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July 02, 2018

#Femvertising: Brands Are Waking Up To The New Wave Of Feminism

Text by Geeta Rao. Illustration by Tanya Eden

The pathway to empowerment is paved with hard-hitting hashtags and stirring visuals, but have we come far enough?

‘I kick balls, deal with it’ is a headline from #ThisGirlCan, a campaign created by Sport England in 2015. The campaign, based on the insight that women didn’t exercise due to fear of being judged, got 37 million Facebook views, and thousands of women signed up to close the gender gap in sports and exercise. Pantene’s #SorryNotSorry campaign asked women to change their vocabulary — to stop using the word ‘sorry’ in a disempowering way and to stop apologising. It earned 1.6 billion impressions on social media. #BloodNormal, a sanitary napkin campaign for hygiene brand Libresse, tries to normalise menstruation by showing red blood instead of blue liquid in ads. The Times of India’s #NoConditionsApply campaign subverts religious traditions — it questions why widows, transgender people and sex workers are not allowed to be part of the sindoor khela ritual during Kolkata’s famous Durga Puja rituals, usually restricted to married women.

Yes, advertising seems to be riding the third wave of feminism with ease. Menstruation taboos, alternate sexuality, notions of real beauty and everyday sexism, once part of a wider gender discourse, have entered the world of advertising, even though they are on the back of brand building and halo-induced sales. It is not surprising as women have much greater consumer-influencer power today than they’ve had ever before. Millennial women express strong views on how they want to see change play out with just a click and a like.

Empowering messages can take many forms. Wall Street’s Fearless Girl — a site-specific installation that looks at the largely male-dominated Wall Street squarely in the eye — shows a sculpture of a little girl, probably 10-years-old, eyeballing the Wall Street charging bull to show the financial district’s lack of gender diversity. Fearless Girl has had her share of controversies, but she has moved from being the creation of an ad agency to a New York City icon.

Once upon a time we had Jaya, Rekha, Sushma and Hema, each one with her own signature drum roll, each one ecstatic when her husband’s shirt emerged sparkling white from the wash bucket in the Nirma ads. They were the ‘Happy Detergent Ladies’ and their happiness was infectious, even though the ad was hopelessly gendered. Then came Lalitaji, who continued the gendered message, but who seemed to be an empowered person in her own world. You wouldn’t want to mess with Surf Excel’s Lalitaji, and that’s what made her powerful.

Ericsson’s ‘One black coffee, please’ ad had a woman protagonist who managed a skilled turn-down to a potential pass. It wasn’t the story about the phone that we liked — it was the optics. Here was a woman having a little me time at a restaurant, she was confident and comfortable, she was an early adopter of technology and knew how to handle a man.

The visuals were still relevant though. This was about adulting and not infantilising women. Titan’s #HerLifeHerChoice commercial featuring Nimrat Kaur, who deals calmly with an obnoxious ex comes close, but I missed the spirit of the super confident Kavita Kapoor.

Urban Clap’s Happy Men’s Day commercial had women bouncers, bus drivers and mechanics wishing men a Happy Men’s Day. It is one of the unsung commercials in the gender stakes. I loved the tagline ‘From Equals to Equals’.

Myntra’s much-talked-about Anouk, The Visit commercial created a buzz when it presented the emotions and dynamics of a same-sex relationship with two women preparing for a ‘meet the parents’ moment. Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad campaign is not so much about empowering women, but about a man getting sensitised to gender roles at home. In a touching epiphany on gender sensitisation, a father sees his daughter struggling to manage all her domestic chores and realises this is the circle of life — his wife did the same because he didn’t help her. He writes a letter of apology to his daughter, and helps his wife by sharing the load too. It is a path-breaking commercial because we have a man who is thinking differently.

In societies where even the optics of a female pilot or photojournalist are seen as images of women breaking the stereotype, advertising fills the gap between real life and aspirations with a so-called soft feminism — apologies to feminists who may hate this usage tagged to something commercial. Yes, we know brands want to sell to us, but sometimes advertising can tell us that change is possible in small ways right here in our homes without the daily drama and shrill ranting of news channels. Havell’s #HawaBadlegi Winds of Change campaign questions everyday stereotypes in a series of short films. One has a man taking his wife’s surname at the registrar’s office; another involves a woman quizzing a man about his ability to use a food processor in a typical arranged marriage setup.

For brands, ‘empowerment’ can become a double-edged sword. Discerning consumers are likely to question a brand’s real-life commitment too. Are there more women writing the ads?Are brands also committed to closing the gender pay gap in office? If a brand supports empowerment, is it still sending mixed messages of body image in some other forms of communication? Are too many men featuring in ‘empowerment’ ads as the purveyors of empowered thinking or are we seeing enough positive images of powerful women? Most importantly, are women having the last word as “equals to equals”?

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