Are marketers breaking or building gender stereotypes?

Guest Column: Senior Professor of Marketing Dr Ashita Aggarwal & Research Associate Rachna Wadhwa at Bhavan's SPJIMR on brands taking a sensitive approach towards representing gender in ads

e4m by Dr Ashita Aggarwal & Rachna Wadhwa
Updated: Jun 20, 2020 10:26 AM
gender

Have you ever wondered that most advertisements show women working in the kitchen, taking care of kids and prioritizing family and home overwork! How many times the stories we see and hear or advertisements on television show men cleaning the home or taking a break from work to nurture kids? Probably never! 

India is one the largest consumer markets in the world and women are the most important decision-makers for most categories in the consumer segment. Therefore it is important for the brands to focus on women and connect with their values, lifestyles and beliefs.  However, the paradox that defines the Indian woman confuses most brands. Behind every successful and professional woman who puts a confident and brave front at the workplace and fearlessly adds value to the organizations and stakeholders lives a woman who is hesitant to express her desires at home and lives in the constant fear of being ridiculed and harassed. For every qualified woman who earns as much as her male counterpart exists a highly educated and qualified woman who decided to give up on her dreams and spends her time taking care of the household to accommodate her husband’s aspirations. Together they define the many facets of Indian women which the marketers need to be sensitive to. Most marketers prefer to take a safer route conforming to established practices and norms while some do stick their neck out to challenge these conventions. 

Some brands celebrate the empowered woman but do not challenge conventional roles.

A good example is the ‘Ariel multitasking women’ advertisement where a successful working woman manages her household while taking care of her professional obligations. When the father sees the hardships and struggles of her own daughter, he recognizes the efforts made by ‘his own wife’ over the years. The brand here very smartly appeals to the modern young women who wish to carve her own identity but still conforms to traditional responsibilities and the roles stated for her by society. She challenges norms but within the set boundaries. ‘Airtel Women boss’ is another advertisement where the brand celebrates the professional success of women, a multitasker who may be doing better than her husband but in the end comes back home to cook for the husband and manage the household, thus ‘conforming’ to the norms defined for a ‘wife’ and a ‘woman’. 

Some brands have the courage to break the stereotypes and challenge all the conventions.

The advertisement which announced the change and caught everyone’s attention was the ‘Tanishq remarriage’ advertisement in which a dusky, single mother remarries with all elaborate Indian rituals. ‘Anouk’s #Bold and Beautiful’ series celebrates the choices women make- be it single status, pregnancy, parenting etc. ‘Titan Raga’s #HerLifeHerChoices’ advertisement surprises all by showcasing a woman who walks out of her marriage as she wanted to live life her way but chooses to have cordial conversations with her ex-husband without compromising on her dignity and identity. Advertisements, in my opinion, are a reflection of our society and it is so gratifying to see that unlike the past, a single mother, a divorced woman, a dusky beauty or a widow remarriage is no longer a taboo. And how can I not mention the Flipkart advertisement about raising ‘gender-equal’ and not make separate rules for bringing up a female and a male child? The advertisement beautifully challenges the stereotypes we have all grown up with! Many other brands including Nykaa, Biba, etc are following the suit. But if we carefully analyse, all these brands are targeting young urban women. We are still to see neutral household brands walking the untrodden path. 

And many brands are still trapped under stereotypes

It is always easy to confirm established practices and norms. Hence most brands still show women under the veils of age-old stereotypes. Though every woman today desires a unique place, these advertisements are still able to resonate with them because deep within Indian women need validation from her family, husband and kids. She still struggles to find her identity and searches for happiness in others’ eyes. She feels guilty to live for herself and is obliged to be adaptive and ‘giving’. For example, many male-centric brands in categories like automobiles and personal care objectify women. Homecare brands showcase women struggling with stubborn stains in the kitchen and clothes. Health drinks project mothers as ‘soccer moms’ and being responsible for addressing the needs of her family. Many high involvement categories including cars, financial services etc. show men as decision-makers and women playing a support role. Most women personal care brands, overtly or otherwise emphasize the importance of ‘looking good’ and ‘behaving at her best’. 

With more education, there is definitely a change but it is very slow. The deep-rooted traditional values will first attach conventional roles of a woman and then assign her an added entity of a professional, an artist or a business person. 

Stereotypes are dangerous for a progressive society like ours because they are barriers to society’s growth but ones framed by the educated elite is even more lethal. The problem with an educated mind is that it rationalizes stereotypes with confidence and sidesteps accountability under a cloak of rationality. It searches for evidence and endows rationality on discrimination. 

Someone once told me that an ideal woman lives her entire life within three roles- a daughter, a wife and a mother. And that set me thinking that many women perhaps prefer to walk this belief as an easily accepted option rather than fighting the world to carve a separate path for themselves. For them, profession or career can accompany if it fits within these traditional roles but not the other way! She is the one who needs to ‘adjust’ but no one will adjust to her ways. And probably that’s the reason why most marketers, especially in the consumer products category choose to walk the safer path because they know that their stories are consumed in living rooms and not the bedrooms. 

Advertisements are both ‘influenced by’ and also ‘influence’ the social rules. Hence marketers bear a very critical role of shaping the ‘society and culture of tomorrow’. Salute to the brands who have shown the courage to challenge stereotypes and are attempting to blur the boundaries of gender stereotypes.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com.

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