The new Airtel advertisement, which shows the relationship between a man and a woman where the woman plays the boss in office as and the wife at home, has provoked interest and discussion in the social sphere and the media. Two broad positions have emerged from the discussions. One view looks at the advertisement as a progressive innovation on gender roles, where the man soberly accepts the wife’s dictates as boss in office, while the boss also takes care to cajole her husband with her culinary skills at home. The other, critical but straightforwardly feminist, view is that despite the transformed power equation in office, the gender stereotype is restored by the wife cooking for the husband after work. Both views overlook the complete nexus of titillation the advertisement holds out to the consumer as much as they gloss over a fine reading of the advertisement itself. Reading an ad, like reading a film, involves a detailed and close insight into the political codes of the audio-visual medium. An ad, after all, is propaganda for a product, which in turn is a product of the larger capitalist machine that produces the circulation of such a promotional art. The reading of the ad film will aim to dismantle this (superficially) coherent object of titillation.
Placing the Titillating Object:
It is important to first re-cover the language of the ad to see through it. The ad begins with a scene in a corporate office, where a woman boss tells her two male team members that includes her husband, a particular work is urgent and needs to be finished within the day. The husband, addressing her by name, tries telling her it isn’t possible. But she insists with a touch of apology, the work simply has to be delivered. This sets up the tensed atmosphere for what follows. As the woman leaves office, she checks with her husband engrossed in the work she has assigned him. There is a resigned look on the husband’s face as the woman enquires about the work at hand. While leaving, she tells him to call her if he needs help. On her way back, the woman calls the man from her car, this time addressing her husband by name, asking him what he would like for dinner. The expression on the woman’s face suggests that the husband has given an indifferent reply. Next, she is shown at home, in casual clothes, raking her mind for the perfect cuisine to prepare for dinner. The husband receives her call at work, asking him to come home, to which the man gently indulges in mock play telling the wife his boss has given him work to finish, and disconnects the phone. But the man immediately receives a video call where the wife shows him the delicacies awaiting him at the dinner table. She teasingly asks him to tell the boss that his wife is calling him back home. The man teases back, prodding her to tell the boss herself. There is a smile of reconciliation on the man’s face and the wife ends the call by once again insisting he return soon and that she is waiting for him.
The temptations for the man are in place. The fruits of a good day’s work await him. He has satisfied his boss at the workplace the way a child satisfies his teacher at school, and has suitably earned the right to enjoy his reward. The coquettish boss-cum-wife and the aromatic dinner at home are equally inviting. They are also charged with erotic content. Wife and dinner are both appetising signals sent through the smartphone. The man at work, having served the conditions of corporate urgency well, is now being asked to return home and feast on his fantasies. The fantasies have been laid out before him. The woman has changed her role from boss to wife. This double role play keeps the man on his toes. The work and pleasure principles have been evenly distributed to keep the client’s ego balanced and satisfied.
Economy of the Titillating Object:
It is an incredibly neat ad, with both the man and the woman playing their roles in tune with the smooth background score. There is a delectable transition from workplace to home space, and the new-age couple fits hand-in-glove into the larger bourgeois dream of a perfectly run nuclear family. Their personal dreams merge with the capitalist dream and both worlds are happy together. Within this rosy scenario, smartphone smartly inserts its presence and completes the picture.
Unlike the feminist complaint, the woman is at the top of the power equation, both in office as well as at home. Just because the wife cooks for the husband, the gender stereotype doesn’t fall into place. The gender equation between the woman and the man has to be understood within the new, advertised economy of their relationship. Just as the woman, as the suave and persuasive boss in office, holds control over the man’s productive capabilities, as the inviting wife who calls him for the dinner she has herself prepared, she holds equally supreme control over the man’s libidinal proclivity.
The woman, enjoying power in the smart move to reverse gender roles, is the very symbol of capitalism in this newly erected capitalist economy of the ad. She alone owns the power to dictate, control and lure the subject of labour, the man’s labour power. She alone owns the power to dictate, control and lure the subject of desire, the man’s libidinal power. So what if she cooks for the man? Capitalism can cook for you to extract the necessary amount of your labour power, and to lure the excess of your libidinal power. Capitalism can cook for you to suck your blood.
If the idea of labour is a norm in the capitalist economy, any form of desire (for food and sex) is the excess, the exception that needs to be tamed, controlled and dissipated within the capitalist system. The man in the ad, symbolizing labour and labour power, is made to work beyond office hours, supplying his extra energies to fulfill the boss’s demand. In the end, he is shown as the gratified subject, waiting for the sumptuous compensations at home. But this gratified subject is within the tight leash that separates (extended) labour time from pleasure, where human agency is dictated and controlled by the rules of demand-and-supply. The woman controls labour, labour time as well as time for pleasure. Capitalism is time, and its reins lie with the titillating subject/object personifying capitalism in the ad: the woman.
Aura of the Titillating Object:
The woman who plays both boss and wife, who holds control in the power and gender equation between her and the man, who is also the very symbol of capitalism, is however not an independent subject of power. The symbol of capitalism is never a free symbol, and the subject of capitalist power is never the authentic subject, but a fake reification of what is unreal and unimaginable, of what is un-thinkable and un-desirable. The woman in the ad is an attractive proposition because she is impossible, she is the impossibility of attraction, and her spell lasts as long as the viewer, the audience, allows itself that momentary slumber, that momentary fantasy, the momentary slumber of fantasy, that flits past the eyes as a progression of neatly packaged images that allows you to desire but not enough, because the woman herself, the desirous object of capitalist titillation, the titillating object of capitalism, is herself tied inside a tight leash that does not allow her to break free from the image she is bestowed with.
The boss is, however, not the boss acting freely upon herself, the wife is not the wife acting freely upon herself—they aren’t symbols of freedom or agency. The boss and the wife are both role players, titillating the man, titillating the subject of labour and desire, and titillating the consumers, whose eyes are glued to the television set, watching the pornography of desire unfold in neat, subtle doses. The man and the woman aren’t really playing out the problem of gender equations vis-à-vis each other as wrongly assumed by certain feminist critics. Both the man and the woman are puppets playing out the titillating logic of the capitalist puppeteer who is pulling the strings of the ad behind them. He is the invisible master of this titillating show. The aura of the titillating object is a false aura.
The Fetish Object of Titillation:
The smartphone is the fetish object par excellence, that will profit most from this show, as it alone is that excess that is falsely played out between the wife and the husband. The smartphone is the instigator and profiteer of the show, allowing the double role play to circulate between the characters and hold its promise for them and the viewer, the audience. If the capitalist aura in the shape of the play between man and woman enables the spectre to take place, happening in front of your eyes, it is the capitalist fetish object that seeks to earn from this spectre, and profit from the excess produced by this titillation.
The smartphone will be bought from the market for its hyper-use-value. But just because the smartphone will be bought from the market, it doesn’t mean or follow that the logic of the ad should be bought over as well, to exaggerate the idiocy of the consumer.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, translator and a political science scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems, was published by The London Magazine.