Surekha Ragavan
Mar 8, 2022

How representation is commodified

The marketing industry is fond of representing marginalised communities in their purpose-driven campaigns—but where does 'diversity' end and 'tokenism' begin?

A campaign from Chinese lingerie brand Neiwai
A campaign from Chinese lingerie brand Neiwai

Representation can be a political act in and of itself. This is especially true in some parts of Asia where conversations around gender, race and our bodies are often cordoned off by boundaries of the law, culture and religion.

Take, for example, the overzealous reaction to Indian jewellery brand Tanishq after it featured a Hindu woman assimilating with her Muslim in-laws in a Diwali ad. The mere depiction of an inter-faith marriage turned out to be a powerful—albeit divisive—message for the Tata Group-owned retail brand. On social media, Hindu nationalists put out a barrage of ‘hate’ messages including accusations of Tanishq promoting ‘jihad’. This piece of work inadvertently morphed into a symbol of political and religious divide simply because of the way it was received.  

In other more common cases, representation in advertising is used in its milder, more palatable form—for symbolic gain. Many campaigns in Asia—especially those that are targeted to women—rely on representation as a small, political act to push a product or message. These acts are small enough that they fit within the mainstream narrative of widely accepted day-to-day politics (such as promoting girls in STEM), but not so large that they begin to question and challenge flaws in systemic inequities (such as challenging gender pay gaps). The difference in risk between the two camps is immense, which is why most brands understandably choose the former.

I’m not here to declare that all representation is bad. As the above example from Tanishq demonstrates, contextual variations in different markets may bring about more a visceral, urgent reaction. And it’s these reactions that will ultimately drive difficult yet vital conversations about systemic prejudices. In China, for instance, where fatphobia, colourism and ageism are still very much rife in marketing, this campaign from lingerie brand Neiwai lands as radical among social-media users.

The hazards of diversity-posturing

If you, like me, are a fan of HBO’s political satire Succession, you’ll notice that high-stakes decisions are often made with ‘optics’ as a primary consideration. In the show, when a fictionalised media company is dealing with a crisis around allegations of sexual harassment, upper management places a woman as interim CEO as it’s better for ‘optics’. To manage the same crisis, the company also attempts to seek out the expertise of a black woman lawyer, for ‘optics’.

Hence, brand goals, such as featuring ‘women of all sizes and colours’ in a purpose campaign or achieving a certain percentage of women in leadership, often read as tokenistic to me. They might be deemed progressive or inclusive acts, but is there such a thing as brand altruism if brands are heavily promoting their representation feats for the purpose of ‘optics’?

Let’s use this region-wide Colgate-Palmolive campaign (see video above) as an example: The Philippines iteration of the campaign features a man who has Tourette’s syndrome, and the concept of pangiti-ngiti lang (just smiling through it) is used as a theme to address his struggles as a taxi driver. Here, the brand defines this man solely by his medical struggles and ends the film by suggesting he “smile through the pain”. Not only is it intensely patronising, it’s also not unreasonable to think that the brand is merely using this man as a tool in which to further their ‘optics’ for empathy and solidarity.

Aside from the Colgate example, many others in this region are guilty of using marginalised people to assert their own positions as saviours. This is why I remain cynical about purpose-driven marketing being hailed as a do-or-die within the industry. All this proves is that we have become a society obsessed with public-facing magnanimity, while all too often the brands involved simply wash their hands clean of any complicity once ‘diversity’ is ‘achieved’.

It’s damaging too that major awards shows are promoting new categories around purpose-driven work, and yet many award-winning campaigns have little to show on how a community or issue is being progressed. When I catch up with personal friends in the creative industry, I have heard many of them speak about being asked to work on “purpose campaigns for awards”. Surely we can all agree that exploiting the struggles of marginalised communities as award bait is—pardon my language—deeply f*cked up.

I’ll bring up here the conundrum I expressed in a previous op-ed about brands’ dilution of ‘empowerment’: If morally sound work makes business sense for a brand, should brands perform their moral obligations as a means to drive profit?

Should representation exempt creativity?

I will go to my grave saying that creativity and purpose-driven communications are not mutually exclusive. Yet, the sheer forcefulness of ‘all shapes and colours’ representation is apparent in too many high-profile purpose campaigns. Despite hard-sell marketing tactics being effectively phased out for decades now, brands are oddly keen to hard-sell their morals by way of representation.

One issue this brings up is that creative work that weaves in representation appears to often be exempt from having good ideas. Here’s my argument: Representation is not a creative idea, nor is it a theme or insight. And audiences should be able to objectively criticise a ‘diverse’ campaign without placing it on an imaginary pedestal of purity. Remember when Hershey’s launched its #HerShe campaign in 2020 and it was shortlisted in all the major awards?

An IWD campaign from Hershey's that was launched in Brazil in 2020. The campaign has been expanded globally.

Let me use the Crazy Rich Asians analogy to further illustrate my point. When the film hit the big screen in 2018, it was magnified as a sort-of cultural shift for Asian-Americans due to its representation of race in the film. Yet, many critics lauded it purely on its representational achievements. In fact, the film was heavily marketed that way too—a cornerstone of Asian culture, a groundbreaking feat in the white-dominated perimeters of Hollywood.

But this sharp think piece in The Atlantic points out the film’s pandering to white values and its false celebration of being racially progressive. “What happens to culturally specific storytelling when representation means literally swapping Asian faces onto white bodies?” questions author Mark Tseng-Putterman.

This reminds me of an excellent critique of representation by Los Angeles-based TV producer Rajiv Menon:

There’s so much media framed purely as a win or platform for ‘representation’. It’s marketing disguised as storytelling: not about a story’s quality or how it’s told, but selling visibility as a consumer product purporting to cure the anxieties of otherness… 

It limits our audience’s engagement with our work by framing it through its most literal representational function. It encourages a willful practice of misreading, looking at fiction like it’s documentary. It creates an audience that wants ethnographic accuracy, not creativity.

The limits of using representation as a sole win in creative work also boxes marginalised communities into inaccurate and shallow perceptions of ‘authenticity’. It encourages model minority myths, it encourages groupthink, it encourages the over-politicising of those who do not ask to be politicised.

For example, the man with Tourette’s syndrome featured in the aforementioned Colgate-Palmolive ad is not just a man with Tourette’s syndrome. He is a fully fleshed, nuanced individual with complex needs and desires. But the quick-win of representation-centred marketing does not allow for those needs and desires to be expressed. Instead, he is merely a sob-story punchline in a million-dollar campaign. A smiling, struggling face behind a hashtag that falsely assures him that he is ‘seen’.

Surekha Ragavan is PR and expriential marketing editor with Campaign Asia-Pacific and Asia editor for PRWeek.


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