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‘We didn’t want to talk to women via kind men’ – FCB India’s Swati Bhattacharya

Speaking at Mumbrella360 in Sydney, FCB Ulka’s chief creative officer Swati Bhattacharya took the audience through the genesis of ‘No Conditions Apply’ a campaign for The Times of India Calcutta.

Apart from making a 400-year old ritual more inclusive, ‘No Conditions Apply’ pushed The Times of India to the leadership position in the Kolkata market and won several awards at festivals all over the world.

The marketing problem to be solved, when the campaign was first conceived in 2017, was that The Times of India was at the number two position in Kolkata, one of India’s largest metros. The brief was to make the paper seem relevant and ‘local’ to the readers of the city; something they could take pride in.  

Bhattacharya said: “I believe you must take your hobby to work. My hobbies are gender, urban life and love.”

She believed it was a great opportunity to create a campaign that spoke to women, an otherwise neglected demographic in newspaper advertising. She said: “Women have grown tired of waiting for men to grow a conscience. Girls are often the extra in their own films which become about the kind father or the supportive boyfriend.

We wanted to talk to women and didn’t want to talk to them via kind men.”

The campaign was built around Durga Puja, the most significant religious event in Kolkata. After five days of festivities, it ended with a celebration involving vermillion called ‘Shindoor Khela’. This celebration was however traditionally restricted only to married women.

‘No Conditions Apply’ aimed to make ‘Shindoor Khela’ open to all the women who had previously been prevented from participating: single women, divorcees,  transwomen and sex workers.

The campaign involved print advertising, a film that provoked discussion and actual invitations to all women to be a part of the celebration.

For Bhattacharya, the campaign was also deeply personal. She recalled how invitations to being part of the Shindoor Khela celebration had dried up once she got a divorce. She said: “Not even my cousins called me to play. The sting of being uninvited helped me create this campaign.

“Until then, it hadn’t even occurred to me that my mum who was a widow, could be hurting. Only then did I feel the wrongness of how my mum hadn’t played for the last 15 years.”

The campaign involved not just inviting women to participate but changing the red dot with vermillion powder – a sign of a married woman, and the patriarchal symbol of marriage – to two red dots that stood for sisterhood.

‘No Conditions Apply’ began in 2017 with a single temple society in Kolkata inviting all women to be a part of the celebration. It caught on and in 2018, hundreds of temple societies invited all women to play.  

Speaking about the reaction to the campaign, Bhattacharya added: “I was amazed and asked myself ‘why did every jury with women resonate with it?’

“The point is when we talk about the patriarchal gene, we often just point to men. But since its lived so long, the gene has travelled inside us. There is a little divide between married and unmarried; the single and the divorcee; the divorcee and the sex worker; the sex worker and the transwomen.  

“But sisterhood is a compelling source of energy that helps us to change things. We don’t give it the place it deserves in our life, because there are not too many stories, celebrations and fables about it.”

“The campaign helped every woman realise true friendship, love and laughter can solve most things. They don’t need to look around for the kind man.”

In the question and answer session that followed the presentation, Bhattacharya admitted there had been some resistance to the campaign, even internally. She said: “One of the men on the client team wondered if it was the right time to do it and was afraid that readers would rebel against a newspaper trying to interfere with their traditions.

“But Sumeli Chaterjee, a woman on the client team, went through all the rungs in the organisation and pushed the idea with the proprietor of the paper.”

Asked if there was any pushback from women themselves, Bhattacharya said: “One of the women we spoke to felt inviting everyone may be construed as a sin.

“But that’s the thing about joyful or glorious revolution: the mood becomes emotional and happy. You see with your own eyes and feel with your own heart, how inclusiveness makes life more bearable. Even if people had reservations (initially), they ended up supporting us.”

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