Branding Mother India: Sarojini N, Anindita Majumdar, Veena Johari and Priya Ranjan


Indian motherhood is finally, officially being advertised. Recent news reports regarding the launch of the Japanese advertising conglomerate Dentsu Mama Labs in India, have left many of us working on women’s reproductive lives in a serious quandary. How does one explain the unthinking coverage that the firm has received?

This is their pitch (or ‘branding’, as the Corporation puts it):

Dentsu Mama Lab aims to be a thought leader on mothers, motherhood and mothering.

The beautifully shot launch advertisement of pregnant women in a scenic desert village in India, using Japanese products and living in evident prosperity belies the true nature of what Mama Labs is representing, or rather misrepresenting.

Dentsu Mama Labs comes to the Indian market with an advertisement that subtly aims to represent the beauty and sadness associated with commercial surrogacy in India—while at the same time marketing India and Indian women as sought-after for surrogacy. So, while the surrogate mothers in the village seem to be reaping the harvests of their involvement in the arrangement through access to Japanese products, food and clothing—they must end this association by relinquishing the child they are carrying for a Japanese couple on its birth. The visuals show how the surrogate (played by actress Tilottoma Shome) is left with a photograph of the baby (who ‘looks’ Japanese) after the intended parents take her away. She then tries to console herself by calling home and asking after her own daughter on a brand new mobile phone.

In open violation of the Indian Council of Medical Research’s Draft Guidelines, the advertisement is expressly meant to recruit potential surrogates and attract Indian and overseas commissioning couples to contract Indian commercial surrogacy arrangements. The Draft Guidelines under Section 3.10.4 and 3.14.2 that prohibits advertising states that no clinic or individual may advertise for surrogates or egg/sperm donors, except for ART banks which will be set-up exclusively for the purpose of recruiting and maintaining a database of surrogates and egg donors.

Though this advertisement is not being aired by any particular ART clinic or infertility centre, it does become a “surrogate” ad for all such centres. In such a situation open advertising is like mocking any form of law or regulation that the government, civil society groups and feminist organizations might want to bring in for commercial surrogacy.

The Advertisement Council of India has their own set of self regulations of ads that are shown in India. Though it is primarily for products, it does talk of some safeguards against misleading ads, ads that are harmful to society – that derides any race, caste, colour, creed, gender, nationality; ads that depict the weak, those suffering from certain ailments, including infertility, etc. The ad is misleading and clearly depicts infertile couples who can get a child by giving some products to Indian women in remote villages!! It depicts an incomplete picture of surrogacy that is far from the truth and honesty of what all a surrogate goes through. It depicts Indian women as self-sacrificing.Pandering to stereotypes does not take away from the fact that women in the surrogacy arrangement may still be subjected to inequalities, indignities and discrimination. Is it as simple as is depicted in the advertisement?

The subtext of the advertisement is not lost on anyone—neither is the launch of an advertising firm that wishes to reap the benefits of outsourced reproduction through the bodies of poor Indian women. The ad does in a very limited way try to show the double bind of surrogacy- but the only thing it problematises is relinquishment. This is so typical, since the only real problem in this advertisement’s imagination is that some women have to give up babies for others to have them, and thats heartbreaking because women can only be mothers!

Motherhood in India is not easy and hardly romantic. Surrogacy represents the double bind of motherhood that Indian women face—those who are infertile are stigmatized and pushed into hiring a surrogate; and those who are able to have children, but are unable to support them, are coerced into making their bodies available for invasive procedures of family planning and surrogacy.  The paradox of this social situation and the inherent inequality is never explored in advertisement in its open act of creating a ‘brand’. Instead, commissioning couples are being told that they are entering into a philanthropic arrangement wherein they will be helping a poor Indian family eat and prosper through an outsourced pregnancy.

Poverty is depicted aesthetically making it look more like an Incredible India advert (which is what it really is in a way). The ad does not problematise anything else about surrogacy- the real and potential exploitation of surrogates in how surrogacy is currently done, or larger context of surrogate women’s lives and choices- issues of reproductive health/justice, class, livelihoods, etc. But this is a not-so-clever, glossy ad and to expect otherwise would be a mistake.

While the Dentsu Mama launch was covered in every leading newspaper, Yuma Sherpa remains the lost name amongst many. 26-year-old Yuma died in January 2014 during an egg extraction procedure in a private fertility clinic leaving behind a young daughter and husband. Sama filed an FIR against the clinic seeking details of the death and access to the post-mortem report. After a year, the case has come up for hearing in the Delhi Medical Council but Yuma’s loss is irreplaceable. She underwent an invasive procedure to ‘donate’ her eggs for a commercial surrogacy arrangement.

What is the meaning of motherhood in India? What does it mean to be a woman in India who is perceived only through her reproductive potential? The idea of the sacrificing mother is taken to another level in case of surrogates and egg donors. Here women are embodied only as ‘mothers’, they have ‘value’ as reproductive being who can channelize their motherhood by ‘donating’ their eggs or ‘gifting’ a child to an infertile couple. And that is what Dentsu Mama are exploiting in their advertisement. The idea of the altruistic Third World mother whose compassion, and ‘maternal qualities’ are incomparable—available for a donation.

The Dentsu Mama advertisement positions transnational commercial surrogacy as an act of philanthropy for rich countries—egging them to ‘help’ these poor compassionate mothers while they in turn ‘help’ them. But the obligation, as Amrita Pande notes, is only one way—always on the Indian woman, never truly reciprocated in emotion, feelings or empathy.

The economic potential of the Indian transnational commercial gestational surrogacy industry is evident in this advertisement. And while Dentsu Mama Labs has remained faithful to its aim of enabling “meaningful and innovative connections between brands and mothers” by reducing women to the brand of “Mother India”where commercial surrogates are the best in the world. Unfortunately, in the advertisement the supposed prosperity that commercial surrogacy brings in does not help rural women access basic necessities like drinking water for which they continue to trek long distances.

The authors work with SAMA and Courtyard Attorneys

2 thoughts on “Branding Mother India: Sarojini N, Anindita Majumdar, Veena Johari and Priya Ranjan

  1. PA20

    the ad is disturbing, distressful! The article is good. i referenced the ad and found this-,dentsu-mama-lab-points-to-wombs-on-hire-delivers-understanding-motherhood-message.aspx
    which states that ‘One of the principal partners of the firm,believes baby factories is booming industry, and will challenge complex ideas related to feminism, surrogacy, motherhood and safety. Implicitly promising EMPOWERMENT, bypassing all the issues that are raised by the author here. She wishes for ‘Make in India’ campaign, to consider this, beyong focusing on the export of high quality merchandise!!

  2. Aj

    a case of *unequal exchange* (remember AEmmanuel, 1972/SAmin?) involving *surrogate motherhood*. both the latter and former terms fill one with caution, normally. glad the authors noticed this_ thanks

    ‘medical tourism’ in various ‘sectors’ goes on unabated, and one doesnt need to ‘use one’s kidneys’ to discover that unequal levels are legitimated, maintained/perpetuated in market processes, trade and exchange (whatever ‘fair trade’ might mean amidst these worthy processes)

    Rather than a micro-level, inter-personal ethics, its the aggregate figures that embody the pain and effort, justifying its analysis at country level. Unequal exchange is often portrayed as an idea of the ’70s, but is frequently very real and problematic, in that it discounts the large scale experience (labour) of subjects/citizens

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