A recent Tata DoCoMo advertisement has drawn flak from all sections of Indian society for depicting domestic workers in a negative light. The ad, one in a series of 13 with the catchline “No Getting Away”, shows a maid stealing a mobile phone from her employer and getting caught in the act.
The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), the self-regulatory body of the advertising industry in India, has so far received eight complaints from citizens over the ad.
“This advertisement is extremely crass and in bad taste apart from casting aspersions on the integrity of the class of domestic workers, a superexploited lot without any customary – let alone legal – rights worth the name. It further reinforces the common prejudices against them in this regard through stereotyping,”argued a complaint filed on Wednesday by Sukla Sen, Kamayani Bali Mahabal, and Jyoti Punwani, among others.
Another complaint by Arnab Sen said:
The brand and their agency have nakedly reinforced class stratifications in an already highly inequitable and insanely stratified society. We all know that domestic labour in India is under-compensated, overworked, and that domestic work is a site of psychological and physical abuse, no protection against sexual abuse, and a market that feeds human traficking. Fun at the expense of a vulnerable and marginalised segment is irresponsible and in very poor taste. Representing a group of workers in a commonly ascribed stereotype will reinforce this stereotype and young viewers and children will subscribe to such views on domestic workers.
Filmmaker Gargi Sen, who has made a film on domestic workers, finds the ad offensive:
The ad implies that just because you are poor and have to eke out a living as a domestic help, you don’t have any dignity or self-respect. As it is, domestic workers have no minimum wages, days off, or even access to health services. If a domestic worker becomes pregnant, she loses her job. There’s no one to take care of them. And now you have this obnoxious ad!
Journalist and author Ammu Joseph found the ad “highly insensitive and derogatory towards a vital section of the country’s labour force, which many of us (including, no doubt, those responsible for the ad) depend on to keep our households going. The ad reinforces unfair stereotypes about domestic help that are most unfortunate.”
Filmmakers Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayashankar wrote in their complaint:
The commercial stereotypes the domestic maid as a thieving being, thereby reinforcing a class bias that already exists in society. The company has absolutely no business to represent this marginalised group in this way. Would they have dared to represent business executives, for instance, as unethical? Just because a group has lack of access to voice and social power does not give DoCoMo the right to make a tasteless joke at their expense.
Advertising professional S. Balakrishnan looks at the ad angle and explains why it is an abject failure:
Ultimately an ad is for a prospective customer – would it draw their attention, hold it, and persuade them to consider the product or develop an affinity for the brand? That’s most important. Other points of view are secondary. But, ‘stereotyping’ is a well-recognised evil and there is the ASCI to reduce the ‘stereotyping’ content in Indian advertising. ‘Bad’ can mean ‘simply obtuse’, ‘lacking sharp definition’, ‘unaesthetic/offending’, ‘irrelevant/too remote a connect’. An can be bad in more ways than an ad can be good.
He looks at the message the ad might have tried to convey, “Is the ad aimed at the employer who doesn’t want to be quietly losing money on the side, and can think of a telecom company as a potentially dishonest servant? Then, the maid doesn’t look suspicious the way customers don’t regard telecom companies with undue suspicion, but they could be charging them wrongly. So is an upper strata customer (not the most affluent) getting the vibe that DoCoMo is more trustworthy – see they are honest and tipping me off about dishonesty.
“If this type of attempted effect is achieved even in one-eighth of the targetted group it is aimed at, it’s not a bad ad. If it couldn’t do this, or wasn’t understood or some other take-out emerged because of distractors in the film, it’s a plain failure – wrong in conception and execution.”
Tata Teleservices, owner of the brand, could not be reached for comment.