P&G Vicks’ ‘Touch of Care’ ad is groundbreaking in its portrayal of a transgender mother – but is it anything more than just empty rhetoric?

Backing a progressive cause for an oppressed minority is all very well, but will P&G put their money where their mouth is, asks Mumbrella Asia editor Eleanor Dickinson

The transgender community has been fighting for inclusion and dignity in advertising and the media for years now. It’s just yet one of an entire spectrum of struggles against prejudice, ignorance and oppression the community faces on a daily basis all over over the world.  

Whether it’s near complete exclusion in the mainstream ads or a grotesque parody like this uncharacteristically un-PC effort from IKEA Thailand a few years back, it’s a conversation that needs to be on the table both within the media and between brands and their agencies. 

So when I saw Procter & Gamble brand Vicks’ new ‘Touch of Care’ ad by Publicis Singapore about a transgender mother in India and her adopted daughter, I couldn’t help but feel moved at first. The ad’s portrayal of their relationship is touching; it’s one that shows motherhood is both a possibility and indeed ‘normal’ for a transgender woman.

The campaign avoids any questions relating to the mother’s pre-transition status (apart from the tragic glimpse into her past exclusion from her own family), her biology and anything remotely male in reference to her – points that all-too-often find their way into the media and everyday transgender discourse.

Moreover, the motherhood role – while perhaps a cliché – is an effective tool to convince an audience that this character is deserving of respect, irrespective of her gender identity. It’s an award-worthy effort and no doubt we will see much more of it at awards shows.

But speaking of awards shows, I couldn’t help but think of this video that circulated two years ago when I watched P&G’s ad about how cause-related marketing campaigns seemingly only make a tangible impact on the communities they serve for three months a year.

Funnily enough, that video also focused on India. To get more of a sense of the situation, I contacted Kalki Subramaniam, who is the founder of Tamil Nadu-based transgender support charity the Sahodari Foundation Centre, in India. Her words were full of insightl. She said: “[The ad] is touching and somewhat dramatic, but it conveys a good message that the public must see; that transgender women can also be mothers and good mothers, and that our rights to motherhood should be respected. Yes, that is fine.

“But I would like to know how many people from the transgender community has P&G employed in its companies across India? How many times it has it come forward to fund transgender empowerment projects? To promote your product, using a transgender person’s story wisely is all fine, but let’s be practical. P&G needs to tell us so far how many transgender people’s lives it had made a change in, made a difference, if it really ‘cares.’?” The company has been contacted for a response to these questions.

Whether or not P&G will follow through on this campaign with any serious transgender activism in India is debatable. Progressive programmes in place to boost opportunities for the community likewise remain an uncertainty. But for this campaign to be truly effective, then the rhetoric will need to be matched by reality with real-world results.

To give the company its dues, it has clearly has stepped up its game with regards to LBGT rights over recent years. In 2014, P&G publically backed same-sex marriage in the United States and it’s campaign last year for American brand Secret Deodorant made a subtle but sly dig at a North Carolina law designed to restrict transgender access to restrooms in public buildings.

Sadly, the company was quick to back away from any suggestion that the campaign was created to be supportive of a “political statement”, which makes me question the extent P&G will practise what it preaches in India.

Unfortunately for now, the cynic in me cannot see past a row of glittering awards gongs. Let’s hope P&G will indeed put its money where its mouth is for India’s transgender community. And even better, let’s see if they can do something that lasts for more than three months.


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