Has corporate feminism come to solve Pakistan's social problems? Not quite

Brands are embracing an ethos of empowerment, but is it more than skin-deep?
Updated 16 Oct, 2019 12:31pm

A refrigerator door swings shut. On it is a coloured pencil drawing of a father and daughter. Scribbled in crayon is the message “I love my Dad.”

The next image is of a young father soothing a crying toddler. A voiceover begins, “Meri family mein bachey sambhalna maa ka kaam tha, magar Anaya ko meri loree zyada pasand thi.

This is how the Kia Motors Pakistan’s Kia Sportage ad begins. Images of fatherhood transition into the more traditionally masculine aesthetic of a car ad, with a bright red car racing along winding roads. “Different hona aasan nahin but it’s a fun ride jaisay keh meri Sportage,” the voiceover continues. The ad ends with the tagline “Different is Good”.

The ad is unconventional in the world of car advertisement, which tends to play on tropes involving sportsmanship, traditional masculinity and sex appeal.

Casting a man as a father and an equal caregiver is, as the ad insists, different. The move to use an advertisement to promote social justice, specifically a more gender equal vision of society, however, is increasingly not.

A new age of advertising?

Lately, a steady wave of Pakistani ads have been trying to challenge gender roles.

They tackle everything from gender roles around marriage to childcare and work dynamics.

Food products company National Foods has put out an ad featuring a young husband and wife having fun cooking together with National’s spice mixes; the tagline is “Nai soch kai naye zaiqay.”

Last year, competitor Shaan Foods received much praise and attention for a biryani masala ad that featured a prospective young male suitor wooing the patriarchs of a large Punjabi family by cooking perfect biryani.

Habib Bank Limited is promoting their HBL Konnect app as a way for young students and professional women to gain a measure of autonomy in their everyday lives even as their families doubt their ability to support themselves.

In the ad, a young woman contemplates a move away from home for university and a family member suggests she get married, before another chimes in about her inability to cook, as they all wonder how the young woman will manage her commute to-and-from work while living alone.

The HBL Konnect app saves the day as the woman confidently presents it as the solution to all these problems.

Meanwhile, adverts for Procter & Gamble’s sanitary products brand Always have left the days of pouring blue liquid on pads behind.

In line with their global branding, the latest Always Pakistan campaigns revolve around empowering girls and women to go about their lives despite menstruation.

Newer ads directly confront the widespread problem of girls staying out of school because of their periods.

The Independence Day “Always Azad” tagline effectively encapsulates this messaging.

What’s going on? Has corporate feminism come to solve social problems?

It is worth remembering that the main purpose of advertisements is to sell more products. While progressive ads might strike a chord and generate warm, fuzzy feelings, a deeper examination will nevertheless reveal other motivations or over-simplifications.

Perhaps a particularly interesting recent development in mainstream feminism is its dubious liaison with capitalism.

As feminism continues to be absorbed into the mainstream lexicon, the question of whether an alliance with hegemonic capitalism can benefit feminism emerges.

While ostensibly born out of a well-meaning desire to empower women and solve major problems, especially in developing countries, corporate feminism can run into several problems.

In her book The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Kathryn Moeller examines why transnational US corporations such as Nike are increasingly investing in philanthropic efforts to promote the prosperity of girls and women in the Global South and finds that these corporate-led campaigns end up benefiting corporations at the expense of women in the Global South. Indeed, the cynical perspective is that they can often be little more than public relations smokescreens.

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Such instances are not hard to find in the Pakistani context either. Take, for example, how clothing giants in the ever-flourishing lawn industry here have been found to be among the worst offenders when it came to labour exploitation.

It does not make sense to seek saviours amongst corporations, but the fact that corporations believe such advertisements are effective (and profitable) is an indication of social change already being underway.

It is also an indication of the class politics at play. Most of the aforementioned products target the middle to upper class young urban professional, a demographic they have identified as ascribing to the values they promote in these ads.

As a counterpoint, a household product such as detergent powder must target a larger audience. Consider the case of washing powder Ariel’s “Ye dagh hamain kiya rokain gay” which caused a minor maelstrom this summer.

