Colgate Visible White: Visible tokenism

Back in 2019, Colgate India launched the ‘Smile Karo Aur Shuru Ho Jao’ campaign. I recall referring to it in another context (around languages used in the multi-city edition of the campaign in The Times of India).

Even back then, I remember making a point about Colgate’s use of Anand Arnold, wheelchair bodybuilder, and Mr. Olympia 2018. Unlike the other ad featuring Haimanti…

… the one featuring Anand did not include any context for why he is (also one of) the face of a toothpaste brand. There was some context around what happened to him and why he was confined to a wheelchair, but they do not logically, or meaningfully, lead to the use of a/any toothpaste.

But the reason it stood out was because of a toothpaste brand, having always shown conventionally good-looking, conventionally photogenic, conventionally advertising-approved people/models, showcasing someone who was seemingly the opposite of all-things-conventional.

It almost seemed like Colgate was using one of the most famous aphorisms in journalism – man bites dog. That is, a dog biting a man is not news, but a man biting a dog is. In journalism and news, it means how an unusual, infrequent event is more likely to be reported, but in advertising, the equivalent would seem like this: ‘the unusual grabs attention, the usual doesn’t’.

Consider Colgate’s brand ambassador for the Visible White variant in the late-2020s-early-2021 period – it was Kiara Advani. She’s the conventional picture-perfect model as far as advertising goes.

Colgate Visible White’s 2nd brand ambassador in mid-2021? Sara Ali Khan. Another conventionally picture-perfect model.

Kiara and Sara look conventionally great in ads for a toothpaste brand but they are the journalism equivalent of dog bites man.

So, it looks like Colgate went for the man bites dog equivalent when it comes to the choice of brand ambassador in 2022.

It’s unusual, and grabs attention instantly for reasons beyond the conventional expectations (from the marketing and advertising perspective) of a toothpaste ad’s brand ambassador.

Does it remind you of any other ad from Colgate? Of course – the one featuring Anand Arnold, above! The strategy seems similar – in journalism parlance, man bites dog. That is, go against the grain.

The question to then ask is this: is the choice of brand ambassador adding to the product’s story or not?

Consider the ad featuring Dolly Singh. Her pitch is, ‘People ask me… why don’t you get your teeth fixed? And I’m just like, why do I fix beautiful?’.

Or take the one featuring Prarthana Jagan, a 24-year-old model with Vitiligo. She challenges the conventional concept of beauty. She says, The first thing that people notice about me is definitely not my vitiligo. It’s my beautiful smile’.

Then the 3rd one, featuring Toshada Uma. She says, ‘When people see me, they don’t just see a girl with alopecia. They see the girl with the beautiful smile’.

I had seen the most unlikely people sharing the ad featuring Toshada Uma on WhatsApp with me and asking why Colgate chose her as the ad’s face, out of sheer curiosity – people in my family who have never commented on any ad. The ad was so unique and attention-grabbing.

So far, so good, since the first task of any marketing communication is to get the attention of the/an audience.

But let’s persist and peel the layers. The Colgate ads make one point very well – that we need not be confined by how others view us (through our problems) and that we need not be defined by conventional definitions of ‘beauty’. That we can rise above them.

So, if we were to extend that logic, then why should we be confined to only white teeth as the yardstick of oral beauty/health? There are tons of materials available online and offline to realize that white teeth are not the indicator of healthy teeth.

They may be attractive to look at, but that’s because we are conditioned by toothpaste brands that shiny white teeth are the model of good teeth, just like how cosmetics brands have conditioned us to believe that flawless skin is beautiful or flowing hair is beautiful. Ironically, toothpaste brands have never shown teeth that do not look uniform, unlike the way Dolly Singh confidently shows hers. But when it suited them, Colgate turns the table, for the first time. This is, of course, a welcome change, but in the larger context of the brand making a point on other forms of beauty standards, their own insistence on white teeth jars.

But this is understandable within the context of marketing. A toothpaste brand that has a teeth whitening product has to sell white teeth. That it comes at the cost of deriding other forms of beauty standards while upholding the standard of white teeth, even in the face of available material that white teeth are not to be confused with healthy teeth or even attractive teeth, is where the logic fails Colgate. That is, one set of beauty standards, where Colgate does not have a play, is worth breaking, but another set of standards, where Colgate does have a significant play, is not!

And that’s where this Colgate campaign fails the smell test, in my opinion. It forces a point without considering the larger context and ends up merely seeming like using those 3 people in what could be called tokenism.



1 thought on “Colgate Visible White: Visible tokenism

  1. Great read. I hope the toothpaste companies should advertise properly on how we use their products at first. Some say after brushing we shouldn’t rinse it with water and some say we should. They should address this first.

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