HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW
By Andrew Biggs
The news about the burgeoning fake cosmetics industry — and the celebrities risking arrest for being presenters — reminds me of an incident last year in my own office.
I have changed the names of the people concerned to protect them from instant arrest; my staffer Piyapong shall be henceforth known as “Pek”, while Benchawan shall be called “Miss Lek”.
This is what happened.
I was aware of a change in the office air; over a short time Pek’s interest in his cellphone increased three-fold, while Miss Lek was scurrying over to Pek’s desk to carry on conversations at a decibel level that only those two, along with elephants and whales, could pick up.
Every lunchtime Pek disappeared out the door clutching small boxes. “Pai toora,” he would say, which translated directly means “I’m off to do some business.” The inherent meaning: “I’m off to do something shameful and/or illegal.”
Was something untoward operating out of my educational establishment? I was determined to find out, not to stamp it out, but to demand a 30 per cent cut. If senior Education Ministry officials can skim 88 million baht off government coffers without anyone noticing, why can’t I?
I finally confronted him.
I asked Pek what was going on, and to his credit he didn’t skirt the issue. He was running an online side business. He never meant to infringe on office time, but his business had grown rapidly.
And what was this online business that was doing so well?
“I’m selling say-rum,” he said.
It took me a few different trial intonations in my head to realize he was taking about serum. In Thai they string out that first syllable, and what should be the second unstressed syllable comes out sounding like an ad for Captain Morgan.
“It’s hair growth serum,” he said. “You know, for moustaches and beards.”
Pek explained he was surfing the net and came across an ad for hair growth serum. Then another. Then another. There were five brands. He bought one and applied it to his top lip and (somewhat stringy) beard. The hair follicles grew stronger, he claimed.
“You should try it,” he said.
“I have no need for hair growth stimulants,” I said. I caught Pek’s quick glance to the top of my head, so I added: “Around my mouth and chin.”
After seeing there were five different serums out there, Pek got to thinking: Why not sell it himself?
He discovered a factory in Samut Prakan that makes and bottles hair growth serum. But get this: this factory caters for every one of those different hair growth serums out there on the net. Pek claims there are at least five big names in Thailand for hair growth serum. They all come from the same place.
As Big Name Number Six, Pek could order a unique scent such as chocolate or fruit or rose (he chose vanilla). The factory would design his logo for him to put on the little bottles, which explains why all those hair growth serums have labels that are sinister in their similarity.
Never one for wildly original thoughts, Pek chose the name “Pek Serum”.
Pek had to order a minimum of 100 bottles. For the smaller size, the factory asked for 50 baht per bottle. Pek then sold them online for 270 baht. The bigger bottle cost 100 baht per piece and he sold them for 400 baht.
“And that’s how you started selling them online,” I said.
“I still had one more thing to do,” he said.
Products need presenters, and there are different presenters for each of those hair growth serums … or is it seri? Sera? In my life I have never had the need to pluralize that word in conversation.
Ads pop up online featuring young men with bushy moustaches and beards clutching bottles. Some are winking, some are giving a thumbs-up, while others stare at the camera like deer in the headlights.
Pek trawled Facebook looking for guys with good moustaches. He found six. He sent off emails asking them to be presenters. Four of them agreed!
Within one week they had sent back pictures of each of them holding up Pek Serum with a big smile and thumbs-up. One, sadly, was deer in the headlights and had to be discarded. There was no talk of a fee. The guys were paid with a bottle of Pek Serum each, so far untried, yet garnering the thumbs up of some of the bushiest moustaches in Thailand.
Pek advertised on Facebook at 300 baht a day.
Like hair sprouting out of a newly post-pubescent motorcycle racer, things started to really rumble. Within a month Pek was a regular face at the private postal delivery service near my office. He was clearing 1,000 to 3,000 baht per day in profit, which meant he was earning more selling Pek Serum than he was helping to educate Thailand in English.
This explained his brand new SLR camera, his iPhone 8 and clothes from H&M and Uni Qlo. He’d been cutting out ads for new cars. And to think I put it down to drug dealing. “What’s in it?” I asked.
That question stopped Pek in his tracks. He looked quizzically to the top of my head again.
“It’s hair growth,” he said.
“I know, but what’s the active ingredient?”
Pek’s face clouded over. “It makes your hair grow.”
“You’re not answering my question.”
“It’s certified by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s legal.” Silence. Pek grinned. “I don’t know.”
“So you’re the owner of a hair growth serum, a business so successful it’s eating into your regular office time, but you don’t even know what’s in it? And why all the constant secret conversations with Miss Lek?”
“She’s going to launch a vitamin supplement,” he said. “It helps to relieve heart attacks and cancer and makes your skin clear.”
Who would have thought? I’m surprised it doesn’t mop my floors as well.
And yes, dear reader, Miss Lek did launch that vitamin supplement, which while a steady seller, never reached the dizzy heights of Pek Serum. Her advertising costs were higher than her revenue, and Miss Lek’s magic pill fizzled. I guess consumers aren’t ready for a pill that can cure cancer and lighten your skin at the same time.
Pek’s story does not have a happy ending either. Pek Serum was a hit for six months. In that time hair growth serum number seven came along, as did eight and nine. That Samut Prakan factory must be making a fortune.
By the time number ten popped up, the market was saturated. Thank goodness Pek didn’t give up his day job.
So you can see that when the scandal about fake cosmetics broke last week, I wasn’t so surprised. Across Thailand, in bedrooms and studio apartments, regular Thais are flogging every conceivable cosmetic, lotion and health supplement man can think up. They are free of the constraints of market regulation, shop rental, consumer laws and, of course, tax. Nor must they tell the truth.
My only surprise was the bevy of local celebs who lined up to promote those fake cosmetics. They got paid to do it, as opposed to Pek’s mustachioed supporters whose payments were as elusive as Pek Serum’s active ingredient
Pek is now experimenting with diet pills. He told me there are a lot of fat people out there just wanting to lose weight.
“There’s this factory in Minburi that makes pills that make you lose one kilogram per day,” Pek, rake thin, explains.