The ad in question featured women across a range of professions drawing aside bedsheets painted with common sexist refrains such as “Parh Lia? Ab Ghar Sambhalo.” The #BoycottAriel campaign that raged following the ad revealed that it alienated a significant segment of their customer base.

P&G's Ariel has since given increased airtime to ads that look more like classic Ariel ads and espouse values of empowerment in a more palatable mode.

A recent ad centers the familiar tagline “Pakistan bhar ki khawateen ki choice Ariel Pakistan” with its easy association of women with domestic work of doing the laundry but it also highlights a real woman who runs a successful catering business.

Again, this a subtle attempt at pushing boundaries, if that at all, with catering easily falling into the domestic sphere associated with women in the larger public imagination but the business and financial independence part of it departing from the mold.

On the other hand, some prominent brands — primarily those selling products geared towards women — have struggled to innovate altogether. For some, the products themselves are the main constraint.

This is perhaps truest for companies that make fairness creams. It is well-documented now that fairness creams are both physically and psychologically damaging and there have been campaigns against them both here and across the border over the past few years.

As such, they cannot easily align themselves with a progressive ethos, but they must continue to advertise themselves as they still continue to sell, even if they are increasingly used in secret.

While fairness creams cannot sidestep their unsavoury qualities, they continue to find ways to obscure them. Visually, Fair & Lovely’s new campaign with Mawra Hocane resembles something out of a past decade but there are subtle changes in the vocabulary now.

Even as Hocane rubs a bar of Fair & Lovely soap against her skin and it lightens a few shades onscreen, the ad is careful to only refer to this skin lightening as a “glow.”

POND’S, meanwhile, advertises a product called White Beauty (a name rife with racist associations) as the solution to “dark spots” even as some of their ads show images of overall skin whitening.

Similarly, hair removal cream Veet’s “Hamesha Ready” campaign may feature Mahira Khan taking on the world, but it is difficult to look past its underlying messaging. “Veet de mujhe pooray haftay kay liye silky smooth skin so that I can live, inspire, lead, play,” says Khan; the music speeds up as she is seen shooting a magazine cover, delivering a speech to an ecstatic audience, leading a meeting and participating in an exercise class.

The overt theme is one of empowerment but the “so that I can” logic in her words suggests that she can only do all that she does because she has met the expectation to have smooth, hairless skin. The suggestion may be comically problematic but is one that is crucial for a hair removal cream ad.

Even so, it is promising that even products whose images contradict the fashionable ethos of empowerment have attempted to rehabilitate themselves through other initiatives.

Two prominent examples are Fair & Lovely’s Career Foundation, which provides career counselling and training for women looking to join the workforce, and Veet’s Miss Veet competition.

While the latter still plays into all the gendered problems that plague televised beauty pageants and reality shows, it nevertheless sees itself as espousing progressive values with declared core values including confidence, intelligence and social awareness.

Explore: Miss Veet aims to support ambitious young women and almost succeeds

On the other hand, for brands like Always — whose product more easily aligns itself with the narrative of empowerment — corporate social responsibility is more within reach, but even Always realises their prohibitive prices mean only certain women and girls can access their product.

This awareness is apparent in their #AlwaysAzad campaign, which asked social media users to comment #AlwaysAzad and Always will donate a pack of sanitary napkins to girls in need.

The efficacy of these charitable initiative needs more investigation, but the moves do succeed right away at creating engagement and offsetting intrinsic problems that could damage the companies’ messages of inclusivity and equality.

As far as social change is concerned, corporate-led campaigns might ultimately be able to play a positive role, if only because of their easy access to widespread platforms, but that is another discussion.

For now, it is worth remembering that the very fact that these corporations are beginning to endorse such messages in the public eye betrays a calculus that such moves will be profitable. This, then, is a clear indication that the change they promote has already taken root amongst their target demographics.

It will be a while before initiatives to empower women aren’t met with large-scale resistance, before events like the Aurat March don’t generate outright hostility and simple advertisements don’t send boycott hashtags trending — but change is evidently afoot.

Sauleha Kamal is a researcher and a writer. She is a former Chevening scholar and a graduate of the University of Cambridge.