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The economic progress of the past three decades has no doubt created great wealth and built a large middle class in the country. It has also laid the foundation for the consumerist ideology in which brands and advertising play a significant part.

This progress, especially in the bigger cities and urban areas has grown and strengthened the social class divide. Nowhere is the class divide more visible in middle-class life as in the presence of domestic help. Growing political consciousness among the working classes means that even domestic help demands better treatment and that their human dignity is respected.

When faced with social class divides, brands and their creative agencies are faced with a challenge. Classically, marketing deals with class divides as a problem of affordability and accessibility for consumers. The way the problem is solved is by offering products and services at affordable price points.

Think shampoo sachets and phone recharge for Rs 10/-. Segmenting the market on price is marketing’s answer to access and affordability. Every consumer can access the category, at a price point that they can afford (lower end of the price spectrum) and would desire (luxury end of the market).

However, addressing the social class divide as a brand, in brand communication is a different matter as it raises questions of portrayal and representation. It raises questions about the brand’s vantage point and brand ideology. If the brand wants to come across as believing in progressive values, then how should it deal with the thorny question of social class and class divides?

This is particularly true when it comes to the question of domestic help and how they are shown/treated in advertising. Brands that sell household cleaning products as well as others, how should they portray domestic help? Should they merely mirror reality and show it as it is or should they encourage consumers to adopt more progressive behaviours?

Let’s take a look at some examples of what brands are portraying in their communication.

Ghadi Detergent

One of the common stereotypes portrayed in Indian popular culture (films, TV shows, web series) is that domestic help is solely responsible for the cleanliness and maintenance of households. This portrayal is problematic because it reinforces the idea that it is the job of domestic help to do all the housework while the family members do nothing. Such stereotypes create a power imbalance between domestic help and the family they work for, where the latter holds all the decision-making power.

Ghadi Detergent's campaign, #SaareMaelDhoDaalo, moves away from that stereotype. Instead, it encourages people to recognise the importance of every task, no matter how small, and to treat their domestic help with respect. The campaign shows a young boy with a callous attitude towards all the work his house help undertakes. To correct his attitude, his mother decides to teach him a lesson by making him clean the house on the false pretext that the house help is on leave. In the end, he learns to appreciate the domestic help’s contribution to the household and even pays him some extra money to celebrate the festivities.

Women's Day 2019 #YourSecondHome: An initiative by PregaNews

Similarly, PregaNews launched its Women's Day 2019 campaign, #YourSecondHome, which highlights the importance of domestic helpers and their contribution to the household.

The content piece starts with a woman scolding her domestic help, asking her not to do the work that she has been doing for quite a few years in her house. It seems that the house help’s job is at risk. Towards the end, she also invites another domestic worker to do the work in her place. It seems that she’s fired, but we realise that the woman was just trying to reduce the workload of her domestic help as she is pregnant. The element of surprise works quite well here as the campaign makes the audience think that the employer is unnecessarily tough, but in the end, we realise that she’s just being caring towards her like a family member would.

The campaign’s messaging is progressive and intends to showcase an idealised version of how domestic helpers should be treated. It tells us that employers should be empathetic towards their domestic workers and should give them benefits like maternity leave, or reducing their workload during their pregnancy, much like the organised sector does. The brand, Prega News, is also well tied into the narrative of this ad.

Cadbury Dairy Milk - Driver

The work features a boss driving his driver to his child’s school so that he could attend the parent-teacher meeting. While the content is only 45 seconds long, it is quite impactful. We immediately get to understand the dynamics between the employee and the employer and how this is a routine activity. We understand how his boss is being kind and patient towards him and goes out of his way to help him.

The film shows how a small gesture of kindness towards one's driver/staff can make a significant difference in their life. The brand integration of Cadbury Dairy Milk is also quite seamless, as it plays on the factor of the boss ‘being sweet’ and sweetness is associated with the chocolate in question.

Oswal Refined Soyabean oil

Oswal Refined Soyabean oil's campaign portrays a positive image of domestic helpers by showcasing the relationship between the wife and her employee. While the husband is upset that the domestic help always leaves early to attend to her children, the wife on the other hand is accommodating as she knows that she works well and efficiently. One day, when the wife is out of the city, the maid bakes a cake for the husband and stays late at night just to celebrate his birthday so that he does not feel isolated on his special day.

The film emphasises that domestic help is not just the staff of the house, but a part of the family, and employers should be accommodating to their requirements.

However, while the ad's story has a nice recall value, the brand takes a backseat here. The brand integration of Oswal is not quite as seamless because the story is not built around refined soybean oil. Even a slight mention of it in the narrative would’ve helped the brand integration.

Facebook | More Together - Pooja Didi

Facebook's campaign, More Together - Pooja Didi, is a heart-warming portrayal of support staff. The content initiative can almost be categorised as a mini-short film, as it is about seven minutes long. It highlights the problem of unemployment during the pandemic and how the protagonist - Pooja, starts hiring people in large numbers to provide them with gainful employment solely out of her altruistic intentions.

However, when she cannot pay the salaries and bills to the people she does business with, she is in a state of crisis. That is when the hired staff of her sweet shop utilises the power of social media to narrate the story of Pooja’s altruistic actions, which end up attracting customers to the shop, thus enabling her to pay all her bills.

It is interesting how the makers of this content chose to narrate the story of a Sikh woman and her family-owned business. The reason for the selection of a Sikh family as the driver of the narrative could be that Sikhs are perceived to be altruistic people in the larger collective consciousness. And the Punjabi culture is deemed to be one of service.

While the story of the film is very sweet, one must also remember that this is the same company owned by Meta that has recently fired its employees, en-masse. Thus the content now seems very incongruous with Meta’s current actions.

Critique: All the brands seem to take the high power distance between employers and domestic help for granted as a given in Indian society and thus mirror existing realities. They don’t show the possibility of a different future for domestic help (except the Cadbury ad to some extent) in which they can be empowered and assertive of their rights vis-a-vis their employers.

For e.g. that the staff drive up in their own vehicle, ask for the right tools, complete their work and go away. They only seem to indicate that given high power distance, employers can still be compassionate and kind and treat their domestic help with a humane and caring attitude.

Conclusions and action takeaways:

Brands should be conscious of the power dynamics between employers and domestic help and avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes, biases, and prejudices.

Brands can use content marketing/branded content to promote empathy, awareness, and understanding of the lives and struggles of domestic help, thus contributing to building a more equitable and just society.