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Madhukar Sabnavis: Does anyone have it all?

Striking the perfect balance between home and work is an advertising ideal

Madhukar Sabnavis 

Madhukar Sabnavis

Much has been written about the recent Airtel commercial. In it, a woman boss assigns some work to a male employee, her husband - but still gets back home to cook a meal of his choice. She then sends him pictures of the food, asking him to come home soon. Is it regressive? Is it falling back on and reinforcing stereotypes of women in India, especially when feminists are talking about equality and women being able to do everything that men can, and more?

Before delving into the content of the advertisement, let's get the form and context out of the way first. The story is fresh in expression, the casting and acting wonderful. It's interesting to note the story has been told without an over-the-top tone which makes the revelation (that the junior employee is her husband) surprising. The maturity with which this unusual role-reversal is played out is particularly instructive. That's for the form. The fact that it has stirred up conversation means that, like it or hate it, you can't ignore it. That makes it powerful communication. And with many people having personal views on how the plot could have been written differently, that too is a testimony to the fact that the ad has hit the bullseye.

This brings me to the content: More specifically, the portrayal of the woman, which seems to be the core of the idea. The "superwoman" who effortlessly handles both work and home has been part of advertising and brand discourse for over two decades now. In the early 1990s, a coffee brand down south ran a successful ad. A woman architect does all: The home chores in the morning (after a cup of coffee, of course), then goes off to work and provides a simple building solution to the admiration of her male colleagues. This was a kind of pioneer in the field. In the early 2000s, the iconic 'Whirlpool' woman - "Mummy ka magic chalega kya" - was portrayed as being adept at finding solutions for sticky situations at home, from washing a stained tablecloth to making quick ice. Yet, in some executions, she was clearly dressed to look like a woman who had a job out of home. And most recently, as we speak, an LIC radio spot extols how a woman does everything at home (supposedly responding to the demands of multiple family members) and yet gets her identity from being an agent - from her work outside. All these and multiple other advertisements in between have played on the same stereotype: Of the superwoman who is able to balance work and home. They seem to work, and hence have lasted over two decades across categories. Clearly, women relate to such imagery. And this woman is no different. Then what makes this Airtel ad so provocative or stimulating?

The wife is the boss. It seems improbable - but not impossible. Good storytelling is, as Alfred Hitchcock often said, about using such improbable situations; they give the story an element of surprise, without being unreal. This shouldn't bother women, though it could be disconcerting for men. The wife goes back and cooks. (The couple look like they could have had a cook, and yet the creator decided to make her cook!) That is particularly interesting. We know, in our culture and many others, food is the way to the man's heart, and it's the strongest form of 'mothering' and expression of care. A kid at home would have sanitised it and perhaps made it more acceptable. Juxtaposing this with a boss' instruction at work provides a fresh perspective to the new-age woman who doesn't just balance activities, but manages multiple emotions maturely and in a balanced manner. This combination of 'tough at work' and yet 'kind at home' attitudes seems smart and makes the whole thing fresh.

However, it is this ritual of cooking that stimulates a regressive image in progressive minds, and hence reinforces stereotypes and the stereotypical roles of a woman. Is a woman cooking for her husband or family a regressive act? Or is it an expression of care and love?

This brings up, for me, however, the real core question: Can a woman actually balance home and work, and do both to her satisfaction - and to the satisfaction of her near and dear ones? Indra Nooyi stirred up a hornet's nest, earlier this year, when she said women pretend to have it all but that is more an ideal than a reality for most. There is much truth in what she said. In a day, you have limited time and when you give time to something, something else loses out.

It is equally true that men don't have it all. How many male leaders have been quoted saying that, while they climbed the ladder to the top, they have missed seeing their children grow? Or that they had strong wives who held fort at home and provided a support to their success? The answer is numerous. Hidden in such comments is a reiteration for men too of what Indra Nooyi so humbly and explicitly said. They, too, can't have it all.

It is every individual's continuous endeavour to find the right balance between work, home and personal pursuits. To that extent, the portrayal in the Airtel commercial and many other such ads that have tried to strike a chord with the thought of a superwoman have treaded into the territory of the 'ideal' - bordering, even, on fantasy. Male portrayals have not strayed that far because, fortunately for them, their corridors of operation in society have been rather limited: Be the bread-winner. Anything extra done is seen as a bonus, or as the man's softer side - not as indicating he's a superman.

Advertising stories exist to make brands endearing to the consumer. Yet, the characters and rituals portrayed in them consciously and subliminally influence social values and behaviours. To constantly strive towards the right balance is a laudable ideal, and to do it from a woman's point of view is meaningful from an Indian social and marketing standpoint. The Airtel ad is one more of a series of ads that aims to push the envelope in that context. For me, the maturity in the relationship is equally worth discussing, alongside the role of a woman and a more holistic portrayal of her. It's a fresh take - and the conversation it stirred up is healthy. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is vice-chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, India. These views are his own

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First Published: Thu, September 04 2014. 21:50 IST