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Phuket: Magic eyes that no longer see

PHUKET: A curious thing happened during last month’s SEEK meeting.

By Jody Houton

Monday 1 April 2013, 09:30AM

At one point in the very formal proceedings, between interested business parties, government officials and environmental groups, where it was discussed how we could hypothetically reduce pollution on the island, a previously quiet Australian lady raised her hand and rose to her feet.

I’m sorry, I’ve just arrived on the island, so I don’t know who any of you are, but I do know I love Phuket and am devastated by what I am seeing.”

The lady, Debra Mierczak, proceeded to command the room’s attention for around ten minutes, describing how she had been going around her local area leafleting children, adults and anyone who would read her various anti-littering messages translated into Thai.

While the question of where those leaflets end up could not be answered, the act was recognised as simple, effective and obvious. It was then that the Magic Eyes campaign was brought up – a nationwide television, radio and billboard marketing strategy employed in the 1990s to raise awareness of the dangers and damage that littering and pollution can cause.

Despite that being over 20 years ago, nothing of that ilk exists in today's Thailand. Sure, you can still see the faded, yellowing signs in various public areas around the kingdom, but they are no longer getting the message across. People have become blind to the Magic Eyes.

Robert Steele, founder and director of Systainability Asia, was part of the original team that put that campaign together. He explained to The Phuket News that the key to the success of the campaign was its simplicity and ability to relate to Thai people. This, he believes, is paramount and core to any sucessful positive change that will affect Phuket and, by extension, Thailand.

That campaign worked because it was based on the principals of Thainess and Buddhisim. There was one advert, where we showed the sun setting behind the sea, to rise in the morning full of trash, dirty and unsmiling.”

The themes of Magic Eyes also hinged upon ideas of respecting the elders and nature, which in the adverts, were considered one and the same.

Once the topic of Magic Eyes was brought up, a small group of Thai women in their 20s and 30s in attendance began to sing the theme song – testament indeed to the campaign's success.


For Ms Mierczak though, it is anger and incredulity that she feels in equal measure.

“As a foreigner, I feel that we shouldn’t constantly try and reinvent the wheel and say to Thais that this is what should be done from our perspective.

Why can’t we restart this obviously successful campaign? This Thai campaign?”

Mr Steele revealed that the reason the Magic Eyes anti-littering campaign began to gain less and less coverage was two-fold.

The first was that when a new political party came into power, Magic Eyes was seen as an initiative of the previous leadership and therefore immediately dropped.

The second was the 1997 financial crisis, when free advertising space was no longer so freely available.

Still, Ms Mierczak's act of leafleting has symbolic ramifications for the the future of campaigns for a environmentally sound Phuket: They don’t have to be complicated, and can start at grassroots level.

Maybe we just need to open our eyes.

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