Aishwarya Ramesh
Points of View

Dishwasher ad gets flak; does copywriting need 'woke' filters?

Ads construed as racist, sexist, and classist are being hauled up more frequently than ever, so we ponder if copywriting has entered a new era.

The ad begins innocuously enough. A group of women are catching up over a video call during lockdown. They are seen complaining about their families' increased workloads since the lockdown began. One of them mentions that the household duties have been split between her, her husband and children. Her husband is washing the dishes, as they speak.

Though the ad seems to stand for a world where housework is divided equally, it’s the slogan at the end that makes the messaging seem regressive. The slogan is that it has been ‘Tested by real moms’, which is an indirect implication that a ‘real mom’ is the one who’s the most concerned about household duties, such as washing dishes and the overall cleanliness of the home. Besides the slogan, it’s also the absence of men in the ad that seems to have rankled netizens.

On Twitter, journalist Faye D’Souza asked, ‘Don’t men need dishwashers too?’ throwing light on how the messaging appears to be centred on the ‘woman of the house’, feeding into the stereotype that household duties are her responsibility.

In a written statement, Voltas Beko contests these claims, mentioning that as a brand, it has always celebrated the spirit of womanhood in all its campaigns.

“Likewise in this advertisement, we captured a fun, casual conversation between four independent friends, who got together over a video call during lockdown. One of the characters in the video refers to how the family has been managing household chores, with her husband taking over the responsibility of washing dishes. This is when the protagonist of the film recommends a dishwasher. Our products have been developed to create convenience and comfort for all our customers, and are gender agnostic,” reads the statement.

In a world where people are unafraid to voice their opinions on social media, brands and their agencies are arguably tasked with ensuring their work hits two marks on the bullseye - it sells the product and offends no one. We explore what copywriting in the 'woke' era entails. Surely brands and agencies have a 'racist filter', a 'sexist filter', a 'classist filter', etc., in place. We spoke to experts to find out.

Ajay Gahlaut, CCO and MD, Publicis Worldwide India

Copywriting changes with changing times. Advertising has to reflect the zeitgeist. So with rising awareness of vexing social issues like sexism, racism, etc., brands have to keep up with the changing and evolving mindsets of consumers. What worked 20 years ago, will not necessarily work now.

The new consumer comes from a different generation, which has its own ways of thinking. In fact, if you trawl through your social media feed, you’ll find people posting collections of old ads in a fit of nostalgia. You will realise that a lot of those ads would be seen as extremely insensitive, sexist, or racist in today’s world. But they were perfectly acceptable back in the day.

Ajay Gahlaut
Ajay Gahlaut

The infinite charm of copywriting and advertising lies in not just reflecting the social conversations but, in some cases, even leading them. If people have taken offense at this ad, that's just the times we live in.

Creativity is such that it flowers when you add 'filters', or constraints in the brief. The creative, however, does need to be careful not to antagonise the customer. You have to be careful to not alienate your audience, even unintentionally.

Asha Kharga, executive VP and group CMO, Axis Bank

I find the piece of communication effective for three reasons:

1. It’s a new category that’s trying to change consumer behaviour.

2. It’s highly relevant and contextual where we have no house help; most women are, indeed, chatting with friends and exchanging notes.

3. It addresses barriers to dishwasher adoption in the Indian context, like tough grease, fitting into small kitchens, suitable for delicate glasses, etc.

I really see no harm in a brand trying to be relevant and authentic in these times. Homemakers are the core audience for this category. Trying to be progressive just for the sake of it, ends up making brands look superficial. Social media responding negatively is okay; the brand is getting noticed. Voltas would get into the consideration set for consumers who're looking to buy dishwashers.

Asha Kharga
Asha Kharga
Axis Bank

Banks, particularly, are seen as an upholder of Indian values. For example, when we created our home loan ad, where a mother asked her son to move out of home when he gets married, some people were very offended. Why are you breaking homes and encouraging sons to leave homes.

However, a lot of women argued against that view and supported the brand’s stance. When conflict and opposing views are genuine, the brand stands to gain for starting a conversation. If we start getting too cautious, then we may end up in very safe spaces, which doesn’t help in creating brand talkability.

Satbir Singh, founder and CCO, Thinkstr (former chief creative officer of FCB Ulka)

India is a vast and populous country, but a large part of that population lives outside of social media. That hasn't changed much but more people are getting online now.

Advertising isn't created by a copywriter in isolation. There are many members of the team behind every ad, including clients who approve the work at every stage. But yes, a copywriter has to walk the tightrope today, more than ever.

Satbir Singh
Satbir Singh

One has to be mindful of not going in a direction that may alienate the real consumer, while not provoking outrage from online warriors.

Decades ago, the world wasn’t politically correct and one could take liberties that would get a brand boycotted today. One must move with the times. There should be no place for bigotry of any kind.

Interestingly, almost all ads that featured dishwashers in the past have targetted housewives and would have been called out for sexist messaging if they were published in this day and age.