'There is a positive shift in the representation of women in advertising'

At IAA: Voice of Change summit, a panel of industry experts discussed at length the portrayal of gender in advertising and how advertising must catch up with culture

e4m by Sonam Saini
Published: Aug 1, 2022 8:13 AM  | 4 min read

The International Advertising Association (IAA), India chapter, recently hosted a summit on gender sensitisation in media, covering all aspects from a 30-second TVC to a 3-hour film.

To discuss the portrayal of women in advertising, industry experts like Santosh Desai, MD, Futurebrands Consulting; Prasun Basu, Head of Growth and Digital transformation – Kantar, and Dr A L Sharada, Director, Population First, spoke on topics such as ‘Why advertising must catch up with culture?’, ‘Gender portrayal in advertising’ and ‘Moving the needle’.  

Desai spoke on the cultural surround and the shifts that we have seen when it comes to women, particularly in mainstream India. He spoke about women from relatively small pockets, where change is extremely visible, and in heartland India.

Desai shared that overall there is a positive shift in representation of women in advertising and it's important to acknowledge it. “There are less egregious examples of advertising of the kind that are exploitative and sexist, although we have some notable exceptions too. There is a shift but it's still confined to some categories and some consumer classes largely. I think the mental model seems to be that there is a part of India that has moved dramatically and that, of course, gets echoed but the default option still seems to be to go back to a certain sort of a comfortable stereotype.” He went on to say that there is a general sense of failure in advertising to capture the magnitude of change.  

He also pointed out that most women's stories are about overcoming obstacles, which is fine and also true, but there needs to be some weightlessness, and some ease in the depiction of women. "There is annoyance with advertising that seeks to empower but frequently ends up exaggerating what is wrong.”

Talking about the business case for mainstream progressive gender portrayal, Basu said, “It is an intersection of what we know is the way we should be going, and what is being done now. We see the progress happening, but is it happening enough? Is the question?”

Basu shared that advertising plays a huge role in society today. It goes beyond just promoting brands though it was designed to promote brands, but we have learned and understood over time that actually it builds values and creates cultures. 

He also mentioned that advertising has been well recognized for a long time now to be an instrument of change beyond just building brands and that's the positive effect that advertising can have on society. 

“A strong business case for brands to pursue the strategy of mainstreaming positive gender portrayal,” he shared. 

Speaking on the topic - Moving the needle - Sharada said, “The needle is moving but slowly and steadily. We are having fewer and fewer stereotypical or offensive ads. If we look at the average GSS by year there is slow change and 2020 was a good year because there were a lot of ads from the health and wellness and they were all very inclusive and gender-sensitive because of Covid.”

“Ads targeting women talk about the aspirations of women and they try to project a new kind of the new woman in the ads so the ads are much more gender sensitive than those targeting men.”

Dr Sharada concluded the discussion with an observation about ‘when we start seeing equal’ and ‘when we show equal’. “First we should learn to see the world around us from a gender lens, and once we are capable of seeing or once we learn to see the world through a gender lens keeping those four or five points in mind then the communication that you develop will also be gender sensitive.”

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