Same ingredients, different packaging – that’s the set formula for how to market a product to a new audience. When the new target market is of another gender than the previous one, all you have to do is change the colour. Mass market production operates on a gender binary, with two colours at either end of the spectrum: “delicate” pink for women and “dynamic” blue for men (also available in pastel options, for children). The only time this palette gets disrupted is in the marketing of sanitary napkins, onto which a bright blue fluid is poured in every advertisement. So the makers of the campaign for Vim Black – the all-new dishwashing liquid for men! – must think they’re doing something very cool on multiple levels.

            When I first saw the static ad, featuring some random dude tagged as a “first time dishwasher”, I thought it was another situation where the inability to hear the pitch of women’s voices, and therefore their pitches or protests too (this problem is endemic at advertising agencies, I can tell you from years of professional experience) was at play, along with some sheer cluelessness up and down the entire chain of command on the client’s side.

Then I watched the video commercial, featuring the not-so-random Milind Soman, and realised just how intentional the product and its promotional materials are.

To quote the author Nikita Deshpande’s posts on Twitter: “The ad (esp the video) is smarter than we’re giving it credit for. It sounds sarcastic and in-on-the-joke to some of us, while still speaking to its target audience. When you go to someone’s home and see Vim Black in a kitchen, it silently tells you who does the dishes here. Even if the men in the house do not lift a finger, just the buying and displaying of the product in the home gives them bragging rights. Clever clever clever marketing.”

A major brand like Vim doesn’t just come up with a product as a joke; but apparently the joke is that there is no such product. The whole thing, going by what the company has said in a new statement on Instagram, was to encourage men to see that “You don’t need a new bottle to enter the kitchen, just the realisation that these are your chores too.” It then chides them for the “bragging skills” its initial tagline (Easy To Clean, More To Brag) had cheered.

So no such product will be in stores then. It won’t be used by insecure men, whose family members may be glad it exists to take the dirty crockery out of their own hands. It won’t enable virtue signalling. It won’t really do anything, this campaign, other than have irritated people of all genders.

The company’s response comes across a little ham-fisted. If it was a joke, it was a lousy one. Or perhaps the product was secretly discontinued before release – not that big a logistics nightmare since the liquid is exactly the same. If black bottles are out there in warehouses somewhere, I sure hope they’ll be recycled. But as for sexist attitudes, unfortunately, there are constantly new bottles for those old whines too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in December 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.