About three years ago, I wrote one or two blog posts on sexism in Vietnamese ads. Among many things that we could have done better, this was one single nuisance that bothered me the most, to the point that I promised myself I would never do “that kind of sexist advertising” if I would work in the field.
And like wedding vows, of course my promise was broken.
Let’s not talk now about how I (obviously) failed to deliver my promise, but instead about how sexism is still shamelessly present in Vietnamese advertising. Standing right in the middle of my kitchen is a washing machine, on which the wrap shows a mom (surprised!) with a big smile. Okay, that is no big deal, moms happily do laundry in all households, we get it. What turns my stomach is the little girl, supposedly her daughter, carrying a laundry basket in the back. Think about it, would you ever see a little boy? No, unless the boy would be there to portray the image of a playful, curious kid who likes to be around mom and learn about stuff. The little girl is there to help mom. And yes, it has to be a girl, because this is laundry.
Oh, is it even a surprise? On the other hand, boys have a different role in advertising. Along the hallway from the departure lounge to the airplane was a string of ads from some investment bank, whose message mostly is about success. The hero in each ad is either a man at his office desk, or a man with his business partner (another man, of course), or a man with his happy family in a newly purchased house (little boy playing with dad, little girl with mommy in the background). It seems to me, a woman, I have nothing to relate with these ads.
At first I was uncomfortable, then frustrated. Come on, I’m flying with an airline whose owner is a woman billionaire, and I have to read these ads that imply only men care about career success? But then it flew me back to all the time I got pissed off during a creative briefing for some very similar reasons, and finally always had to surrender. Because the planners were, more often than not, not very wrong. What if it really makes more sense to sell career to men and laundry to women because it’s, well, the way it is?
Stay with me. I hate this as much as you may. And so does the brand manager who gave us this brief even. But we’re not here doing works to please our egos or moral compass; we’re doing it for an audience that does not give a flying fuck about a progressive, news-worthy, Cannes Lions-winning message, and of course for the most parts is inexcusably sexist.
It was the very first presentation, and we came in with one single idea. The product was detergent. The idea was to have women enjoy their free time and embrace their life (because the product makes it happen, obviously). In my mind it is supposed to be liberating: you don’t have to spend all your time doing chores, but can actually go on dates with your partner, play with kids, and more time for yourself. For yourself – I can’t stress that enough. What I picture is a free woman polishing her nails, reading her favorite book, or anything that she wishes she could do, given more free time.
First meeting went incredibly well. The client was so excited to have some feminist elements to their campaign, and that led us to the second round…
“So… we’re gonna show women do nails and makeup instead of laundry?” – asked the confused brand manager.
“Yeah! We will show her with husband, with kids, and then with herself.”
“Mmm… can we just show her with husband only? It could be like… she can spend more time with husband to maintain their relationship, not like before, she was all about housework, etc. It could strain their relationship, right?”
My feminazi self starts screaming in my head: “What the fuck? If it’s the case why wouldn’t the husband just fucking do the laundry already, so his wife could have time to “maintain their relationship”?”
But I swallow it down.
“I think it would be confusing… this should not be just about husband-wife… [rationales inserted here]. Our team think it’s best to stick with three pillars as we proposed.”
[A lot of correspondences that should not be remembered happen during this interval].
The brand manager stays silent for a minute. And then he concludes:
“Okay, we will do as you proposed. But… for the “Yourself” part, we would like the women to do something for herself, but it has to be for the family, too.”
Mmm. What do you mean with that?
“We don’t want to show women to do things just for themselves. If she does something, it gotta be for her beloved family, right?”
Mmm. Right. Because you pay us, so…
So that’s it, we did as per their command. A woman will not do anything in her own interest, but rather, she has to do for her family, because it’s the way moms are: sacrificing her personal life for family. That’s the mindset, and the message we were to send out. I wasn’t so excited about doing it, nor was I proud of the work. It was quite stupid, to be honest. But worse, it was not the exception. It is so prevalent in our advertising, to the point that during brainstorm sessions no one bothers raising questions anymore. One reason for not raising question is, arguably, what we’re currently portraying in ads is actually true. How many times have you seen women in beer stalls after work, and men at home to prepare for dinner? Is it so common for a couple to have all daughters, and not hear someone “console” her “Oh it’s still okay to have just daughters”, or “You’re still young, you can still conceive a son next time”. Is it the norm now, that families spend Tet with the wife’s family instead of the husband’s?
