Many moons ago, a gay friend, an only child, said that when he finally came out to his family, his mother’s biggest lament was, “What will happen to all my jewellery?” His mother, like many Indian mothers, had been hoarding necklaces and earrings and bracelets that she hoped one day to pass on to her daughter-in-law. My friend said he told her, “You can just give them to me.”
I don’t know if it actually transpired. My friend was not particularly into jewellery anyway. But at that time it had struck me it would have made for a lovely short film about coming out and acceptance. The new Bhima jewellery ad featuring a trans woman reminded me of that conversation long ago.
The ad is transformative on many levels. It features a trans woman coming to terms with herself, transforming from a lonely adolescent boy into a radiant bride. It’s transformative because it features an actual trans person in the role. And it’s transformative because it’s a story about a family’s loving acceptance instead of the more familiar transphobia. A bit too idealistic? Perhaps, but in the end it’s a feel-good ad that wants to sell us jewellery, not a documentary. We cannot mistake social messaging for social change. The heavy lifting social change requires has to come from us. It cannot be outsourced to an ad, which can at best just nudge us in the right direction.
Ads are lambasted for perpetuating all kinds of gender stereotypes—and rightly so. In 2013, actor Sharmila Tagore pointed out that “ads for banks, IT, cars, anything to do with speed, intelligence and cognitive abilities are routinely geared to men; only when it comes to beauty, jewellery, household and care-giving do women feature. Insurance ads tell us over and over again to save money for a son’s education and a daughter’s marriage.” Even the much-praised Bhima ad, though it steps outside the gender box, still stays within the comforting Lakshmanrekha of marriage as literally the “gold standard” for women.
Also read | Why LGBTQ+ Indians deserve the right to marry
But still, these ads do push the envelope in their own ways. Colgate came out with a heart-warming ad about a lonely older woman who gets over her fear of log kya kahenge and finds new romance during the lockdown, much to the astonishment of her grown children.
A Sunlight washing powder ad has a grandmother putting on the bright red sari she had put away long ago and flying a kite with her surprised grandchildren. A few years ago, Tanishq created waves with its ad showing a single mother (and dusky to boot) remarrying. It was hailed as brave and progressive. That same Tanishq’s bravery was tested more recently by its Hindu bahu and Muslim saas ad that provoked howls about “love jihad”. This time, Tanishq capitulated quickly, pulling the ad after threats to some of its stores.
“This is just an ad. It celebrates love. If you don’t like it, don’t buy the product but you cannot intimidate the company,” rues Salil Tripathi, chair of the writers in prison committee of PEN International. “The government should be protecting the right to life, right to property. But instead the right to being offended has taken precedence over all other rights.”
Best-selling author and ad professional Anuja Chauhan says that in some ways it is a sign of how far we have regressed that a Hindu-Muslim love-all message was even regarded as brave and revolutionary in the first place. Tanishq’s backward flip, she says, made it worse. “If you are not going to keep your ad out there, don’t make your ad. It’s an injustice to the cause.”
One could argue it’s easy for armchair liberals to give advice about sticking to your colours. They don’t have to deal with vandalised stores and being doxed. But it also shows where the red lines are these days. While some might be made uncomfortable by the Bhima ad, it will unlikely evoke the kind of toxic trolling that the inter-religious Tanishq ad did. Bigotry of certain kinds is easier to wear, even flaunt, on our sleeves these days.
Looking back, Chauhan says some ads she did years ago would probably give the companies pause now. For example, the Kurkure tedha hai par mera hai ad, which was about people of different backgrounds from different states and intermarriage. “I don’t know if anyone would make that now actually,” says Chauhan. “They probably would say why go there yaar…why borrow trouble?”
In fact, it is a mistake to read these ads as a show of courage. The ad-makers might have their hearts in the right place but they probably also believe they will be feted and patted on the back for their progressivism. When the backlash gets too much, they will drop the issue like a hot potato.
The Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner was yanked off after Black Lives Matter protesters accused the soda giant of trivialising the protests and suggesting that the only thing we need to all get along is a can of fizzy soda. Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr’s daughter, Bernice, posted a photograph of her father being shoved back by a white police officer and said, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”
Also read | How the Tanishq ad divided branding experts
The Tanishq ad with its Amar Akbar Anthony message was hardly tone-deaf like the Pepsi one. Tanishq could have stood its ground and said it believed in an India where Muslim mothers-in-law lovingly held Hindu rituals for their Hindu daughters-in-law but faced with “love jihad” vitriol, it clearly felt discretion was the better part of valour.
In an odd way, LGBTQ+ issues are safer places to exhibit liberal values than religion. Tanishq did that to much acclaim when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was read down, saying “Two of a kind always make a beautiful pair”. These days, support for LGBTQ+ rights fits in well with our self-image as a modern liberal democracy. In 2015, at a time when gay sex had already been re-criminalised by the Supreme Court, clothing company Anouk put out a lovely breezy ad about a lesbian couple getting ready for the big parental visit. Fastrack did a girl-on-girl ad which boasted about a “mindset that isn’t bogged down or defeated by society’s rules”.
All of them deserve a high five but if we are looking for courage in advertising, we will have to look beyond the rainbow. Nike weighed in on Black Lives Matter protests by turning its own famous motto on its head. It said: “For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism.” Its arch rival, Adidas, retweeted that message. Barely a week after the then president, Donald Trump, signed an order to temporarily close America’s borders to refugees in 2017, Airbnb, which had battled its own charges of discrimination, put out an ad during Super Bowl that took direct aim at his order. It said “We Accept” everyone no matter “who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship”.
Equivalents of that in India would be much harder to find. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, many companies in America felt compelled to put out some kind of message about racial justice, even if it was lip service. When citizenship Act protests were rocking India or lynchings had spurred Not in My Name demonstrations, advertising largely steered clear of the minefield. As Sidharth Bhatia wrote in The Wire in 2020, even the utterly Butterly Amul girl has come a long way from 1976 when, during the Emergency, she put on a nurse’s uniform, held up a packet of butter and cheekily said, “We have always practised Compulsory Sterilisation.” By 2020, she was standing in front of the Ayodhya temple, her hands folded, saying “Monumental Occasion: All Are Invited”.
If the Amul girl sticks her neck out today the way she did in 1976, she would probably stir up a hornet’s nest of trolls and face a boycott. The modern Amul girl, and the rest of her corporate kin, know which side their bread is buttered.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.