Dishwash Liquid For Men: Vim Black, And Why Ads That 'Shouldn't Have Been Made', Get Made Anyway


5 min read

May 10, 2023

Dishwash Liquid For Men: Vim Black, And Why Ads That 'Shouldn't Have Been Made', Get Made Anyway


Controversy is erupting around Vim, and parent brand Unilever, as we speak. The reason for the uproar is the new Vim Black campaign- a dishwashing liquid for men that makes it 'Easy to clean, more to brag'.I think summaries of the backlash and Vim's eventual clarification release are widely available on the internet, so we will not dwell too much on them.

I am here to discuss why ads that in hindsight shouldn't have been made, get made anyway. Having worked both on the client/ brand side and the agency side (someimes parallelly), I feel like I am uniquely placed to comment on it.

A detailed autopsy of the Vim ad reveals death by a thousand cuts. So, who made these cuts? Let's dive in and find out.

The assumption that the agency is stupid to have created something like this, is stupid

The agency in question is MullenLowe Lintas. They didn't become behemoths by doing bad work. The idea that Lintas would hire for stupid is beyond laughable- they are behind some of the most successful campaigns of our times. Here are just a couple of examples, there are hundreds more.

1. Google Pay: Jaldi Karo Jaldbaazi Nahi:

2. The Laadli Change for Positive campaign:

I will not use this space to rave and rant about why agencies always get the flak for the bad things they do. But I will take a minute to challenge the notion that the agency that was once the creative home of Kabir Bedi and Shyam Benegal would just go on a campaign to hire bad people, invest in bad campaigns, and do work that would eventually cause more nightmares than was worth.

So, what went wrong?

A case of too many cooks

This is where I enter the realm of extrapolation from personal experience. Please treat it as the opinion piece it is. I have not reached out to the agency or the client for a comment as to the truth in these statements that follow.

Typically, when a new campaign has to be launched, the process looks a bit like this:

1. The client team has a purpose behind why a campaign is being launched (new product, rebranding, a major announcement, even a coverup of a negative incident). The client's brand manager will usually come up with a brief explaining this purpose, and some details on the competitive landscape, target audience, etc.

2. The agency team will go through the brief and ask their questions- what time frame, which channels to launch on, and in some cases, whether the campaign is time sensitive.

I will take a short break here to call out the fact that this campaign doesn't seem to tie in with any real world event- Women's Day and Men's Day are usually sitting ducks for a campaign of this nature. The only correlation I can see is that Vim launched a campaign with Virender Sehwag around the same time last year. It could also be that the sales for Vim liquid were falling and they wanted to do something about it- internal reasons into which we have no visibility.

1. Once everyone agrees on the brief, the agency team, headed by a Creative Director, come up with 2-3 pitch 'directions'. The idea here is to get a feel for what kinds of campaigns can be done, and whether the client team largely likes the approach being taken. A lot of good ideas also die at this stage- such is life.

2. Once a direction is approved in principle, it goes into concept stage. This is where actual mockups are created, budgets for resource heavy creatives are decided, influencers are roped in, etc. Please bear this point in mind specifically because this will come up later.

3. Once the concept too is approved and everyone signs off on it, execution begins. Usually, print ads and videos take much longer to produce, and hence go into production sooner. The PR machinery, if needed, is activated as well. Digital creatives take lesser time in comparison, and may therefore go into production closer to the launch date.

I want to digress again here and make another point- usually in large agencies, the print/ OOH and digital execution teams will be different. I personally think this largely comes down to skill set- digital media continues to be a highly technical domain and anywhere between 7-10 tools can be used to gauge the efficacy of campaigns. Print and OOH on the other hand offer a lot less granularity on performance, and continue to be creatively driven even to this day.

There is usually a bit of dissonance that creeps in here because not all creative directors come with Integrated Marketing expertise. A CD may be extremely good at design and translating vision into print, but they may not be equally adept at using social listening tools to make data-driven decisions about whether a campaign will work. This is not their fault, but simply the pace of change.

I think you're beginning to see a bit more into where it all went wrong- it is highly likely that while one leg of the campaign was approved in a broad strokes manner, the specifics weren't looked into by a single individual.

I would even say that this is completely reasonable. No human being has the potential, or the support, to make the number of decisions they need to make as an agency.We have simply not empowered our Creative teams enough to be able to do this, because we have to work them 12 hours every day just to make their paycheck- any semblance of learning in this industry comes from the many times when clients rant about the work that has been put out.

The thousand cuts

1. A media ad involving Milind Soman was conceptualised for the campaign. As a viewer, this has many problems, not in the least of which is why Milind Soman is choosing to go shirtless in this particular ad- there's no need, and it's frankly quite distracting.The line, 'Easy to clean, more to brag' could have been used very creatively here- I did the dishes quickly and was therefore able to make time for the gym; I did the dishes so easily, I can now put in some 'elbow grease' here; I did the dishes so easily, I found a new superpower.I mean...the interpretations write themselves without the need for sarcasm.Let's assume that sarcasm was non-negotiable, it had to be there. I'd totally take 'Waah beta waah, now you don't need to do Arm Day at the gym!" from Milind Soman. Again, no need for pointed digs that make the target audience feel attacked.

