takes 7,000 photos (that's one photo per minute, given ten-hour days), falls in love with the country, as so many of us have done, finds time between snapping all those photos to get a profound understanding of the country, and wham, decides that he is now so deeply connected that he feels the need to "give something back" ...
The SouthEast Asia Globe had a similar reaction.

And finally: Note in The Nation's article that the Tropicana disaster -- which led to a 20 percent sales decline -- is your fault, not Arnell's:
Arnell says the revamp's failure had more to do with America's mood than the actual design, scared consumers clinging to the familiar in the face of widespread change.

"It came at a time when the economy was crashing, we had a new president - it was held up as a symbol of, you know, 'why now?' I can't imagine a goddamn container of oranges getting more attention worldwide. It was incredible."

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