From objectifying women in cigarette ads in the 80’s to making parents realise that even daughters can make them jiyo sar utha ke, the woman in Indian advertising has come a long way. Advertisers’ attitudes towards women have changed and changed for the better; the community is more sensitive on how it places women in communication and is paying extra attention on the effect that continuous exposure to such messages will have on viewers and society at large.
If I do a top-of-mind recall exercise for portrayal of women in Indian advertising, there are few ads that strike and also highlight the evolution –
Briefly revisiting history, in the 80’s, when Indian advertising still suffered from the British influence and most advertising targeted the elite and was pushing western lifestyle with a majority of products taking to television advertising, there were cigarette brands with women in skimpy clothes hovering around the male model and there were lines like ‘for the pleasure of man’. There was this much loved Brooke “Bond Special Tea” commercial featuring Anuradha Patel. The ad had all the elements that make for a good commercial, but it promoted the stereotype that women are meant to do household chores and they are successful when the husband acknowledges and appreciates her efforts; I was a part of this in my early days in advertising.
There were balancing elements too in the 80’s. In the same product category there was Double Diamond Tea, where a young lady played a confident, independent woman propagating modern values. Alyque Padamsee played an important role in breaking the stereotype with memorable women characters like Lalitaji and the Liril girl. Lalitaji, inspired by his mother, was a shrewd and no nonsense lady, who portrayed the middle class housewives of the time. Lalitaji took her own decisions and had logical reasons to justify them. Next, the Liril girl, in what was one of the longest running ad campaigns in television/ cinema advertising, Alyque’s nymph was a combination of the fantasies of the Indian housewife and the sense of freshness. As the naysayers dismissed the bikini clad Liril girl bathing under a waterfall, consumers loved this commercial, and every woman in this country could identify herself under a waterfall, free from western up-market lifestyle trappings of bath tubs and lavish bathrooms.
I still remember in the late 90’s, marketers used to think a modern women is one who wears a salwar and not a saree. Such was the shallow thinking, till P&G came up with a real understanding of what a modern women want: equality. In Ariel’s husbands campaign with “Kuch kho ne ke liya kuch panaa padtha hai”.
The stereotyping continued till much of the 90’s with little exceptions, come 2000, especially towards the later half, we saw some ads that elevated the position of women, not particularly in the sequence of preference or time lines, there was an ad for Femina, where a young girl dressed like a bride walks around and as the viewers thought she is the bride, they find that the whole shaadi mahol was for her mother’s remarriage after the death of her husband.
2008 saw HDFC Standard’s ‘Sar utha ke jiyo’ campaign take a bold step, where a young daughter named Tulika Sharma writes a cheque for her dad’s new car with her own savings as she says “Tulika Sharma chahati hai ke uske dad style se travel karein” and her dad accepts after an initial hesitation with a look of pride on his face.
The recent Tanishq commercial sends out a bold message, where a dusky lady with a child is getting married again in Indian tradition. The ad, released first on the digital platform, was so loved that it garnered almost half a million hits on YouTube in the first week and most comments read ‘beautiful…’ ‘it made me cry…’. Also, the recent Bournvita spot where, when the child boxer takes off the helmet and we realise it’s a girl, is heartening.
Brand Fair n Lovely, often accused of portraying a flimsy image of women, too has gone through an evolution in its portrayal from ‘become fairer to get married or be appreciated by your husband’ (there was an ad in the 80’s featuring Juhi Chawla, who, after applying Fair n Lovely, her husband claims “meri Sheela kitni gori kitni pyaari”!) to the recent one, which promotes feeling confident, looking smart and achieving a deserving place in the society as a successful singer, commentator, etc.
I still argue for a better portrayal of women, as there are still some categories like deodorants, washing powders, automobiles, real estate and most of FMCGs that typecast women. But the fact that there has been a positive change cannot be denied. Examples like KBC gives us a hope that tomorrow could be a better day.
The author is Chief Creative Officer, India Sub-continent at Leo Burnett.