Prabhakar Mundkur
Guest Article

Now you see her, now you don’t…

Over the past few days, the good ol’ Myntra logo has been needlessly sexualized. Our guest author decodes the semiotics of it.

Myntra was launched in 2007. For 14 years, no one saw the logo as being offensive to women. Now quite suddenly e read the news that the old Myntra logo was offensive to women and Myntra had been forced to change the logo.

What happened after 14 years is quite shocking. Either our society has changed or this is just another freak incident.

Many of you might remember the old woman/young woman illustration which became famous along with other similar images.

Optical illusion
Optical illusion

Some people could only see the young woman and some, only the old. In the second image some could see a face and others could only see a vase.

So why do some people see some things that others don’t?

In the case of the old woman/young woman illustration two psychology professors found that what you see might well depend on your age. This optical illusion first appeared in an 1888 German postcard. With the help of Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing platform, researchers showed the illustration to 393 participants in the US between the ages of 18 and 68.

They were first asked if they could see an animal or a person. If they said they saw a person the next question they were asked was the gender of the person. If the first two questions were answered correctly, they were asked to estimate the woman’s age. Younger people tended to see the younger woman and older participants, the older woman.

I wonder if we could apply those results to the Myntra case. It is known that a man’s pupils dilate on seeing an attractive woman, and women’s pupils dilate when they see the picture of a child. So the question is, were men seeing a woman in the Myntra logo or were women seeing it? Or both?

Now you see her, now you don’t…

The objection seems to have come from a woman’s organisation, and that does not explain why they found it objectionable. We won’t know this because unfortunately it was not consumers who found it offensive, but an NGO. And an NGO is in the business of taking objection.

According to my friend Hamsini Shivkumar, of Leapfrog Consulting who is a semiologist (semiology is the science of signs):

- Even visual similarities may often be overlooked by some people as compared to others, because that specific reference may not come to mind, when seeing a sign.

- The offensiveness, disrespect, etc. are due to cultural conventions, prudishness on the one hand and 'wokeness' on the other - all of these cause 'supposed' sexual references to be interpreted extremely negatively.

- The pink colour in the logo is conventionally associated with femininity and hence this reinforces the idea of female sexuality.

There may well be some lessons to be learnt here from Gestalt psychology as well, which is based on the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Gestalt work largely involves perception and in particular visual perception. Strangely, Gestalt has also been used in the study of moral sense. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg said people’s development of moral standards passes through several levels.

Prabhakar Mundkur
Prabhakar Mundkur

Frankly it took me half a day to figure out why this might be offensive to women and got it only after it was specially pointed out to me. This may well be a case of what psychologists call inattention blindness. I also tried the experiment with a few women and they were all shocked that someone had seen something offensive in the logo. Their first reactions were ‘what a dirty mind’ and ‘how could someone be so imaginative as to misinterpret the logo.’

How do I explain why people saw an objectionable image in the Myntra logo? I call it selective attention. Selective attention can make you see things that many people don’t. Whether it is a scene out of Tandav or the logo of an online shopping app. I can’t help but feel it is dependent on the current cues that society provides us. And there is little doubt that our society has changed dramatically over the better part of the last decade.

On another note I see anyone with M in their logo in trouble. At this rate, we may have to conclude in general that the letter M might be found to be offensive to women.

(The author is an independent brand strategy advisor.)