Published in Jan-Feb 2022
Here is one my favourite lines from the classic essay Why We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “If we do something over and over, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over, it becomes normal.” The author, of course, is referring to the portrayal of women, and how a society graduates to accept things as normal when for all practical purposes, they are sometimes severely abnormal.
Take the practice of forced dowry, which has historically led to a countless number of women being abused, some even murdered. Accepted as normal for years, and even touted as a necessary component of ‘who we are,’ this vile custom went on without being questioned. Until it was. There is nothing that we see over and over again as much as we see advertising. Nowhere is this truer than in Pakistan, where a common media strategy is to essentially bombard the viewer with the same message so many times that they eventually turn into bots programmed to walk to the nearest store and purchase said product.
Imagine if we could use the power of this bombardment to unnormalise toxic customs and rituals in society, especially those that affect women negatively. Some brands have been brave enough to step into this space and move the needle, while others have been more cosmetic about it to ‘please’ the sales figures. But overall, it has mostly been baby steps. Careful suggestions. Just approaching provocation but stopping short. Which is disappointing at times, because we know that this industry has the power to affect women’s lives immensely in the positive. Brands have the reach and the bandwidth to force a conversation that is much needed today. Think it can’t be done? These folks did it superbly:
Ariel: Share the Load
Unnormalise gender-based household chores.
Given the way household laundry was associated with the female gender, you would think women were born with special limbs to operate washing machine dials. In steps Ariel, with a simple question that shook up laundry baskets all over the country: “Why is laundry only a woman’s job?” A bold and important stand – more so for a detergent brand that wasn’t doing a side-by-side demo of its cleaning prowess – in a country where the image of a woman doing the laundry has been normalised for centuries. The brand cascaded the messaging over several years to establish different forms of influence: the older father finally changing his behaviour, the mother who teaches her son. The campaign paid off with an incredible effectiveness rating and influenced culture positively by reducing gender-role inequalities.
Unnormalise the taboo around menstruation
Even in more liberal countries, the topic of menstruation is considered off-limits for discussion, bringing tremendous mental stress to millions of young women who have no idea how to manage it. So much so, that menstrual blood is never shown in broadcast in its real colour – red – but is represented by a blue liquid, as if women are aliens with azure blood. Bizarre, since humans usually don’t have an issue watching a bloodbath supernova in a Tarantino film. Essity had enough, and showed menstrual blood as is. Because women bleed. And there is no reason to associate it with shame or taboo. They forced the conversation out in the open.
Twoj Weekend: The Last Ever Issue
Unnormalise the objectification of women
To battle the objectification of women in Poland and the resulting discrimination (in Poland, women earn 18.5% less than men), a small group of people took the decision to buy out the source of some of that objectification: a porn magazine publishing company that was up for sale. They bought it in order to shut it down. But before they closed it down, they filled the last ever issue of the magazine with a new kind of content, one that celebrated women and their achievements. The Last Ever Issue became the biggest selling magazine in Poland in March 2019. And it drove an entire nation to question how it viewed women.
JOAN Creative & United State of Women: Womanikin
Unnormalise gender bias in healthcare
If you have ever taken a CPR lesson, you will have practised life-saving techniques on a dummy. Part of the process involves pressing on the chest in repeated beats, so that the heart can function. The problem is that the dummy you practise on is designed on the male body: the chest is masculine and does not feature the breasts that women have. Of course, this affects how one positions one’s hands on a chest. And since women also require CPR, when the time comes, even someone who has been ‘trained’ before is unsure how to perform this life-saving task. Womanikin fought exactly that bias: they introduced a new CPR dummy that teaches you how to specifically perform chest compressions on a chest that has breasts. Because women after all are designed differently.
RIT Foundation: Please Arrest Me
Unnormalise marital rape
RIT Foundation released a film in India a couple of years ago which is harrowing to watch. It brings to the fore something that has been normalised in India: marital rape. It is so normalised that there is no law against it. In this powerful film, a husband walks into several police stations asking to be arrested: “Please arrest me because I have raped my wife.” In every station, the perplexed cops respond in a similar manner – they don’t know what to do about it, because there is no law against a husband having sex with his wife without her consent. This bold, viral film forced people to question how they defined rape (one out of every three rape cases in India are marital and one Indian woman is raped by her husband every three seconds). Currently, a high court in Delhi is mulling over the case to criminalise the act.
Advertising has the power to influence the public, alter the culture and drive conversations. When it comes to gender inequality there is an immense need to take bolder steps. Steps that would unnormalise the normal. g
Ali Rez is Regional ECD, Middle East and Pakistan, BBDO Worldwide. He is a 17-time Cannes Lions winner. firstname.lastname@example.org