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In the recent past, a leading home appliance brand put out an advertisement for an ‘Aata Maker and Bread Maker’ on social media. The said advertisement came under scrutiny and invited controversy on the internet.[i] The first part of the advertisement poster asked if people are allowing their maids to knead aata or prepare the dough by hand. While the second part read, ‘Her (maid’s) Hands May Be Infected’ (here the colour of the dough/aata shown in the picture changes from the normal colour shown in the earlier part of the poster to somewhat soiled, suggesting that the same has been infected (one wonders if that’s how infected objects change their colour!). It doesn’t end here and the third part of the advertisement states, ‘Now Don’t Compromise on Health and Purity’. It advises people to shift to an automatic way of kneading aata by bringing the mentioned product home. The last section of the advertisement had a picture of a celebrity along with her daughter endorsing the product.

Netizens debated the multiple aspects of the articulation and presentation in the advertisement. Some found it outrageous and demeaning of those who are engaged in paid domestic work/maids while others opined that there is nothing wrong in alarming people against the potential of contacting COVID-19, the virus. To another section of people, the advertisement in question came across harmless,  marketing a product that is relevant in the existing situation where the absence of domestic help has increased housework. Some noted that highlighted the need to ensure hygiene in the kitchen.

One section of potential customers (or not customers) tripped on it and did not recognize the offence. One might not find anything problematic in the automation of household chores including aata kneading as suggested by the advertisement. A large section is compelled to do it. With the development of human society, various components of the food preparation process have gotten mechanized and automated and the process continues. So this mechanization is a welcome step. The product has other advantages example allowing easy kneading of aata in summers.

One can certainly have no problem in suggesting maintaining hygiene and cleanliness while handling food items and cooking. Various brands have launched campaigns in recent months to encourage people to maintain hygiene and cleanliness by washing hands multiple times, cooking, or no cooking. No opposition to this noble intention also.

However, the advertisement in question is problematic on many other counts. To begin with, the advertisement displays unabashed class bias. It stereotypes people of a particular occupation i.e. the maids. Suggesting potential infection from the maid’s hands while handling food instead of saying that the infection can be transmitted from any one in the house showcases this bias and stereotyping. The outcomes of such presentation work in two ways - firstly, it stigmatises a section of the population by attaching the idea of infection. Secondly, it creates a sense of immunity superiority and protection from the virus among employers. Both outcomes are highly unscientific and irrational. This presentation is misleading and can make people careless as they deem the ‘other’ with the burden of hygiene and cleanliness.

It is quite evident that the infection has spread in multiple directions and no one is a ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’ of it. It was certainly not the maids or the likes who were the initial carriers. The advertisement also strengthens the stereotypes of class and hygiene i.e., the working class is dirty and unhygienic. These ideas have deep roots in the practice of untouchability such as keeping separate vessels for domestic help, a practice quite common, among employers. The cases and incidences of discrimination against the maids and domestic help are well-documented. These existing notions make this kind of portrayal ‘normal’ - offence-less to the already convinced audience.

Advertisements add to the existing stigma against the poor and working people who have been at the receiving end in the fight against the COVID-19 and it hits where it hurts the most - the domestic workers. Millions of these workers, mostly women, have been out of work and without wages in many cases for more than two months now. More than one lakh domestic workers in the Pune city alone were reported to be in severe distress due to the lockdown and salary cuts.[ii] Other parts of the country have a similar story. Other members of these households who worked as causal workers, street vendors, and in the informal sector have been sitting at home surviving on their meagre savings or borrowings.

Lastly, along with health and hygiene, the advertisement mentions no compromise with ‘purity’, a long time obsession of the Indian society. It is beyond comprehension how the advertised product can ensure ‘purity’. A machine made with regular metal, rubber, and plastic parts and carries out well-defined functions with pretty standard procedure. The machine kneads the dry flour which is supplied into the machine along with water and other required ingredients. One wonders how can there be any added ‘purity’ to the end product but using the term certainly does work with customers who aspire and desire for it even it comes through a home appliance.

This was a new low of the brands not being sensitive and alert about the social and cultural realities of society. After an outrage on the internet and massive calling out of the brand the advertisement in question was taken down from the brand’s Instagram page and the brand apologized for hurting people’s sentiments. The brand has assured that they will investigate the matter and take preventive and corrective measures to prevent such incidents. It is to be seen how advertisements in the future take cognizance of this.

For it is not a matter of individual ‘mistakes or ‘rectifications’. Such assumptions constitute the ‘normal’ taken for granted reality for dominant sections of our society. Sociology recognizes that society requires discourse (the mapping, description, and articulation of situations and processes) which by definition has the effect of delegitimising certain views and positions while including others. Advertisements and other media representations play a crucial role in doing this in contemporary societies.[iii]

[iii] Maitrayee Chaudhuri. (2017). Refashioning India: Gender, Media and a Transformed Public Discourse. Delhi: Oreint Blackswan (see chapters 4 and 6).

- Prof. Shamsher Singh, Assistant Professor - Sociology

*Views expressed are personal.