What makes an ad not tokenistic?

Considering I put forward a perspective about Colgate’s new campaign for the Visible White as being tokenism yesterday, it seems fair to add more context on what is and what is not tokenism, when it comes to marketing communications.

Let me use Bodhisatwa Dasgupta’s (The Voice Company) May 2022 article in Afaqs titled, “Wake me up, when ‘woketember’ ends” as the premise. In this highly readable and well-argued piece, he refers to a few ads as examples of tokenistic woke.

The first ad he focuses on is the Surf Excel ad that features an all-Northeastern cast/family.

The reason for calling it ‘tokenistic woke’? They are talking in Hindi.

I agree with the premise, though – they should ideally be talking in one of the languages spoken in the North-Eastern states of India.

But, what if I told you that the same family also speaks in Marathi and Bhojpuri? Surprised? Here you go!



Does that make the ad less tokenistic considering they are not merely speaking in the ‘language of the nation’ as Bodhisatwa frames it, but in 2 other languages too?

The ideal way would have been to release a digital-only ad with English subtitles and the spoken lines in a language from the North East. But this was made for TV, for some of the states (and not necessarily for the North-Eastern states) and the voices are merely dubbed.

That a family (an entire family and not just a token individual) of North Eastern Indians was shown in the ad of a national brand is fairly significant for the simple reason that it has never been done so far. But just because they didn’t go the whole length, and actually had dubbed it in 3 regional languages (Hindi is a regional language too, as much as Marathi and Bhojpuri), if we throw the tokenism card at them, I suspect they, or other brands, won’t bother pushing the same envelope again. I’d call Surf Excel’s attempt as Three-Fourth hearted (better than half-hearted), but not tokenism.

The next ad he speaks about is Colgate’s new campaign around the Visible White variant, and I have already written more about it yesterday.

Let’s then get to the 3rd one – Ariel’s new ‘Share The Load’ film that happened to feature a gay couple in the background. They are not the focus, but they exist as other characters in the story.

I also am not sure if they are ‘obviously gay’ as Bodhisatwa frames it. The fact is that Kamal, Seema’s husband, refers to his college days and his roommate Avinash, as if totally oblivious to this couple’s relationship status. But I think that grey area is intentional within the ad – they are gay or not doesn’t matter to this narrative at all. What matters is that they share their work – that’s about it. You (as in, the audience) may think of them as anything – a gay couple, roommates, brothers/cousins, friends, etc.

I really liked a line that Bodhisatwa adds in this ad’s context, though I do not think I agree with the point: “When you show something and then call it out, it becomes tokenism. But when you show it for what it is and resist the urge to comment on it or weave a story around it, you’re normalizing a situation. Which, in my head, is woke“.

When you show something and then call it out, it becomes tokenism” is interesting-sounding reasoning, but it falls apart when you observe it in a larger context.

Take the simplest example: Anand Mahindra donates to a cause and shares the screenshot on Twitter asking others to donate too. People pounce on him for being a showoff even while donating to charity! But this is only one side of the story. The other side is this – his tweet could bring so many new people to the same cause and get a lot more people to donate than had he done his act in silence.

When he does something and calls it out/showcases it, it need not only be seen as tokenism. It can be a lot more too.

This is a lesson I learned from my days in corporate communications and PR. Many companies have full-fledged corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and do a lot of good work. And the PR team is tasked with writing a press release about the work! It is tough to write a self-praising press note, but if you consider the impact, it can be seen differently.

So, merely calling out an act does not make the act tokenism. Calling it out, or specifying what was done can be done (and seen) from other perspectives too.

But see this point in the context of the Ariel ad now. The ad’s focus is on the other couple, where the guy is indifferent to his wife’s time and work. Only the more observant would even bother to notice the little background world the ad-makers have scripted. For the vast majority of India, that background detail may not even register, if it does, it may be a mildly sweet (or shocking) surprise if at all they presumed them to be a gay couple in the first place (unlike Kamal, who clearly wasn’t thinking on those lines, I gather).

