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Empowerment to healthy hair

Advertising's new poster girls: Feminists

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TRESS BIEN: Male bashing and hair care in one go

An ad campaign for beauty products links empowerment to healthy hair - and sparks off a mighty ruckus.

As ads go it managed to do what ads are meant to do - made most of Kerala and Malayalees outside sit up startled. What was this? A feminist with all the trademark traits - big red bindi, cotton sari, a strong face and long, lovely hair - stands at what looks like a crummy small town bus depot ranting about men who harrass women in buses by pulling their long hair. Should we, she fumes, give into this and start sporting short hair like men? Come sisters, she exhorts, let us stand up for our long hair and fight eve-teasers. 'Ulkaruthu mudikkyum manasinum (inner strength for hair and heart), Indulekha hair oil, ' intones a mellow male voice.

Feminism to push a beauty product and that too starring a feminist theatre actor Sajitha Madathil? How was this supposed to work? Wasn't feminism supposed to be antithetical to long hair-fair skin stereotypes? Indulekha wasn't done yet. Its second ad featured a harried housewife fed up of daily beatings at the hands of a drunk husband. "I took it for my two children, " she tells you at home on a depressing evening, kids glued to television. "But now I won't. " And proceeds to bundle up her thick dark hair into a bun, looking ready to beat up the brute when he came home. Said brute is standing tottering at the gate, but then takes one look at wife looking a dark cloud and quietly slinks away.

What followed was a storm.

The ads opened up a barrage of views and counterviews among Malayalees so forceful that Indulekha says it is now releasing a conventional set of ads - pretty faces, medical claims, surveys and so on, standard issue beauty advertising to be precise. But the debate has yet to die down. Can women's empowerment be used as a tool for advertising, and to hell with the ideological issues? Or is it that angry, rebellious women make for more sexy models?

Indulekha and the creative heads behind the campaign are clear about what they set out to do, the flak notwithstanding. "The idea of any advertising is to break the clutter and we managed to do that. To that end it was a successful campaign whatever the reactions, " says Sunil G of the Firewoods creative team that put the campaign together along with V Eye. "We were targeting ordinary middle class woman in Kerala, and maybe men as well. " An Indulekha executive says the campaign wasn't taken in the right spirit. "So we have decided to stick to the tested pattern, " he says.

Ironically the campaign got flak from both quarters - feminists as well as Malayalee men upset at being portrayed as leches and wife-beaters. The latter let loose a stream of furious, sometimes obscene, tirade against the women in the ads. And, there were Facebooks spoofs. Feminist and scholar J Devika, whose blog post on kafila. org set off the debate on Facebook and the internet, says the campaign was patronising. "This whole brainy-despite-being-beautiful thing is driven by men who find it a very engaging idea. This woman figure is still controlled by them because for all her anger she is still hanging on to the long lustrous hair, " she says.

Feminism has been used as an offbeat strategy before. In her essay for the New York Times, The Empowerment Mystique, writer Peggy Orenstein, says few feminist ads have any real substance. What they revel in is the "feeling of 'empowerment' : an amorphous, untethered huzzah of 'Go, team woman!'" Verizon, Sarah Palin's Mama Grizlies, Dove's True Colours are some of the celebrated campaigns that focussed on 'real', strong women. There was our own Surf's Lalitaji and now, Anushka Sharma's spunky Scooty gang. Rousing feminist rhetoric, however vacuous, is a tried and tested way to sell a product, says Orenstein.
"The so-called strong women, career women, superwomen who run businesses and households with the help of the magic mixie and magic cooker are a modern version of the karyeshu mantri, karaneshu dasi...prescription, the eight noble virtues of an ideal wife. The old Sanskrit poets stated it baldly, the modern man is more circumspect !" says Prema Jayakumar, writer and translator.

Rattled by the flood of criticism, Indulekha quietly wound up the campaign. Would it have worked if it had stuck to its guns? Kiran Khalap, co-founder of chlorophyll, brand and communications consultancy, believes that feminism is a tricky advertising tool. "There are other layers of retro sexism, reverse sexism etc that come into play in more aware societies and it is difficult to separate labels from reality," he says.

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