Indian ads continue to belie reality

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Stuck in the humdrum of an old storyline, where their anatomy is highlighted to multiply product sale, women are in a dire need of a new, fresh canvas
By Deepti Jain

From Latlitaji of 1970s, a no-nonsense housewife, to the female models of macho products (Axe, Wildstone, Manforce condoms…) or the new Bournvita mom of 2015, advertisers continue to depict the Indian woman either as sati savitris or sex objects who are either submissive or hot-house flowers or both. Instead of portraying stereotypes, businesses would do well to couch their messages in portrayals of real situations peopled by real men and women. The “fairer sex” needs to be shown as the second wheel of society that she is.

Reinforcing old notions

If one looks closely, women in advertisements are promoted as eye candy. They are usually shallow, beauty-driven and easily fooled by appearances—whether physical or that of wealth and power.

In the AXE or the Wildstone deodorant commercial, a macho model is shown surrounded by skinny women who are fascinated by the deodorant’s smell. The main focus of this ad is on sex appeal enhanced by the deodorant rather than on the deodorant itself. “In ads like these there is a complete mismatch between the products and the role of women. Advertisers are unnecessary dragging women into the picture,” says sociologist GK Karanth.

Though advertising as a field is attracting best of brains, including intelligent women, who are coming up with witty plots, the gender script remains the same, unfortunately. Well-known advertiser Prahlad Kakkar told VON: “Women are shown in such traditional roles because of the rigid mindset of the viewers, especially the middle class who do not want any major change. To increase the sale of the product we need to hit the right chord with the consumer, to influence them for spending money.”

The new Airtel commercial on data networking in which husband works under his wife in the office, shows the lady giving orders to her husband in professional life. But when it comes to household chores the rule is engraved on the stone –“women cook”. This commercial, though seemingly progressive, does have a very sexist tone.

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The Harpic ad of toilet bowl cleaner, in which a television star suddenly enters the house, shows it is the only duty of a woman to clean and battle bacteria in the toilet. It seems a particular role has been assigned to woman to play. Sadly, this affects the society’s mindset. Also, Johnson and Johnson, a brand talking about new borns, has a doctor mother, who returns from work, goes immediately for baby bath. No more tears. Mommy is here. At your service. Forever.

Basically these advertisements have all the ingredients to be a good commercial. But the problem is, they are reinforcing the patriarchal stereotype that women are only meant for doing domestic chores, they are inferior to men and cannot be independent.

Reason to rejoice

However, a few brands have departed from the script and modified their marketing strategies to match the wavelength and thought processes of the 21st century Indians. They are striving to depict a society with gender equality, JSW steel has come up with a remarkable advertisement—“Will of Steel”— based on the story of Geeta Phogat (the first Indian women to win gold medal in 2010 Commonwealth Games for wrestling) who brazenly stepped out of her home defying all odds of societal pressure. The ad breaks the stereotype that it is not necessary that one must be born a man to be a wrestler.

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Flavia Agnes, lawyer and activist, told VON: “It is indeed good that advertisers are attempting to bring equality among the gender role. They are going along with the current tide. Women are becoming more vigilant now regarding their roles in society.”

Much deserved kudos has been accorded to the ad campaign titled “Brave and Beautiful” of Vatika hair oil inspired millions who are fighting the dreadful disease of cancer. The campaign conveys the message that a woman does not need to have hair to look pretty. Beauty is all about looking beyond the physical appearance.

Another ad —“#Is Laundry Only a Woman’s Job”— of detergent company Ariel matic has highlighted the gender inequality in household chores by raising a poignant question: Is laundry only a woman’s job? The campaign urged men in particular, to share the burden of household work with their beloved.

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Also, the new avatar of Nirma, with its popular jingle “Hema, Rekha Jaya aur Sushma”, which once showed docile homemakers content doing the laundry, now shows four bold and confident ladies getting their hands dirty while pushing out an ambulance stuck in a ditch, as men stand by and watch. The 40- second film attempts to showcase the switch from women as home-makers to women as change-makers.

Insidious effect

If gender equality is one of the goals that the government and businesses pay lip service to at least at the policy level, there is need to eschew sexism and instead emphasize on the natural woman: just the way she is. The portrayal of the contemporary woman who is independent, confident and very comfortable in her own skin might help in this case.

Adding another layer to the problem, women viewers get influenced by such ads and fall into a pit of inferiority complexes as they are not able to see the larger commercial goal. It all leads to a vicious circle.

Though there are certain guidelines provided to the ad agencies by the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) with regards to the making of the advertisements, the rules are broken due to lack of monitoring.

If advertisements are a reflection of society’s mores then they should not encourage such ideas. As American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. has also said: “What passes for culture in my head is really a bunch of commercials”.

Advertisements play an important role in formulating public opinion, and thus are a vital and hugely responsible sphere of the social media. They need to be as innovative and as close to the truth as possible. Because let’s face it. Any artifice or paint to project a woman is a flimsy and ridiculous attempt to understand a woman.