2. The digital ads were launched almost in parallel. Again, way too much confusion. It is obvious at this point that the folks involved in the media ad weren't also consulted here. Cohesion is missing. There is a way to laugh with someone, and then there's a way to laugh at them. The visuals here take the assumption that their target group is 'misogynistic men who don't help with the chores' and drives it too far.The way to create change is not to be condescending. There's also that old storytelling adage called 'show, don't tell' which we all seem to be forgetting by the day.At this point, could something have saved the campaign? Perhaps micro-influencers could have. As a tribe, micro-influencers are people we follow because we resonate with them, and not necessarily because we aspire to be them. There is no dearth of wonderful creators who could have taken this campaign and subtly driven the 'men must do chores' messaging home without making it feel like a chore, pun intended.On Vim's Instagram page, we do see unboxing videos from several influencers, which I personally feel is not engaging enough. I mean, the campaign only blew up after Mr. Soman entered the picture, so whatever edginess came through, only came through from one source. A bit more heart and soul into the Sameera Reddy style videos could have helped.

3. In its current form and format, the campaign may still have had a chance at working. It may not have had to resort to explaining the joke to people, which as we know is the best way to kill a joke.This, ladies and gentlemen, is where the blame lies squarely at the brand's doorstep. They did everything, but they didn't launch the product!!I mean sure, they're called 'creative' agencies for a reason, but we can all baseline agree that no one can market a thing that does not exist. Particularly when going for a campaign of the polarising variety, it helps to have the damn product be real. Imagine the campaign actually influenced one person. Imagine that maybe one person took it in good humour and said, 'Let me play along.'Too bad for them, because the product doesn't exist. You can now see the half-heartedness in all the measures in points 1 and 2. The people who were supposed to write the ad knew they were selling a sham, and they had to do it anyway.Literally, how hard is it for a brand of this scale to just launch a limited edition product? Put the same liquid in a different bottle, say '10X more power of lemons' or some bullshit which we all know isn't true, and push it to the shelves! Maybe even make a cool campaign out of it- everyone who spots and buys a Vim Black gets a free gym membership or something.

So who landed the final blow?

Et tu, Brute?

There's always the one action that lands the punch that kills. In the world of creative, we have a concept called the Spec Ad. These ads are created for the sole purpose of hopefully winning some awards. I don't want to comment on the rightness or the wrongness of this practice- award ceremonies can make or break agency fortunes, and this is a highly competitive world. We all have mouths to feed.

However, the practice of assigning teams to only do spec ads is wrong. I have never experienced this myself, but a friend from the industry once mentioned that there exist entire teams dedicated for three months a year to producing an ad that wins awards.

I hope we can all reflect a bit on the many ways in which this is wrong. For one, this is work time for which other clients on the roster are paying in the form of retainers. Secondly, we have made polarising people a habit- we don't have to, and we shouldn't. Social media is already doing a very good job of it.There is speculation that this ad was a Spec Ad. I do not know if this is true, but it is the only explanation that makes sense as to why it all went so wrong. Brands that want to create change usually find more intimate ways of doing it. Vim didn't.

How not to make the same mistake

Let's be honest- we're all secretly thankful this isn't happening to us. Vim is on a PR exercise now. So, how do we not let it all go south?

1. Creatives are meant to address a person, not a collective. Similar ads highlighting the skewed thought process have worked in the past because they are intimate conversations, not blanket generalisations. The latter makes everyone feel unseen, and that never works.

2. In a spoken circle recently, one participant asked, "But why are the men feeling offended? Isn't this reality?" I think the point here isn't so much about why one may be offended, but that as a brand, you're not wanting to do that. The very people you're hoping to change (and sell a product or two while you're at it) now hate you. I see no wins here.

3. The difference between an ad that works and one that doesn't is simply in the telling of the story. One may argue that brands have no right to tell us who to be, but brands have done just that- all the time. In fact, the very idea of a brand is built on loyalty, and loyalty isn't earned by sitting on the fence. However, when you intend to occupy a polarising viewpoint, it helps to use the storytelling vehicles- context, setting, mic drop. Unfortunately, none of these things translated in the campaign in question.

4. If you've been with me thus far, we discuss the true cost of virality on episode 4 of The Damn Good Marketing Podcast. Please give it a listen. Going viral should never be the objective of any campaign.

5. Most importantly- if it isn't you, don't do it. The Vim India Instagram handle is all recipes and fun jokes, until thump lands the Vim Black. I'm not sure what other posts are archived, and the one post from 2021 that's still visible is Virender Sehwag's ad- which is actually quite smart and funny, and ties in with what the dude does.

6. Lastly, assuming that things did go wrong, what do you do? Back off, that's what you do, and what Vim apparently isn't willing to. Apologise and move along. Take a good look at the tonality of your messaging- would you like it, if it was directed at you?

In the end, there is some comfort in knowing that it all dies down eventually. It would be interesting to see what Vim comes up with next.

There is a popular opinion in media circles that a consumer commenting on campaigns is akin to a diner telling a chef how to cook. I would think that that is the whole point. If the consumers of our ads aren't our litmus test, then who is?

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