Bodhisatwa Dasgupta
Guest Article

Wake me up, when ‘woketember’ ends

A gloves off, dishoom-dishoom look at tokenism in advertising.

I was talking to a friend the other day, about the places to eat at, while I was in Hyderabad. (I often find myself having a lot of conversations around food.) Anyway, he told me about this place that served excellent ‘haleem’ and said, "I have a transgender friend who keeps ordering from this place."

Now, there’s a problem with that statement, and it’s a big one.

In an effort to be woke and inclusive, he felt that he needed to call out the fact that he had a transgender friend.

He could have very easily said, "I have a friend who keeps ordering from this place." But the fact that he had to insert the transgender thing left a bad taste in my mouth that no ‘haleem’ could fix.

And this, in my opinion, is what advertising is also struggling with today. And, I get it. It’s not easy. How the hell are you supposed to be woke, without, umm, being woke? You want to cast a woman from the North-east, because you want to be woke. But if you do, it’ll be tokenism. So, how do you strike that balance?

Consider, if you will, this ad by Surf Excel. Simple ad, told in the same format the brand has been telling stories in. Clean shirt. Girl makes it dirty. But it’s all good in the end. What’s different in this ad? The cast. It’s about a North-eastern family. So far, full points on inclusivity. Well done, team.

But wait, hang on just a gentle second. What language are they talking in? Yep, Hindi. The ‘language of the nation’. Only, as you probably know, it’s really not the language of the nation. People in the North-east speak lots of languages – Assamese, Nagamese, Bodo and many others. What they don’t speak in (that too, at home) is Hindi. So, what happened here? In order to be mainstream, we took a perfectly legit woke story and turned it into tokenism.

Colgate’s #SmileOutLoud was another one where the intent may have been great from an inclusivity standpoint, but turned out to be another tokenism campaign. I loved the strategy behind it. This brand has always been about great smiles. Great smiles have nothing to do with how our teeth are shaped. Whiteness? Sure. So, let’s tell that story.

Full points, again. Picking Dolly Singh as a face – brilliant. She has a lovely smile, but it’s, perhaps, not perfect in the traditional advertising sense. But it’s real. And, had we stopped it at Dolly, this ad would have hit the spot.

But no. We had to go full enthu cutlet on making this a body positive commercial. So, we featured Toshida Uma, who has alopecia, and Prarthana, who has vitiligo. Both extremely talented women in their own right, and doing wonders in breaking stereotypes through their own content. But when a large brand takes them on for what is essentially a campaign about owning your smile, it suddenly feels less woke and more token.

Of course, this is not to say that this tender line of being woke can’t be walked on, without toppling over to the marshy land of tokenism. It’s doable. Take Ariel’s film. Simple story – a husband and wife introduce themselves to their new neighbours, who are obviously a gay couple.

Tea spills, the married man says they’ll clean it up, and the story goes on from there. Notice, nowhere in the story does the wife or the husband react to the other couple being gay. It’s by the by. The story isn’t about the gay relationship. It’s about sharing the load. And I think that’s it really.

When you show something and then call it out, it becomes tokenism. But when you show it for what it is, and resist the urge to comment on it or weave a story around it, you’re normalising a situation. Which, in my head, is woke.

WhatsApp ran a campaign recently. And, one of its films was rather sweet. It’s about a couple (the boy is from the South and the girl is from the North-east). They’re watching a cricket match with the boy’s family, who say something in a language that the girl doesn’t understand. So, she gestures to him to ask what it means, and he explains what he said. Cut to the boy’s mother learning the girl’s language (Assamese) and teaching the boy and his dad. The next time they’re watching the film, the boy’s family exclaims in Assamese.

See? Good story. Yes, it has a North Indian girl. Yes, it’s inclusive. Yes, it normalises mixed race couples. Yes, there’s a lovely sweet moment in the film. All in all, pretty woke. So, it can be done, this woke advertising. And, it’s needed too, to normalise so many things around us. To normalise the world our kids are going to grow up in.

I think the day we stop making a big deal out of the things we’re trying to normalise, will be the day things actually do get normalised.

Not a bad line to end it with, no? I surprise myself sometimes.

(The author is founder and intern at The Voice Company, an advertising agency.)

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