Why should the portrayal of a (possibly) gay couple inside an ad that is trying to make a totally unrelated point (of sharing household work) be of any significance towards the normalization of same-sex relationships?

The kind of normalization we perhaps need in India, with regard to homosexuality, is not to hide them in the background. The kind of normalization we need is to show other people around the couple being comfortable with them (and not horrified or visibly uncomfortable)! Like Shirin Aunty of this Close-up ad from February 2020:

Or, going beyond advertising, consider the character in the Amazon Prime TV series, Guilty Minds – Mrs. Bose (played by Rajoshi Vidyarthi), the mother of Sunanda Bose (played by Chitrangada Satarupa), the girlfriend of Vandana Kathpalia (played by Sugandha Garg). She comes around to understanding and appreciating her daughter’s choice and normalizes the relationship in her mind.

In fact, I’d perhaps say that Ariel’s depiction is tokenism, not normalization. To be fair, they did not set out to make a statement on homosexuality at all, but their use of the possibly gay couple seemed akin to the token North Eastern/Singh character in Hindi films just to check the box on inclusivity.

The one ad I completely agree with Bodhisatwa on the fact that it was not tokenistic, and was a stellar example of how to avoid tokenism was the WhatsApp ad.

See what it normalizes. It normalizes the acceptance of the parents, and not just the basic fact that there is a mixed-race couple. The reason it is also sweet is because it goes beyond normalizing the parents’ acceptance – it makes the parents invest in the mixed-race couple genuinely.

That, in my view, is what differentiates tokenistic, or ‘woke’ in a negative sense, from not tokenistic, or ‘woke’ in a good sense.

I’m not even going into the larger context (beyond advertising) of a company’s overall behavior (beyond just marketing) aligning with what it communicates via advertising. This was the charge made by Shivaji Dasgupta when he alleged that the new Cadbury’s ad was tokenism. I disagreed with his points in my post.

But as I said, that is a different, larger perspective. My limited perspective on tokenism or woke-washing here is restricted to advertising narrative alone, for starters.

A brand could be talking about a social issue with no specific larger context. Bhima’s ‘Pure as love’ is a great example of this. Observe what it normalizes, once again – the parents’ acceptance, just like the WhatsApp ad!

Or take the Brooke Bond ‘turn prejudice into acceptance’ ad from 2020. It too normalizes the behavior of others who start on a prejudiced note but are made to change their view and inspire the child in the process.

The 2019 Independence Day film by Ralco Tyres is on similar lines; the focus is on the change inside others.

The polar opposite of these narratives is the infamous Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner. It not only trivializes a complex issue into something that can be solved with Pepsi but also rushes into the change urgently, ignoring every nuance. People change with no specific context or motivation, and worse, because of Pepsi, of all things.

To not seem tokenistic,

1. there needs to be an internal logic in the advertising narrative

2. it should have thought through the narrative arc to avoid being seen as trivializing the issue or treating a character who is otherwise marginalized as a check-box inclusion

3. it should question the premise from multiple angles to see what could be misconstrued

4. if the product/service is tangibly and meaningfully useful in bringing the story alive, that would be a bonus. Even if the product/service is incidental, as long as the context of the product/service is not laughably fleeting, it may still be ok.

An example of a product being incidental and not forced:

An example of the product being forced and laughably silly (but still not worth the controversy or seeking a ban):

In the case of the Surf Excel ad above, it felt natural, but in the case of the Ariel ad, it felt forced. That is, sharing the load avoided showcasing the actual ‘load’ work and actually showed Kamal (the husband) simply pouring liquid detergent into the washing machine. But, it’s an ad from a brand that makes liquid detergent (in this case) that promises stain-free washing, so this limited ‘load’ seems understandable 🙂

On a final note, changing the logo for Pride Month is tokenism too. Mark Ritson explains it best.



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