Pepsi could really learn a thing or two about authenticity from pharmaceutical brand Vicks. The healthcare company has moved people in India to think about how it can better support its transgender community with a video campaign featuring a daughter and her transgender mother.
It tells the story of Gayatri, an Indian orphan who was adopted by 37-year-old Gauri Sawant, a transgender woman and social activist. She was also a friend of Gayatri’s birth mother, a sex worker who died of AIDs when she was just six years old. In India, it is illegal for transgender people to adopt children. Despite this and “against all odds”, Gauri raises Gayatri as her own.
During the advert, we follow Gayatri’s journey to and from boarding school, under the loving care of her mother through sickness and health. Only towards the end of the video are we shown Gauri, who stars as herself, in full. “This is my mom,” Gayatri says. “Isn’t she lovely?”
In the closing scene of the advert, Gayatri changes her mind about wanting to be a doctor. Instead, she says, she wants to be a lawyer to fight for the rights of people like her mother in the future.
Nitin Darbari, a spokesman for Vicks’ parent company, Procter and Gamble, said the company was hoping to highlight “the importance of care beyond just the traditional perception of family.”
“The campaign shows how people who, though not connected by blood, end up being family through care itself,” Darbari said.
The video has had an overwhelming response in India, and the YouTube version of the advert has notched up more than 10million views in a matter of weeks.
Miranda Hudson, the CEO of Snehalaya UK – the British wing of an NGO based in Ahmednagar, in the Maharashtra region of India that safe houses hijra (transgender) communities – tells Shevolution that the advert reduced her to tears.
“The first time I visited an Indian trans-colony in 2009, and it was earth-shattering. Hearing these women’s astoundingly tough journeys through indescribable emotional and physical torture was incredibly hard. Knowing they had survived where many hadn’t filled me with despair and admiration in equal measure and I realised there and then that fighting for all people to have equal choices and rights was paramount.
“I sincerely hope this advert will help break down the view that trans people should be relegated to being spectacles, prostitutes, debt collectors or wedding performers, as they so often are in Indian society. I have no issue with any of these professions when they are freely chosen. I do however take complete issue with denying anyone their basic human rights to whatever profession they wish to specialise in because they don’t easily fit into a community sense of what is normal or acceptable. This advert presents Sawant as herself. The truth of her identity as a mother and a friend is something no-one can take that away from her. Her adoptive daughter Gayatri is testament to that.”
However, there has been some criticism from campaigners who accuse the company of using the controversial issue of transgender parenting to garner greater attention.
Actress, artist and transgender rights activist Kalki Subramaniam told CNN: “Yes, this ad promotes transgender rights, our rights as mothers, our rights in social and civil activities, and our right as a citizen but the one thing I don’t like about this ad is that it sensationalises an issue.
“This is a trend in India. People are using transgender people because it gets a lot of attention but the community is still begging and doing sex work. What are they giving back to the community?”
Hudson, however, disagrees.
“I think big corporations presenting themselves as empathetic or caring just for the sake of upping sales is disingenuous, but this isn’t about that.
“Vicks are using the influence they have to make a statement to help progress human rights and this shouldn’t be left to the third sector alone,” she concludes.
“I think everyone must do their bit to fight for equality so to see a large private company doing their bit fills me with hope.”