6.3.12

Semiotic Decoding of ‘Cleaning’ in the Indian Context

Marketing suddenly becomes so much more interesting when we refer to it as the “art of giving meaning”. Meaning, in its true sense, can’t exist without a context. And that’s why a semiotic decoding of the context becomes indispensable in order to successfully market anything.

While trying to grapple with an ambitious ‘cleaning’ brand, we employed our semiotic decoding system to understand the culture and context of cleaning. Below are some excerpts of the analysis.

PART I

What does cleaning truly mean? Is it just about removal of impurities? Why is it so important to be clean? What do we mean when we talk about a ‘clean image’? Or for that matter a ‘clean society’? After a dip in the Ganges, in what sense exactly does one really get clean? Many might actually argue the opposite.

“Cleaning” is ensconced in our religious context.  The morning snan and the prayer that goes along with it (har har gangey); the ‘hom hawan’ to sanctify the house and the more contemporary ritual of the cleaning of house during festivals like Diwali, all point towards this.

There are ample mythological and historical cues to establish that being clean is “positive and pure”, while being dirty is “negative and impure”. Those who commit sins are usually depicted as being dirty even in the physical sense. For e.g. Rakshasa consuming madira, looking ugly and living in jungles. Being dirty in a way is being imperfect, while being clean is perfection itself. No wonder our culture associates cleanliness with godliness, the epitome of perfection.

Cleanliness = Perfection = Godliness

PART II

To understand clean, we must understand the unclean. We all realize, for e.g., that food accidentally spilled on a table is not germ ridden and dirty. But it is still seen to be making the table unclean. It’s just that we instinctively believe that food is supposed to be in the plate/bowl. Being “spilled on the table” is merely a wrong context for food to be in.

We can safely deduce that dirt is only that, which exists in a system of which it is not supposed to be a part. And therefore, it causes the system to be imperfect, which is then seen as being dirty.

To clean something essentially means to bring it to its original state of perfection

So, the three broad attributes of cleaning that we could derive were this. Firstly, cleaning is about purification or bringing back perfection. May it be physical (of germs/stains), social (a corrupt imperfect society needs cleaning) or spiritual. Secondly, we realized that being clean affects your social image. It has a positive effect on your status among friends and peer group.

But one of the most critical attributes came to light when we differentiated “being clean” from the “act of cleaning”. The act of cleaning is monotonous and repetitive in nature. It’s a continuous process that involves the need of putting effort over and over again. It tends to get boring.

But why should repetition lead to such drudgery and monotony? Aren’t artists who do riyaz, essentially repeating their act? The key difference there is the element of learning involved in each cycle of repetition. If there is repetition without learning, then it’s nothing but drudgery.

Repetitive nature of a task, without any associated learning, can take you to a point of absurdity. Cleaning in itself might have a higher order meaning, but the “act of cleaning" per say is just a repetition of an act to the point of meaninglessness. The home maker / house wife faces this state of drudgery, boredom and monotony every day. And therefore could there be a need to make this inevitable “act of cleaning” more exciting and meaningful for her?

This could be a potential space for a new cleaning brand to occupy.

PART III

Another often ignored aspect of “cleaning” is that it is about a state that is pure, positive, and pristine and allows you to flourish. Most modern day marketing discourses on cleaning revolve around ‘dirt’ and treating it as an enemy, a negative force that needs to be battled against. It’s a ‘Negatives OUT’ approach. But cleaning could also imply ‘Positives IN’. It could be about allowing the good, the pure and the shubh in the house. The home maker is not necessarily only Durga the warrior, but also Lakshmi, the harbinger of prosperity.

PART IV


At its very core, “cleaning” has a very deep rooted importance in our core social construct. The Manusmriti, howsoever contentious, accounts for an entire set of people dedicated to ‘Karma of cleaning’, one of the 4 most critical Karmas. The other 3 being – Gaining and spreading knowledge (Brahmin), wielding power and leading the society (Kshatriya), and trading goods to generate wealth (Vaishya). The irony is that while the other three Karmas are treated with respect, the cleaning sect Shudras has always been sidelined.

The one who cleans is always seen as being dirty. In fact, to clean something, you have to get dirty

The Dhobi, the maid and the Jamadar are always the lower strata of society. There is a deep resonance here to the plight of a home maker. What gratification does the housewife get for ensuring a clean house? Possibly, housewife is a hero simply because she does the cleaning without getting any gratification or reward – she is, however, an unsung hero.

Also, given that one who cleans is never looked up to, never held in any sort of awe, is there a need to create mythical heroes in the form of cleaning experts? We have the Mr Clean and the Mr. Muscles of the world. Probably this iconification helps the cause of a brand aiming to gain any sort of an affinity, or a first among equals status, among the otherwise functionally driven cleaning category.

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It’s very exciting to realize how something as basic and mundane as “Cleaning” can mean so much more. We just need to be ready to open are minds, go deeper and explore.

By Vivek Chaturvedi, GM - Marketing, DY Works
(with contributions from Ankit Sharma & Siddhartha Gupta)

3 comments:

  1. Vivek, insightful writing. Enjoyed reading.

    Here are my bits to add to your thoughts:

    Cleaning as organization, categorization. You hinted at the same in "We can safely deduce that dirt is only that, which exists in a system of which it is not supposed to be a part. And therefore, it causes the system to be imperfect, which is then seen as being dirty." But didn't take it forward. May you were on to the other thought of which this sentence was a part.

    One of the biggest tasks of people - as part of learning and developing knowledge - throughout the ages has been the task of categorization/organization. Oranges in orange basket only. If it is found in an apples' basket, something's not right. Books on book-shelf only. If they are found lying on the bed or on the floor, something's not right. That 'not rightness' is often deemed as 'unorganized' and, I suppose, that unorganization leads to sense of 'dirtiness'. Not always. But on many occasions.

    You mentioned 'Jamadar' somewhere. Now his function seems to be more of keeping the dogs, cows (at least in some parts of Ahmedabad :)), thieves, people with unwanted intentions, etc. from sneaking in. Police, traffic police, law and order have a similar function but perhaps involving greater sophistication of thought. They are fairly well respected. Guess, 'shudras' refer more to the 'physical cleaning' of places. Repetitive and mundane.

    Look at cleaning as 'creation'. Like an old quote says... Sculpting is nothing but chipping away the unwanted rock to reveal the real form. In that sense, cleaning is also removal of the unnecessary to bring out the greatest form of anything. Remove unwanted technique and you get a Sehwag or David Warner :).

    Anyway, just wanted to jam with you. Hope this helps. :)

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  2. very interesting soni :) - "Cleaning as organisation(verb)". I think the makes a lot of sense. even the sculpting metaphor is provocative!

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