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Quantum Brief

HUL's Vim Black ad: A well-intentioned satire to break gender stereotypes goes wrong. Here's why.

Vim Black as a product offering doesn't actually exist. It was Hindustan Unilever's attempt to get men to change their perspectives on household chores. But it backfired.

By  Aashrey BaligaDec 14, 2022 3:04 PM
HUL's Vim Black ad: A well-intentioned satire to break gender stereotypes goes wrong. Here's why.
Dishwashing in India as a chore is traditionally seen as a woman’s responsibility and has been distributed unevenly between family members. The lockdowns enforced a unique behaviour shift, where the men came to the sink and social media went abuzz with men at the sink. The aim of this campaign is to rekindle a perspective change in a non-preachy, quirky way so that chores at home can truly become democratised.

Hindustan Unilever recently released what could be one of the most controversial ad campaigns of the year. Their dishwashing liquid Vim received a rather unique update, where the colour of the bottle was changed to black and the product was called ‘Vim Black.’ This was supposedly done in an attempt to get men to contribute towards household chores. In this case, washing dishes.

The ad involved celebrity Milind Soman, emphasising the new Vim Black product saying that men too can now wash dishes freely and brag all about it now that the bottle is available in a more ‘manly’ black colour. Moreover, the campaign included a link that directed to HUL’s e-commerce site, where the product was listed as being sold out.

While charcoal-based products and other body lotions and soaps already exist for men and rightly so as smart product offerings, what sense does it make to have a dishwashing liquid for men too? Is dishwashing liquid an ‘unmanly’ product? Why is there a need to categorise dishwashing liquid according to gender?

Netizens were disconcerted and enraged after watching the ad. Reactions were flying left, right and centre with some even calling for a boycott. How could HUL have gotten something so wrong? Has April Fool’s Day come early? This can’t be a real product offering. Can it?

Dishing out the reactions

"God forbid a man used the female vim and transformed into a woman. Made it black to see better?!” Said one viewer.

"It’s about evoking the sense of pride in doing things. Also dopamine when you end up doing a job well irrespective of who is seeing you do it. If men can take pride in changing a bulb, they can surely take pride in making a greasy utensil squeaky clean (need elbow grease for that). And as marketing professionals, we can definitely bring about this change in perspective, no?" Said another.

"But hasn’t Vim been harping on changing perspectives on gender roles for some time now? Even the arranged marriage film spoke about “soch badlo”. At some level this new iteration carries that journey forward. It’s a courageous move by a Unilever brand to get audiences to sit up and listen. The outrage of netizens on gender bias at home is exactly what they are trying to make you wake up and notice!" said a third.

If HUL’s plan was to get people talking, it did a fantastic job. However, if the brief was sarcasm, it didn’t quite land well. The thing with sarcasm is that not everyone gets it. Moreover, a premise as clever as this, makes the ad completely believable. While half of the internet audience found the ad to be offensive, the other half saw through the obvious satire.

At first glance, the ad is stereotypical and gender-biased. However, this was intentionally done. Post the numerous mixed reactions that this ad campaign received, HUL finally decided to come clean and revealed the truth behind the suspicious product offering that is Vim Black.

It was all a gimmick! Yes, the product doesn’t actually exist. Hindustan Unilever was playing an elaborate joke. The fact that the ad was so exaggerated proved that it was nothing but satire. It was never meant to have been taken at face value. Why, you ask? If you think about it, it's really rather simple. When was the last time such lengthy and elaborate conversations took place about dishwashing and other household chores being democratised? In their own unique way, HUL created buzz around it.

We have seen advertisements around division of chores multiple times before. Ariel’s Share the Load campaign has ruled this segment for years. However, while Ariel’s campaign is simple and straightforward, HUL’s ad relies heavily on understanding the complex sarcasm behind the premise.

When asked about the scale and size of the campaign, Ajay Mehta, senior vice president, Mindshare said, “We knew there had to be more to this campaign to create the dent we aspired to. So, to break the stereotypes we got a male voice to give quirky and interesting tips to men on ‘all things dishwashing’. The idea was brought to life in Milind's voice on Alexa and Google Assistant. Everyday reminders for men to do the dishes were created in the form of quirky fridge magnets and a calendar to ensure the conversation stays alive in the minds of the audience outside social media.”

In India, traditionally, washing dishes is considered to be a woman’s job and men typically consider helping out as if it were a favour being awarded rather than an equal responsibility.

The lockdown forced men towards the kitchen and contributed towards household chores, mainly dishwashing. Now that the pandemic is gone, so have men from kitchen sinks.

HUL’s motive through the campaign was to get men to change their perspectives and contribute towards doing chores and not rely on special ‘manly’ offerings. Minus the bragging of course.

With regards to the campaign, Deepak Subramanian, executive director & VP – Home Care, South Asia, Unilever, said in a statement, “We have always believed in empowering women and breaking the gender stereotypes that come along with household chores. Dishwashing in India as a chore is traditionally seen as a woman’s responsibility and has been distributed unevenly between family members. The lockdowns enforced a unique behaviour shift, where the men came to the sink and social media went abuzz with men at the sink. The aim of this campaign is to rekindle a perspective change in a non-preachy, quirky way so that chores at home can truly become democratised.”

But its attempt to be "non-preachy" and "quirky" didn't quite land the right way.

As a conversation-starter tactic, the ad worked out great. Everyone was talking about how gender stereotypes should no longer exist and how washing dishes is just as much a man’s job as it is a woman’s. Yes, the ad had extreme reactions. But, the concept was innovative and clever. Maybe a little too clever though. Vim Black does not exist. We’re glad it doesn’t.

First Published on Dec 13, 2022 1:41 AM