Friday, 18 September 2015




The ‘modern’ middleclass ideal of suburbia: reaping the fruits of industrialisation while insulating ourselves from its side-effects by staying enveloped in an apparently benign, familial, protective, pseudo-naturalness… as Thomas Crowley shows us through the prism of one familiar household product.

Summer has arrived in Delhi, and with it the season’s urban fauna: wasps, ants, honeybees, and, most abundantly, mosquitoes. Cases of dengue are already being reported in the city, and Delhi residents are employing the usual defenses against mosquitoes, from nets to coils to plug-in vaporisers, to various creams and gels. In other words, it’s a good time of year for brands like All Out, Good Knight, Mortein, and – above all – Odomos.

By far the best selling mosquito repellent in India, Odomos has carefully built up its brand image, stressing the product’s safety and efficacy. In their branding effort, though, Odomosmarketers go beyond simple claims of effectiveness, and create deeper emotional and cultural resonances. The main emphasis of Odomos ads is the role of the mother in protecting her children. Not just any mother, of course, but a fair-skinned, thin, young ‘Mom’ wearing suitably ‘modern’ clothes, often with her equally fair-skinned, corporate-looking husband hovering in the background.

The purpose of all this maternal imagery is not just to convince mothers to buy the product; it’s also to evoke a sense of benevolent protection and care. Just as the idealised mother cares for her children, so too will Odomos care for you, the conscientious buyer, in this dangerous world filled with malaria, dengue and chikungunya. The buyer is meant to relate to the mother, but also, more crucially, to the children. To use Odomos is to be wrapped in a protective bubble of maternal protection; it is to be a child again, away from the worries and the stresses of adult life in a fast-paced modern world. No wonder that the image printed on every Odomos tube is of a happy family enclosed in an Odomos-generated force field.

The pastoral setting of many Odomos ads only strengthens this bubble of carefree nostalgia. There are rolling hills and verdant trees galore. The setting, though, has been strangely domesticated and suburbanised, reflecting an American vision of middle-class order, with neatly trimmed, immaculately green lawns, tidy streets and houses, and precocious-looking kids playing soccer. The ads evoke, not just a nostalgia for a lost past, but aspirations for a sanitised family life, free from mosquito-borne diseases, but even more than that, free from the messiness of present-day urban Indian life.

Odomos is made by Dabur, and the company as a whole has branded itself very effectively, often using similar strategies of linking safety to maternal care to a fulfilling, middle-class family life. Dabur is generally associated with mild Ayurvedic cures, thought to be safe alternatives to harsher allopathic treatments. Odomos benefits from this association, despite the fact that the product is, at its core, a powerful chemical synthesized in laboratories.

The pastoral themes, the nostalgic simplicity – these serve as effective smokescreens hiding the true nature of Odomos. Yes, Odomos may provide safety from mosquito-borne diseases, but it is effective because it is a potent chemical that was developed to interfere with the olfactory systems of mosquitoes. Specifically, the active ingredient in Odomos is N,N-Diethylbenzamide (DEB), a close relative of N,N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide (DEET).

DEET is the chemical most widely used in insect repellents, but it can act as an irritant to the skin, and, in extremely rare cases, has been linked to seizures. It remains the gold standard of the industry, though, because it is so effective, offering protection for up to six hours. DEB is a less common variant, and independent studies have shown that, compared to DEET, it is more likely to irritate the skin, and lasts for a shorter amount of time. Another study concluded that, when inhaled in high volumes, DEB can cause “irreversible depression in respiratory frequency,” an effect not found with DEET. But DEET has its own problems; one study indicated that park rangers who were exposed to high levels of DEET were more likely to experience insomnia and mood swings. As various studies make clear, both DEET and DEB have their share of potential side effects.

Repellents made from DEET and DEB may still be worth using, since they really do ward off disease-carrying mosquitoes, with fewer side effects than mosquito coils and vaporisers. One could rationally argue that the benefits of Odomos, or of similar products, far outweigh the costs. But this, of course, is not the argument that Odomos, as a brand, is making. Like any effective brand, Odomos is targeting the buyers’ emotions, fears, and aspirations, not their capacity for cost-benefit analysis.

However, the makers of Odomos do put a patina of scientific justification on top of their emotional appeals. On the Odomos website, there is a reference to a study conducted at the National Institute of Malaria Research, which found that Odomos was as effective as DEET in keeping away mosquitoes. What they don’t mention on the website is the following information (readily available in the study itself): “The authors acknowledge M/s Balsara Home Products (now Dabur Research Foundation) for sponsoring the study as a contract research project and for gratis supply of Advanced Odomos and DEET samples.” A study paid for by Dabur finds that Odomos is effective. How surprising!

But this study ignores the real question: what are the risks of using Odomos? The invaluable website cites the following risks for DEB: irritating to the eyes; irritating to the respiratory system; irritating to the skin. Chemical Book also lists all the global manufacturers of DEB. The only one in India is Chemspure and its associate company Chemsworth, which is – according to the company website – “a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Enterprise offering Import-Export Services in duty free area.”

Dabur may have started out as a tiny, quaint purveyor of Ayurvedic remedies, but the company is now firmly embedded in the global industrial supply chain. For instance, it recently announced its decision to invest 350 crore rupees in capacity expansion, building new factories in India and setting up plants in Tunisia, South Africa and Myanmar.

The suburban life, celebrated by Odomos ads, has no place for such realities. The whole point of suburbia is to insulate oneself from these truths, to enjoy the fruits of industrial production while ignoring the system that underlies this production. It is a glorious world where everything is green, mothers protect their children, and no one asks what, exactly, is in Odomos.

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