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March 20, 2015

Gender Suspender!

Text by Geeta Rao

A mom training her son like a pro… a wife calling the shots at work… a woman confidently dealing with an ex-boyfriend. Commercials have begun to rewrite old scripts with fun new images, finds Geeta Rao

At a wedding I was at recently, the groom’s 20-something sister decided to wear a pagri traditionally reserved for male family members in the baraat. She didn’t see why it was a male right. She made a fashion statement as well as a political statement with utmost style. It was hauntingly reminiscent of a TBZ jewellery commercial on air. The commercial takes an old situation and turns it on its head. The  var maala or garlanding ceremony in North Indian weddings is one full of puffing and posturing and a refusal by the man to bow down to be garlanded to prove that he isn’t going to be giving in so easily to his bride. It is playful but this time the bride proves she isn’t going to give in either. She eyes his dishy best friend rather lustfully. The message is clear — she isn’t going to wait around. The man gets it and docilely toes the line super fast. It’s all fun and games but we get that the modern bride has options and a naughty mind. There is another commercial where the bride wears the groom’s shoes – a subversion of the traditional joota chupana ceremony in weddings where the girls from the bride’s side hide the groom’s shoes and extract money from him. Here the bride has taken charge of his life. We get the feeling she will wear the pants in the family in the next episode of their married life.

Advertising is not the great revolutionary medium of social change. It is pretty; it presents us a beautifully manufactured reality that makes us feel with just a little bit brand intervention that our lives will be even more glamorous, zit free and hassle free. And yes, our love lives and relationships will always work if we choose the right brand.  But when ads step out of the ad world perception of reality and provide us with images of possibility we sit up and take notice. Aah! Someone understands us.

Women have been the biggest focus of ad spends. And in advertising’s glossy world we have acquitted ourselves admirably: always smiling, ecstatic that the ring of dirt on the collar has gone, exuberantly celebrating our children’s wins and never having a word of criticism for our spouses – with nary a hair out of place or a sweaty face. Somewhere along the way advertising started choosing an idealised version of the roles women should be playing. They forgot to check with women and forgot the real change that was going on right in front of our eyes.

A refreshing lot of commercials have stepped out of this bind to provide us with images of what is possible. Or should I say what is happening all around?  In an Airtel commercial we have a wife who is the boss at work — not just the boss but her husband is in a direct line of reporting to her. Nice touch, never mind what the HR department has to say about this. And just so she isn’t too alienating we also see her gentle nurturing side as she goes home to cook her husband a meal. But she does it all without any hidden subtext in her actions. If she gets bored doing the sweet wife bit, we get a sense she may call it quits. And if she gets the big global assignment we have no doubt hubby-bubby will pack his bags and follow. She makes her choices and it’s what the ads imply that we buy into. She is calling the shots.

Another wedding situation has the grandmother asking petulantly why her granddaughter couldn’t have found a nice Punjabi boy instead of the same old boring Tamilian in the family tradition. The grandma wants a little excitement in the family lineage. A note to advertisers on grandmothers here: Why do they all have old-fashioned buns and traditional saris? Time to realise that 60 is the new 40 and women that age are looking and feeling better than ever before – think Shobhaa De and Dimple Kapadia.

The Bournvita Mom trains her son like a pro. She is a power runner, she is fit, she will win the marathon if she sets her mind to it and we have no doubt she will train her son to be a winner. I love the image it throws up — it’s inspiring to see a physically fit woman revelling in fitness because we don’t see enough of these images in ads. Yet the streets are full of women running, cycling, power walking and training just like the woman in the commercial.

Then there is the Raga watch commercial. Let me say at the outset I am not a fully paid up subscriber to the ‘pregnant pause’ school of advertising, which the Raga commercial specialises in. Very art house. But I love the insight on which the commercial is based and the performances are superb. The insight strikes a wicked chord. We can’t help turning cartwheels of joy inside when the Loser we lost and wept over turns up more of a Loser. Not only was he a Loser then but he continues to be one, as they say in Bollywood lingo “bees saal baad’. It’s a little shared chick moment. Wicked joy alas, but what joy. One that should have been marked by a high-five, a little fist pumping and an SMS to the bestie. But Nimrat Kaur plays it calm and controlled presumably in keeping with the brand psychographic. It’s a Zen and confident handling of a situation we all know and can identify with.

Dear advertisers, don’t give us a brand story based on grim social reform like the Titan single mom-second marriage commercial. It somehow left me feeling it was all about the man as saviour. We may give you a Facebook like but it won’t touch us deep down. Don’t show us commercials where we are ‘secret winners’ but have to be ‘pretend losers’ to keep the family boat from rocking. We have moved on. Don’t show us perfect men like The Complete Man of the ’90s as our ideal man. If we had to be married to him in this day and age, our death certificates will read “died of boredom”.  We want images of humour because you know what – we can laugh at ourselves. We want real relationship insights like in the Raga commercial. The ‘R’ word plays an important role in our lives at every age but we need to be the heroes in the story.  In the new norm core era we want the new normal. Tell it like it is because the real world is throwing up exciting stories and we are having fun rewriting old ones. Join us and give us fun new images and ways of doing what we do. We will be married to your brand forever.

 

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