Despite the progress in the 21st century, the portrayal of women in Indian advertising still leaves much to be desired.
The portrayal of women in Indian advertising still leaves much to be desired. While a few brands have undeniably redesigned their messages to be more progressive, a casual survey undertaken by watching television for an extended period of time, would reveal that the larger volume of content is still deeply mired in the past.
In the 21st century, where so much has changed and the role of women in shaping the world has gone from strength to strength, this lingering of archaic ideas represents a disconnect with an evolving reality. It undermines the progress of those with the XX chromosomes and stymies a society in its challenging quest towards true gender equality.
It is time some of these codes, which subtly and not so subtly shape modern culture, were identified and amended, before things reach a ‘code red’ status.
1. Serving up some ‘food for thought’
There is a famous anecdote around how Indra Nooyi was treated, when she came home late and excited with the news that she had been made the president of PepsiCo. Her mother told her to go and get some milk first, before she made her revelation.
This is mirrored in many a brand tale, even when it tries to appear contemporary. The female protagonist might be in an elevated corporate position, yet, her eventual dharma, independent of her ongoing karma, still seems to lie in coming back home and cooking for her loved ones. Putting food on the table always remains her crucial KRA. No delegation, or outsourcing of that task to a cloud kitchen, seems to absolve her of this.
One only has to attend two back-to-back meetings at the office, to realise how unrealistic and downright unfair this expectation is. Keeping ravenous business stakeholders at bay is one Herculean task. Then coming home, only to find family members hungrily poised at the dinner table with bated breath, waiting for one to conjure up culinary specials, is quite another.
2. The need to ‘man up’ important decisions
The ability to take critical decisions independently, is one of the most authentic signs of true liberation. To be sure, some progress has been made on this front. Women are increasingly shown at the steering wheel of things - both literally and metaphorically, probably because they are seen to be more ‘driven’ these days (couldn’t resist that pun).
However, often, there are subtle cues which undermine the forward steps taken. There is usually a male authority figure around, either in full view, or lurking in the background, like a verbally challenged guardian angel. Most decisions are corroborated by him in some way, either with a nod of the head, or flashing an irritatingly benign, all-knowing smile. There always appears to be a back-seat driver. And till that is the case, women will never be seen as free to set their own course, and drive as they please.
3. The ‘dark side’ of the fair game
When it comes to this issue, it is probably the most visible offender of all in brand communication - the deviously created necessity of Indian women to be fair. It has cruelly destroyed the confidence of many a young girl in the past, and slyly continues to do so even in the new era. To be honest, this fixation has lingered in global consciousness for centuries.
Think about how everything good was deemed fair and all evil was dark, this probably being a result of previous European occupation of the globe. But in India, this association of fairness with attractiveness, especially in the case of women, has been particularly damaging.
Brands based around this message, have certainly not been fair in their interactions with women, however lovely their ephemeral promises of a changed reality might have seemed. And while of late, the words used in communication for this category might have been tactically changed to avoid controversy, the core messaging still essentially remains one of a similar, skin and soul rash-inducing nature.
4. The ‘targeted even when not the target’ predicament
Perhaps, even more disturbing, remains how women are pictured in ads around brands talking to men. To say these depictions are primal, would be an understatement. To muse that they show a severe lack of understanding of what impresses women, would probably be euphemistic.
Typically, these ads might get defended as playful exaggerations. But to even contemplate that a sane woman would lose all her perspective, just because she had a whiff of some man’s deodorant/perfume/bodywash, and would then proceed to act as if nothing was in her control anymore, is not merely disrespectful, it is akin to adding fuel to fire.
In a country where the safety of women is a rising concern, this is sending all the wrong signals. Add to that, how women are included in narratives of male-centric brands, as mere props ever willing to mindlessly fawn over some idiotic small victory the male protagonist has achieved, and the problem begins to become clear. Brand stories created for men, are an even bigger threat to the societal perception of women.
5. Avoiding the ‘curse of the superwoman’
Hearteningly, real and inspiring women-centred storytelling, is beginning to be seen more often in Indian advertising these days. However, as it is often the case, there is also an urge to overcompensate. To go from one extreme of emaciation to another of extraordinary empowerment.
Some tales are emerging, and will continue to emerge, of women who do it all. Fight crime, captain hostile takeovers, pursue passions to award-winning results, counsel their children to greatness, and balance the national budget, all before an evening cup of tea.
Whilst men have always had the liberty of being men, it is important to extend women the same courtesy. The ability to be unashamedly authentic is an absolute boon.
Allowing women to be fallible will, perhaps, do a lot more to even the game. From lofty picturisations around the ideal mother, wife, daughter and sister, more progress will happen if women are endowed with the license to be blissfully idle in brand communication. Everyone needs a break, and it is time we gave our women protagonists one.
In conclusion, it is a trifle ironic that in the land of Durga, Bhavani and Kali, this is even being discussed. These are just five brand communication ‘crimes’ against women. There are many more. The intent was only to start a conversation around these things, and make people more sensitive to what is being communicated.
To make them aware, even if something is in the background, its implications are very much at the forefront. And that the memes we create leave massive impressions on young minds. This is not about taking everything to the realms of Wonder Woman, more like honestly trying to pay tribute to the wonder that is inherent in every woman.
Vinay Kanchan is a brand storyteller, innovation catalyst and the author of ‘Sportivity’, ‘Lessons from the Playground’, and ‘The Madness Starts at 9’.
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