We all know, the answer is “No”. Vietnam, despite being very catchy with progressive trends like LGBT marriage, is at heart a conservative place. The high percentage of women in the workforce speaks little about gender equality, for the fact that Vietnamese women have always been working without earning equal status as men (who, ironically in many cases, live under their wives’ financial support).
Nonetheless, it has dawned on me that men are not to be totally at fault. Vietnamese women seem to just accept whatever “traditions” throw at them, for convenience. When women seem to be okay with the current situation, why would men bother withdrawing their privileges? This came out when I was having dinner (at 3pm!) with two of my old classmates. One of them is newly wedded, and the other has just been in a relationship for about 1 month, but she intends to get married somewhere end of year. To clarify, I fancy the idea of being married, too, and I am pretty traditional in the sense that I want a big (monogamous) family with many kids. We were talking about my friend’s married life, and of course the topic of in-laws come up. My friend is not living with her in-laws; her husband is also a supporting man who shares the load with his wife. Thing is, only when they’re alone together. When they are back to his home, she’s gonna do all the work, and, this is important, she will not let him wash the dishes, or do anything, even if he wants to. “Why?” “The mother would not like to see his son do the work.” “I know, but isn’t it stupid?” “Naaa, people are still conservative about it. They don’t think sons should do housework.” – the other friend explained. “I KNOW, but isn’t it… okay, fine.” I stopped there, because I knew it wasn’t going anywhere. My friends just accepted that the norm is women do housework and men watch TV, and that their husband is first and formost, someone’s son, rather than a man who stands by his wife. If they all agree to that, what is the point in changing?
When I first saw “Like a Girl”, I was wondering why this kind of progressive, inspirational messaging rarely happens in Vietnam, but we instead have been stuck with whatever was showing on TV. I blamed the stupid creatives and claimed I would change them. (They are not stupid and now I’m happy-maybe one of them). As creatives I blamed planners for writing out-of-date insights. (They are not out-of-date and I am just bitchy for no reason). Then I blamed clients, for being [a lot of things that should not be said here because they are breastfeeding us]. But now I remember the conversation I had with my friends, and I realize my clients are not at fault either. Look, the brand managers are among the most success-driven, ambitious people; most of them are women, and they are, by nature of their job, very liberal. If something annoys me, I bet it annoys them too. But they are not doing the works to please their ego, or political view either; they are doing it for consumers, an audience that is very close to what’s in ads.
Now you can say, but isn’t it advertising’s job, and media’s generally, to address normalcy in society? Isn’t it our job to push people forward? If we’re showing something backward, even if it’s present in real life, we’re reinforcing the stereotypes. If we instead show something progressive, we will stir up the status quo. Shouldn’t it be that way?
I think it should. But, a big BUT, we’re not doing it. Because, for every “good” message we’re sending out in ads, be it about peace, gender equality, family values, charity, dream, kindness, etc., it’s all to support one thing: sales. So no one would bother going against the stream if it’s not helping them with their KPIs. If it does, then yes, do it. As long as their home appliances or detergent or phones or beer or bank credit cards are selling, they would not care if what their ads are saying could change the social construct or not. It’s not our job anyway, right? Ironically, the audience is looking at our works subconsciously for an influence on their view, while we’re watching them to mind our very own steps, for fear of treading outside of the borders.
And then, here we are, a bunch of grumpy creatives, so pissed off with the regime, because as moon-eyed novices we fed ourselves with things like “Like a girl”, we traded off for being here to “make some change”, and we end up in the very job that is to serve public prejudice, and not to challenge it. We’re in the last place to make any innovations for the goodwill of human race. Do it for sales, maybe.
It’s the unbreakable circle that we’re not gonna be able to break. Not in ways we’ve been trying.