The politics of purchase : Airtel Campaign

The recent Airtel advertisement campaign regarding its data network has opened a can of theoretical worms. While has published an article defaming its sexist nature there are other hopeful peers who appreciate the ‘realist’ vision which propagates the image of a woman who can balance her professional and personal life. The advertisement shows a female boss who can efficiently goad her husband/employee into extra shifts and cushions it with the image of an enchanting wife who cooks and patiently waits her husband’s arrival.

So, what it is about this advertisement that makes people so divided in their opinions about it? Is it overtly sexist? No, because it judiciously portrays the world as it is. The ‘new’ cosmopolitan woman is both a homemaker and a career enthusiast. So the subject matter is not in question. It is in the manner of its representation that we should attempt to locate the underlying contradictions. But how do we trace the message hidden in it? Opinion will always be subjective so why bother?

Right then I remembered Roland Barthes’ essay on the narrative structure of advertisements and the way meaning is produced through images. Given that images are essentially imitations can messages be conveyed through this medium? Here, the moving image essentially relates a story. The Airtel campaign strives to portray a life with better connectivity and understanding. Barthes suggests that the image in question transfers its meaning through the linguistic message, the non-coded iconic message and the coded iconic message. He cites an advertising image as an example. A grocery bag lies on the table containing a box of pasta revealing its name/brand along with some fresh vegetables.

Now he suggests that this advertising image has been consciously designed in order to incite our latent desire of buying it or ascribing to its mode of living. Quite interestingly he asserts that we do not buy the product per se but rather we buy what it symbolises. In this case, it is a brand of pasta named ‘Panzani.’ So the linguistic message works on two levels – denotative (first-level meaning) which gives us the name ‘Panzani’ and connotative (second-level meaning) which assures us of its ‘Italianicity.’ Quite simply then, this image symbolises a certain kind of cultural aesthetics. It contains the encrypted message that if we decide to go for this product and not others we are entitling us to a certain elitist form of ‘Italianicity.’ Somehow the symbolic value of the image undermines its actual use-value. Does that prove this pasta is better in quality? No. But it exudes a suave trait which undermines its true quality or even glorifies its fallacy. The coded iconic message is the macro-message of the image: the brand suggesting its Italian origin, fresh vegetables suggesting health and prosperity and finally a feeling of plenitude. The non-coded iconic message is simply the ‘literal’ message (what we ‘see’ when we look at the image).

If we apply this mode of interpreting the image to our Airtel campaign exciting results crop up. Let’s take the woman for instance. She is smart, quite well-dressed and she belongs to a certain class which can be said to be affluent. Now the advertisement carefully projects this female figure to be the representative of that monolithic category of a working-class ‘woman.’ It can be argued that it is done for the sake of portraying a woman who has her husband as her employee. True, indeed. Yet the fact that she speaks with a certain dismissive tone (in her role as the ‘boss’) and her sudden transformation into a coy, submissive self when she plays the role of a dutiful wife is quite alarming. It can be argued that being docile does not mean she is submissive. She knows how to separate her professional and personal life. She knows how to don the garb of a boss. Why is the ad named ‘The boss’? Why isn’t it ‘The boss-wife’? Is it because the preferred name is stripped of any gender markers? To simplify, this advertisement ‘sells’ a certain form of feminist rhetoric which asserts gender equality but it does so by placing certain limitations on it. Long back, in her essay A room of one’s own, Virginia Woolf laments for the absence of a language quite specific to women. This woman speaks authoritatively when she assumes a masculine demeanour. Helene Cixous argued in favour of an Écriture féminine (literally meaning “woman’s writing”) which somehow inscribes the experience of the female body in language. Language is considered to be the prison-house of patriarchal order. Notice how the woman changes roles but the man is quite ‘centered’. Though he has to accept the dictum of his boss (a gender-neutral term by the way), he has the last word when his wife converses with him. This can be argued as a co-incidental occurrence of events. It can be termed as a narrative which relates reality as it is. Yet it is a tool of deception as it puts on the mask of feminism and attempts to sell a certain life-ethic. Nicole Ann Klokow asserts that clothing is chosen because it somehow ‘fits’ our projection of what we should look like. The positioning of people in an advertisement states a societal notion of what a situation should look like. The advertisement agencies are not to be solely blamed for such a campaign. It is because we aspire for such a life-style that it gets presented in such a manner. Feminism is for sale!

In view of such an advertisement which relates fast internet connection to a more efficient form of communicative marriage we need to seriously consider the notion that we buy symbols and not products. We buy products not for what they are but for what they represent. Today, while travelling in a bus my eyes caught the view of a tagline in the advertisement of a recently opened restaurant. It read: “We do not serve food. We serve experience.” We all have been inside KFCs and Dominos where the pictures of happy satisfied people cut across variant age and gender distinctions. Class is a glaring absence. Food is not sold. Its emotive quality is somehow commodified in those burgers and pizzas we adore. They sell happiness. We buy them. It is all a capitalistic merry-go-round!

What is the word (read jargon) that is applicable here? Ofcourse, ideology ! Jorge Larrain defines ideology as a “sort of hidden structure which is conveyed and received wrapped up in an external and opaque form.” Somehow these advertisements which rely on certain tenets of feminism end up proclaim that economic freedom for a woman amounts to her personal liberation. The woman in the advertisement has a lucrative job. She cajoles her husband into accepting her as the boss. Now economic freedom has always been a significant part of women liberation movements all around the world. But in this case, it is not so much as an economic stability as it is the freedom to buy a data network, pay huge bucks for it and be happy. It is a simple solution after all. The media industry has re-appropriated this economic independence to be the very act of purchase and not the conscious act of decision-making itself. It is pertinent to point out that advertisements prioritise the spectacle and obscure the material reality behind it.  As Don Slater asserts, “while consumer culture appears universal because it is depicted as a land of freedom in which everyone can be a consumer it is also felt to be universal because everyone must be a consumer.”

Quoted in, Deven Sansare, Chief Creative Officer, Ferry Wharf Communications, had this to say about the ad: “I must say that when I first saw the TVC, I was a bit let down with the ending. Couldn’t they have shown her leaving office and then going to a restaurant with friends and texting him something like ‘wish you were here’? That would not have taken the story away. But, at the same time, when I thought about it, Airtel has always been about this. Be it from their AR Rahman campaign or making Shahrukh Khan sell SIM cards at a sabzi mandi. They latch on to what is currently trending. And women’s rights and empowerment is always in.”

Soumabrata is a research scholar in English Studies at JNU.

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