Namah Chawla

ASCI chiefs on gender stereotyping and portrayal of women in ads

Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani felt ASCI guidelines on gender stereotyping have come a bit too late.

Why should a typical Indian brand’s ad start with a man reading a newspaper and the woman making him a cup of tea? Why should an ideal family in any ad have an older boy and a younger girl, why not a family with two girls. The increasing instances of such ads have made the audience conditioned to a few gender stereotypes. While some of these things are blatantly obvious, some others may not be.

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) as a follow up for its GenderNext report (released in October 2021) has rolled out a set of guidelines that attempts to guard against harmful gender stereotypes. The guidelines were released at an event held at India Habitat Centre and presided over by Union Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani. ASCI’s chairman Subhash Kamath and secretary general Manisha Kapoor were also present.

ASCI chiefs on gender stereotyping and portrayal of women in ads

The release of the guidelines makes even more sense in the backdrop of Layer’r Shot’s recent advertisement that did not sit well with neither the audience nor industry experts due to the offensive portrayal of women shown in its two ad films.

Speaking about the controversy, Kamath said, “Advertising has the power to influence mindsets and decision making and bring about behavioural changes. Hence, we need to help shape the narrative. The recent controversy clearly implies that there is a need of sensitisation, in terms of how we portray genders in advertising.”

While ASCI has around 800 members, not as many attended the event. Irani started her address by pointing out this and how the lack of attendance of these ASCI members says a lot about the seriousness of the advertising industry when it comes to the use of harmful gender stereotypes in ads.

“Today, when I tune in to television sets, there are ads that say that men will be men. Today I have to work with ASCI and other ministries to get a deodorant spray ad off television. That is why I say that the time for incremental change is over. As we have lost so much in this wait, the first thing ASCI needs to do is to contact those 800 members and ask them what they think about gender,” suggested the minister.

Explaining how stricter actions can be implemented rather than just pulling off an ad, Kamath says that it is the law that has to decide what penalty a brand pays when they make such an ad.

Subhash Kamath
Subhash Kamath

“As self-regulators, our primary objective was to make sure that the ad was pulled off immediately. And we succeeded in that. The law gets to decide whether a monetary penalty has to be levied or the product is banned,” explains Kamath.

While ASCI already has certain guidelines in place to deal with extremely blatant violations and indecent or vulgar ads, the recent ones aim to move the needle on not just the bigger violations but on the ones that the audience might not even register, at once.

ASCI also has a panel of experts and provides a service called ‘Advertising Advice’. Brands can use this service to send their campaigns to ASCI before they produce them and can know any kind of potential violations. These checks by the self-regulatory body can help brands save a lot of production money, as well.

Kamath adds, “The advertising industry does not work on pre-approvals because agencies and advertisers are responsible enough. Let us not paint the industry black, due to one such incidence. The members are responsible and these guidelines have not been worked upon due to one such instance. ASCI has been working on it for five months now.”

However, this particular incident further highlights the importance of abiding by these guidelines and the dire need for sensitising the industry in terms of gender portrayal.

While ASCI was very prompt in its response to the deodorant ad, and it was taken down by the brand post an apology, many industry experts said that the brand should have faced more serious consequences. But the current system does not allow for anything more. Does a self-regulatory body like ASCI needs some more powers, especially when such cases happen?

Kapoor elaborates, “ASCI is a voluntary compliance body and our role was to call out the ads, write to the advertiser and tell the channels to take them down. The further action needs to be taken by regulatory authorities. I understand that there is a lot of anger and just pulling off the ad might not feel enough, however there are other regulators who have to step in here.”

Manisha Kapoor
Manisha Kapoor

She says that it was shocking to see how an ad got through multiple internal checks and did not see any objection from the various teams that worked on it. “How come no one thought that there was a problem with it. This indicates the multiple levels of failure that happened and made such an ad appear in public domain.”

If consumers come across any ads that are offensive, they can simply bring them to ASCI’s notice by sending it to its official WhatsApp complaints number. Instead of raising such issues on social media, Kapoor suggests that audience should use ASCI’s mechanism to officially register the complaint.

“Consumers being vigilant and not just discussing among themselves and formally lodging a complaint is the strongest way in which they can take action against advertising which is not good for them,” states Kapoor.

Sexual attraction is a theme that is often used by brands to sell a product. Be it deos, cars or underwear. One of the important themes of these guidelines is that women should not be objectified and this depends on how she is portrayed in ads of certain kinds of brands.

As per Kapoor, a lingerie or a condom ad might not pose any problem, but how a woman is being shown in the context of that product may. Is she being portrayed just like an object or does she actually have any say or role in the ad?

She adds, “It is not necessary that a fully clothed women might mean the right depiction. As we saw in the deo ad that there was no nudity in it but still it was a highly derogatory ad that was playing on the minds of women. Not every condom ad will be problematic. There are certain categories that need to be more careful than the others but if they are then ASCI is absolutely fine.”

Meanwhile there can be brands who might carry out a campaign to generate controversy and benefit from that organic reach. Timely intervention like what ASCI did this time can curb spread, but still the ad lives on forever online and is still available across social media channels like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

Mentioning whether or not a brand will benefit from such an organic reach, Kapoor says, “In the long-term, no brand can benefit from such ads, because people are not associating the brand with any positive sentiment. Intermediaries also need to step in here and caution the mediums like YouTube and Twitter when any such content is making rounds despite being pulled off by authorities.”

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