A Thai company owned by consumer goods giant Unilever apologized Wednesday over a competition that promoted its skin whitening product by offering cash prizes to students, saying it did not intend "racial discrimination."
Citra Thailand said the campaign asking female university students to send in photos of themselves holding its body lotion was aimed at encouraging "many Thai consumers who desire to lighten their skin" to experience the efficacy of its products.
The "Citra 3D Brightening Girls Search," which runs until the end of October, has prizes including cash "scholarships" from a fund of around 100,000 baht ($3,200).
But posts on social media criticized the company for apparently linking education with whiter skin – which is already widely associated with higher economic status in Thailand because it suggests not having to be exposed to the sun.
"The campaign, developed in Thailand, had no intent to suggest racial discrimination," Unilever Thai Trading said in a statement.
"We apologize for any misunderstandings regarding the campaign. The Citra brand will exercise greater sensitivity for brand activation campaigns that take place in the future."
The firm did not immediately specify whether it would keep airing a television advert for the campaign, in which two presenters ask female students on a university campus what would make them "outstanding in uniform."
The first girl, who has a darker complexion, appears confused by the question and says she does not know. But a much whiter-skinned girl judged by presenters to have "beautiful" skin answers with the Citra product slogan.
"Now, you can get a scholarship because of white skin not because of good studying, not if you are poor and dark," said one post under the name MyOwnDream on the well-known, mainly Thai language, online comment website pantip.com.
Another poster, under the name aekapopG, said Thai people were "brainwashed" into wanting to be white.
But some defended the campaign.
"The company sells whitening products, so they decided to give the prizes for being white, what is the problem?" wrote Valentika.
Unilever, which has more than 400 brands sold in over 190 countries, has its main offices in Britain and the Netherlands.
Skin whitening creams abound in Thailand, helped by the popularity of white-skinned models and actors on billboards and the television.
In September, US firm Dunkin' Donuts said it was pulling an advertisement in Thailand featuring a woman with black face make-up after a human rights group described it as racist.
The "charcoal donut" ad caused little controversy in Thailand, however, while on social media sites there were differing views about whether the ad was offensive.