Detergent ads make the gender leap

Contrasting stories: The Nirma ad of the 1980s (left) and the macho man in Nirma Advance today. (Photo: Nirma)
The ad is the hard to miss: Actor Hrithik Roshan dancing to a funky tune in a detergent commercial. In the last two months that Nirma Advance, a new variant of the popular Nirma washing powder has been on air, it has evoked sharp reactions, varying from surprise to sheer delight. Surprise because many can’t seem to place why a man is dancing in a detergent commercial and delight because it is fun to watch. But, there are a few who do get the message the ad is conveying: Laundry is not a woman’s job alone and can be enjoyed by anyone including a man if he chooses to do it.

For a few years now, the detergent category, a segment that traditionally speaks to women, has also been talking to men. Take for example the campaign for Hindustan Unilever’s Active Wheel detergent currently on air. The woman is shown lecturing her husband about the importance of purchasing the ‘right’ detergent. For a category that is women-centric — where she buys the detergent and determines its efficacy — the Active Wheel campaign is bringing the man in, at least during product purchase.

That she is proved wrong by her husband, who has bought the ‘better’ (brand) Active Wheel instead of the one she traditionally uses, indicates that men are getting confident about laundry. This is a far-cry, say experts, from the days when laundry advertising would be about spotlessly-clean clothes washed by women. The woman’s advisors would be her peers. And if the man did figure at all, it was to display his wife’s superior washing abilities. 

Detergents ads in the 1970s, 80s and 90s played to this familiar script including Nirma’s very own ‘Lalitaji of HUL’s Surf Excel were presented as intelligent alter-egos to Hema and Rekha, simple housewives, there was no moving away from the core audience: women.

The only detour in this narrative was the introduction of kids. Surf Excel’s ‘Ready for Life’, where kids were shown staining their clothes for greater good.

In the latest Nirma Advance commercial, there is a young boy too, who matches step for step with Roshan, indicating, say experts, that kids have no problems doing the laundry today. Women clearly have company.

Gender equality

K V Sridhar, founder & chief creative officer, Hyper Collective, believes that current laundry ads reflect the times, where women are in step with men. Being among the largest of the fast moving consumer goods categories in the country, laundry brands are weaving these cues into their communication. “Laundry is central to a household, affecting every individual. That it was traditionally viewed as a woman’s job to wash clothes is changing now thanks in part to the emergence of technology and gadgets that make it convenient for anyone including men to take up this role. Women today are looking for partners willing to do the household chores. Brands are seeing this and responding to the change,” he says.

That laundry advertising is looking to drive behavioural change, both among kids as well as adults, is not lost on many. Procter & Gamble’s award-winning ‘Share the load’ campaign for Ariel Matic detergent is a manifestation of this trend, experts say.

Launched in 2015 and continued into 2016 as ‘Dads share the load’, the campaign dwelt on the burning issue of gender equality at home. The 2016 commercial, in particular, which focused on a father’s candid admission to his daughter of perpetuating patriarchal norms, touched a chord with one and all. That the father was willing to make amends and help with the laundry at home was the desired behavioural change that Ariel Matic was looking to bring about in people, especially men.

It helped that the ‘Dads share the load’ campaign when launched last year racked up over 10 million views on social media in a matter of days and was shared by the likes of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She said in her Facebook post, “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’ behaviour; this doesn’t just impact their childhood games, it shapes their long-term dreams.”

Procter & Gamble is now taking this thought of gender equality into other categories such as baby diapers - another segment that has traditionally addressed the woman. A recent Pampers campaign called ‘It takes 2’ has attempted to foster inclusive parenting, focusing on the dad’s moments with the child. The man is shown sharing the load - feeding his child, changing his diapers and putting him off to sleep  - in a series of frames. In between, he also manages to take off dried garments from the clothes rack, his little son following in his footsteps. Detergent advertising clearly seems to be leading the way when it comes to breaking gender stereotypes across categories.

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