Yesterday, as they do every year, a spate of brands paid tribute to women on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Most brands do not expect any appreciation or acknowledgement for doing this – it’s become a form of tokenism to have a Woman’s Day ad, or a special offer for women. But brands also do not expect to be trolled or mocked for doing it.
Amongst the many brands celebrating Women’s Day, was Sabyasachi Mukherjee, perhaps the most influential designer that India has produced.
He put out a Women's Day Campaign , which at first glance, is politically correct enough. Featuring a gorgeous, dusky, curvy model in a beautiful creation, the ad is titled “This International Woman’s Day, celebrate confidence.” You would think, nothing to take offence to in that, right?
Add to this, the fact that Sabyasachi is one of the most loved, most aspirational brands for the fashion-forward Indian woman. ‘To be married in a Sabyasachi’ is a dream for many young people, even if they cannot afford one of his creations.
Yet, Sabya was singled out for one of the most expressive outpourings of anger from women around the world. As of writing this post, the ad has more than 2000 comments such as;
“Interesting how you use Women’s Day to show a nice curvy girl, while the rest of the year, ALL your models are slim..”
“..Stop using inclusiveness as an agenda for just one day. We want to be represented but not as mere tokens. We are much more than that.”
“I love your collection but the hypocrisy level is 100/100”
“For the rest of the year, confidence comes from showing bones only”
The reactions are not misplaced. A glance at the designer’s Instagram feed shows that a majority of his models are slim/skinny - not different from any mainstream fashion brand or designer label.
The reaction to this campaign, highlights beautifully and succinctly, why a conventional advertising approach is failing in the digital era, and why brands that bring this approach are struggling despite desiring and trying to connect with their audience.
The digital era is all aboutconsistent, rather than convenient and opportunistic dialogues with audiences. Earlier, brands would open conversations when they had something to sell or offer. Today, business owners, CEOs, bloggers and regular people talk daily about what matters to them and put it out to the world. In this 24X7 world, where the lights are always on, it’s easy to know what someone has stood for, and what they are all about. All you need to do, is search out their posts from the past. Journalists do it, and so does everyone else with access to Google, or any social media platform.
Hence, this era also comes with a built in BS detector for most audiences. Paradoxically, at at time when manipulation and trickery are at a peak, young people passionately search for, and express, their own authenticity and truth. We desperately need to see and hear examples of being imperfectly, yet honestly real to be reassured that we too can survive and thrive in an increasingly false and cynical world. And people seek this in the online world. They seek out people who talk good, do good and mean what they say.
It is not surprising that people would call out Sabya for a one-day lip service to inclusive beauty, when designers and brands like Ayush Kejriwal and Huda Beauty have been quietly and consistently doing this for a long time.
A demonstration of belief is not an ad, or even a campaign but a sustained stance of a brand over time. It’s not just about walking the talk, but walking with people – in the long run. It’s what makes you credible and authentic. Something that Gillette also learned the hard way with their ‘toxic masculinity’ ad. Nothing was wrong with the stance, everything was wrong with jumping late into a meaningful conversation that people were already having around the world. And being sanctimonious about it. Probably Sabyasachi and his digital agency need to introspect on how they can join the movement with humility instead of ‘taking a stand’. People, a community around the world, have already taken a stand. You can be part of it. You cannot make a belated entry and then claim to own it.
Possibly the worst entry you can make into the arena is with a conventional ad approach that talks at people, vs talking with them. In my opinion, this is the mistake made by both Gillette and Sabyasachi. Whether you release your ad on YouTube or a post on Instagram, conventional advertising is predicated on talking at people who are nameless, faceless masses on the other side of the screen. But in the digital world, there are real people who respond and react to others. Even stars are reacting as real people (and they might even reply to you). No one is talking ‘at’ someone else.
The areas of beauty, femininity and fashion have been felt the maximum impact of the quest for more truthfulness and inclusiveness. Traditionally, these industries have been about hierarchy, exclusion, rigidly defined prescriptions of the beauty ideal, and objectification of women to meet male desire. For decades, the self worth of women has been at the ransom of these powerful industries that tell us how to look good, how to be attractive, what to wear, what we need to do to be admired and get social approval.
The shift came with the digital era when real women began to interact with real women from around the world and exchange views (vs reading media and brand led views). Some of these women were so inspired and inspirational, that they became influencers to other women. They put out poems, blogs, visuals, and some like Huda Kattan, built brands around the beliefs that they passionately espoused.
Then come the mainstream beauty and fashion brands imbued with a desire to enter into this conversation and connect with this audience. One must understand the deep political sensitivity of engaging on topics of beauty.
Let’s take the issue that enraged Sabyasachi fans. Plus-sized women are a reality in society and absent in fashion. For years, women have been sold the idea that to be part of the fashionable world, you need to be slim. They feel left out when they cannot wear the skimpy, slinky garments with plunging necklines favored by skinnier peers. They cover themselves up.
They welcome the conversation in social media that increasingly focuses on inclusion, realistic beauty, non-photoshopped models. Women need to believe that the new reality is inclusive beauty. They love to read messages of acceptance and support from other women like them, from influencers, from celebrities like Serena Williams. But when a plus sized woman looks into the mirror, does she really feel beautiful? Or does she think of the many times that she or other women like her have been fat shamed? Does the fact that a brand is telling her she is beautiful, make her feel so? Can it overcome the years of social conditioning to believe otherwise?
This is where political correctness steps in with a vengeance. Many brands think that it is politically correct to be inclusive. Well, understand that in the online world, political correctness about beauty no longer works. People see through it. The very perpetrator of the reality, is seeking to deflect it.
When a Nike makes an ad telling women to Dream Crazier, they are backed by sports celebrities who did that. But when you are a fashion or beauty brand, who has advertised for years with slim and beautiful stars, how can you claim to endorse curves? Will you sign only plus sized models in the future? Will you design specially to make curvaceous women look gorgeous? Will you alter your design aesthetic? Will you make statements in the press to this effect?
This is where the much touted term ‘brand purpose’ makes an appearance. Brand purpose is much more than a higher order ideal that you can subscribe to once a year. Few people really know their purpose in life. And even fewer brands do. It’s at least honest to say that you have no purpose and you exist to make money. But if you aspire to have a purpose, then beware. Beware lest it makes you self righteous and blind to the fact that you are no messiah for the masses, you are reflecting a trend and not creating it. Beware, if you think that an annual (or bi-annual) campaign is enough to make the world believe that you are armed with purpose. People can go through your entire history of communication in a few swipes and clicks, and will call you out on your inconsistencies. And finally – the bigger a brand you are, the more you will be held accountable. Remember what happens to celebrities. They get trolled the most for shooting their mouths off. So too, do brands.
We live in an age when it’s easier than ever to make money or be famous. But it’s extremely hard to find a moral high ground on anything. Everyone is under scrutiny all the time, and a slip is generally fatal.
Hopefully lessons that Sabyasachi and other brands will learn, in the years to come.