Why Indian ads still need to redefine the way they portray women

We take an in-depth look at whether Indian advertising has succeeded in leaving behind a dual gender outlook

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Mar 9, 2020 3:32 PM
Women's Day

Gender-biased advertising - for decades - has encouraged discrimination based on age, ethnicity, ability, and sexual orientation. Harmful stereotypes in advertising may have remained unchallenged for years. Has the advertising industry been able to wholly and authentically reflect the diversity of the world we live in? The green shoots of progressive communication narratives about women may well have sprouted but it often continues to be problematic - be it in their visual imagery of femininity or making the one sex look bad to make the other look good.

How far has advertising succeeded in leaving a dual gender outlook? We ask the leading ladies in Indian advertising how far have we come in this regard and how far do we still need to go...

The positives

It is for sure that Indian brands have been pushing the women empowerment narrative further, with more nuanced takes on gender equality than ever before. Be it campaigns like Ariel’s Share The Load, Havells’ Hawa Badlegi, Tata Tea Jaago Re 2.0 or the Dalda spot, which features a mother encouraging her son to try his hand at cooking, Indian ads have come a long in the way they are now subverting gender stereotypes.

Kainaz Karmakar

Moreover, there are also brands like Bumble that call on women to make the first move. Kainaz Karmakar, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy India, feels that the representation of women in advertising has shifted considerably. “This correction was strongly needed. For decades, the female form was used as a lazy and disrespectful way to attract attention. Not just advertising, many other industries were guilty of the same. If you switch on the television today, you will see a palpable change in this. Advertising is full of stories of women empowerment,” she remarks.

But isn’t it too much? “Even if it is, so be it. In this case, excess is not a bad thing. The message that women are equal and empowered needs to be said, repeatedly,” says Karmakar.

Brands like Tanishq, Biba, Titan Raga, among others have been leading the change by questioning the norms, breaking archetypal stereotypes and updating traditions in their spots.

Ajeeta Bharadwaj

Ajeeta Bharadwaj, National Planning Director, Wunderman Thompson India, reveals that today you see far and fewer instances of blatant objectification of women, far fewer wall-flowers and far fewer cases of openly sexist copy. “There is no doubt that Indian advertising has made great strides as far as portrayal of women is concerned,” she remarks.

The Cannes Lions festival too has managed to turn it into something positive in the form of their Glass Lion award, which was created in 2015, to recognise advertising that shatters gender stereotypes: something that provokes the industry to not just put itself in check, but also to actively think about positive change.

Priya Gurnani

Priya Gurnani, Senior Creative Director, Publicis Worldwide, Mumbai, acknowledges that be it household brands like Ariel to condom ads like Durex, the narrative is indeed changing. “The woman is no longer shown as second to men but as an equal. Advertising is doing its fair share of breaking the conditioning of the society. I am glad advertisers today understand and value the powerful tool we carry - communication. The progress is slow but steady,” she explains.

Charity has begun at home even with advertising agencies realising the importance of practising what they preach. Hence, the wave of equal pay and equal opportunities, Gurnani notes. Sharing a recent instance she points out that the advertising community is becoming aware of our social responsibilities and the sensitivities surrounding gender equality. “I recently went for a meeting where my client pointed out that my portrayal of the woman in my script was regressive. That got me thinking, it’s not just men but women that need to fight their own conditioning. We have a long way to go. We as advertisers or marketers are definitely bearing the torch,” says Gurnani.

The flawed woman narrative

Thought leaders contend that as an industry we might have come a long way but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

Bharadwaj says that the depiction, many a times, comes across as more posed than real. “Sometimes it feels as though this change has happened because of the strong cultural push towards including women and portraying them right, rather than because of a deeper change in attitudes. So though any change for the better is heartening, sometimes the soul is missing. Being a woman, I still cringe when I see one formulaic women empowerment ad after another. Sometimes you see over-corrections happening. Men are portrayed as villains and gatekeepers, so that women can emerge as true heroes. Superwomen who are strong in body, tough in mind, confident bosses in power corridors, cool cat moms at home. Real women have strengths and weaknesses and many qualities beyond the standard ingredient of confidence: they are loyal, they make great friends and partners, they are mischievous, they are softies. This is what makes them real. I think the more we start basing the women in our ads not on Wonder Woman but on women we know in real life: friends, siblings, moms, partners, colleagues, the more balanced the portrayals will feel,” she remarks.

