It’s a fallacy that International Women’s Day is great for women, because rush hour in Bangalore is a great equaliser. On March 8th, my feminist friend Priya and I were trundling slowly along what seemed to be a never ending ride. We were tired, dusty and brain dead. I had completed a long day, speaking to young men and women in large corporations and Priya was recovering from the flu.
Still we met, to have a cocktail or two before I flew back.
I asked if she had seen a campaign I had started recently with my publishers HarperCollins - an #OwnItShoutout button. A campaign as an extension of my book, which served to showcase someone or something that we believed bust the myths around roles of women. Roles we are meant to subscribe to; or boxes we are meant to neatly fit into.
She hadn’t seen it.
I whipped out my phone to show her the creative around the latest #Shoutout.
It was for the #Ariel advertisement created by joint teams from the creative agency BBDO and their client Ariel India called #ShareTheLoad.
I was thrilled to finally come across an ad, which got it right.
Got it right? Sure – it spoke to a limited audience - the urban Indian corporate successful woman.
But it didn’t force a message upon us in a contrived fashion that left us conflicted and unsure whether the advertisement empowered, demeaned or patronised.
Because that’s exactly what supposed “femadvertising” has done for me till now. From Airtel’s ad of a woman being her husband’s boss in the workplace (unrealistic that any organisation would allow direct reporting to a spouse) after which she went home to subscribe to good wife and traditional homemaker role.
Or the more recent Titan Raga ad, where a bunch of corporates at an appraisal meeting, spend time discussing the attributes of a certain Kiran and Kiran’s boss in a lascivious manner. A man at the table demands to “see” said Kiran. Kiran is called in and Kiran turns out to be a man. Killing their fantasies.
Here’s where I was stumped. Is the ad trying to show that working hard to support the boss even after hours, sometimes over wine is normal and that’s why the promotion?
Or that Kiran is having an affair with his boss?
Or that the only way one gets promoted is by sleeping their way up the corporate ladder?
So many mixed messages. I was befuddled to say the least.
What it certainly did, was reinforce that some corporate leaders discuss women lewdly, even during appraisals. We women know that well. But what is the final outcome of the messaging for me as a woman, who this brand supposedly speaks to?
Back to Priya. Despite sketchy 3G, I played the video on my phone for her.
In a few seconds, Priya turned to me with a distressed expression and said , “Oh My God.” Her big black eyes looked blacker and shinier when she turned again to me 10 seconds later to repeat the words. I wondered what that meant. Her expression was far from approving. Tentatively I ventured, “It’s good right?”
She finished watching the ad, and quietly said, “It’s very good, “and then I saw it. She had tears rolling down her face. The emotion was so palpable that tears trickled down my face too.
So here we were, two women in our forties, moved to tears by an advertisement from India, that had finally cracked the femme code. Here was an ad, that didn’t seem unrealistic, that didn’t try to “set things right” in a preachy fashion, that didn’t talk down to women. The father in that advertisement had collectively apologised to every Indian woman for setting a bad example. And the message went straight to our hearts.
And it wasn’t just one message. We picked up many. Priya felt her family’s efforts in constantly telling her niece not to subscribe to the notion of “girl roles” in home play were being reinforced. I felt the fact that the father did not try to change things in his daughter’s home but went home to be the change himself in his, was authentic and powerful. The hidden reality being he could not “interfere” in a home that really wasn’t his own.
What was vital and telling though, was the behaviour I noticed on social media around this ad. It went viral. It went global. Sheryl Sandberg shared it on her Facebook page with these words: "This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen -- showing how stereotypes hurt all of us and are passed from generation to generation. When little girls and boys play house they model their parents' behavior; this doesn't just impact their childhood games, it shapes their long-term dreams.
But when you looked closer, it was women who were sharing the video. Because the ad, while it collectively seemed to move women, seemed to spark nothing in a man. No guilt, no impetus to say he was inspired to do more. Nada. Nothing. In fact I saw some criticism. And I wondered what that meant.
Men, I genuinely want to know what you think of the ad. Did it move you? Did you sit up and think of the example you are setting for your children?
Or are you still sitting tight in your “privilege zone” on the couch in front of the TV; asking your significant other give you something to eat or to “wash your green shirt?”
As for me: Thank you BBDO and Ariel, for finally making an ad that speaks to us.
You truly #OwnIt.
Aparna Jain is a business leadership coach who has recently authored the book - Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do (HarperCollins 2016)