Furthermore, Bhardwaj recollects a client telling her about an ad research around a narrative that was largely around a father and child, with the mother present in every frame and contributing little to it. “Some of the respondents caught on and asked why the woman didn’t have a role. Did she plan to make a difference to the child’s life or was she just content to be an onlooker?! I think that when women on this side of the screen are evolving so fast, we will really have to accelerate the speed at which the women on the screen change in response,” she establishes.

Chakravarti, too, pronounces that while we’ve taken many steps forward, there are some bastions yet to fall. “The lady in the ad today does (at least 95% of the time), still need fair skin and a tiny waist. And I’m not talking only about fairness cream ads.” She adds that a lot of brands do take the easy way out - pit a woman against a chauvinistic man or a regressive one, or a lecherous one even. A lot of brands do take the easy way out by pitting a woman against a chauvinistic man or a regressive one, or even a lecherous one. “Now it’s all the rage to put men in their place. Almost like one can’t be a hero[ine] without vilifying the other. It’s a phase that was bound to come - one of overcompensation. To make up for decades of heaving bosoms, fluttering lashes and coquettish smiles,” says Chakravarti.

What else needs to be fixed

In diminishing feminism down to a mere tagline there are some brands that embrace fem-vertising just with an intention to increase market share, an exploitation of feminism by advertising. Karmakar warns that if women empowerment is just a hook to get eyeballs for a brand’s communication, then it is just underestimating the intelligence of women. “I would caution brands and agencies against underestimating women. Let the brand really care about the place of women in the society. Let the message be true to the brand. When they do, it shows,” she advises.

A research that examined 2,000 films from the Cannes Lions archive and 10 years of Cannes Lions Film and Film Craft winners and shortlists used automation to analyse gender representation in advertising, with the aim of raising awareness of explicit and implicit gender bias in advertising. The research indicated that there are twice as many male characters in ads as female characters and 25% of ads feature men only, in comparison to just 5% featuring women only. Similarly, 18% of the said ads feature male voices, while less than 3% of ads feature female voices only.

Tripti Lochan

What bothers Tripti Lochan, Co-CEO of VMLY&R Asia, is that women are not featured in ads for products like insurance, home loans or financial services. “I think while people are becoming more conscious of their portrayal of women in ads, there are some age-old stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated. A 2017 study showed that men are 62% more likely to be shown as intelligent, whereas women are 48% more likely to be shown in the kitchen – and I find these statistics appalling. We need to move advertising to reflect where we want the future to go, with a more equal gender outlook,” she underlines.

Garima Khandelwal

According to Garima Khandelwal, CCO, Mullen Lintas, a part of the reason for the industry’s failure to flesh out diversity in ads remains an ad’s requirement to be one that is relevant to the most common viewer which usually leads to ad-makers borrowing from stereotypes. “How does one define femininity? With the length of someone’s hair or the wardrobe style? It is as broad as it gets. You can get specific when you are targeting a certain age or demographic, otherwise, in advertising you are usually trying to relate and be relevant to the most common viewer. And hence it gets generic, and safer so it alienates no one. You have to borrow from the stereotypes, so the time spent in story telling is saved. You can pick up from the last ad you just saw, a story of a “normal” household. While many categories have broken stereotypes of how femininity gets portrayed, A 32-year-old Meera with a 4-year-old-child with a job and a working husband needs to throw different images in our heads. Unfortunately, it’s the same image that comes to mind, gets put on research-finding presentations and gets portrayed onto the ads,” Khandelwal asserts.

However, in adland there’s hope. “And it will pass. As an industry, we are in the process of shedding stereotypes. And if we all try hard enough, one day, we’ll emerge neutral,” Chakravarti retorts.

Here’s hoping that social, political and economic equality of the sexes doesn’t boil down to a bit of pink-washing once yearly and that brands and ad-makers remember that SHE exists even outside the month of March...

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