Wake Up, Advertising!

Many 'progressive' ads show women struggling to achieve basic freedoms and tend to celebrate the 'bestower' of these freedoms, often the father, husband or a male sibling

The film opens with a family at breakfast. Each member has a different demand. No problem! The packaged instant food brand lets her whip it up in minutes, that too, with chutney and a smile.

A pile of dishes clutters the sink. The man decides to come to the rescue and take on the load. His wife is so impressed, she praises him to the point of being indebted.

A lady gets into a cab. Dazzled by her beauty, the driver can’t help but stare at her. And she just coyly smiles.

Sounds familiar? These are ads that have been flashed in our faces, so much so that we don’t even give them a second look. But who are these women they represent because real women moved miles ahead, a long time ago!

The stubbornness of implicit codes

Ad after ad, we see patterns that, on closer examination, reveal implicit codes that advertising reinforces. Whether it is the housewife bearing the burden of domestic labour with a fixed smile or a young woman gleefully accepting a stranger’s gaze, whether it’s women being educated by male authority, or their bodies used to add sensual appeal to products ranging from biscuits to phones; some tropes in advertising seem to have survived decades of evolution in society. Ads that depict women in “progressive” roles reveal these implicit biases even more- because they tend to showcase women doing new tasks but continuing to bear the burden of domestic chores. Often the professional women in ads are shown returning home, rarely in a work setting. Being a doctor or a teacher ultimately seems to help her only to be a better mother, one who knows how to get rid of germs in clothes or who helps her kids brush their teeth well!

While more women make an appearance in financial product ads, they are more likely to be shown as spenders, carrying shopping bags. In contrast, it is difficult to think of a financial product ad featuring men with overstuffed shopping bags. Women in automobile ads usually occupy the passenger seat, with childlike expressions as they are driven around. They are rarely given the wheel or shown driving in off-road conditions.

Progressive, or not really?

Many “progressive” ads show women struggling to achieve basic freedoms and tend to celebrate the “bestower” of these freedoms, often the father, husband or a male sibling.

By over celebrating the man for boiling water, or putting an insurance buying woman on a pedestal, ads that intend to break stereotypes only end up reinforcing that such situations are so exceptional that they deserve a round of applause. How about showing men sharing domestic labour without dramatic fanfare, or showing women enjoying a breezy relationship with financial products? If new portrayals are presented as normal, rather than an aberration, then that might go a long way in addressing some of these issues.

Advertisers and creators may argue that what they do is a mere reflection of society, but that is not how advertising works. Advertising images are pervasive and repetitive. Ad after ad, category

after category, and decade after decade, some images and codes are constantly reinforced. And once the problematic stereotypes are pointed out, then not pushing for change can only be considered willful or lazy.

The change in real women:

The change in real women is perhaps one of the most dramatic shifts that our society has seen over the past decade. And for those who feel that this is restricted to only the top few cities, you only have to look at the energy of small-town young women, housewives, entrepreneurs, professionals, and fashionistas through their social media streams. These women are now portraying themselves in ways that are vibrant and authentic. Husbands, parents, colleagues, in-laws and kids all feature in the videos in evident support and enthusiasm for her newfound ways of living. She is often now the “bringer of newness” in households across the country. The women we spoke to in our GenderNext study across ten centres clearly said that they thought of themselves ahead of others, and in fact, it was their fervent desire that others see life as she does- full of possibilities, progress and opportunities to shine.

And this is where she feels advertising can be a valuable ally. By instructing and inspiring those around her to change and being her partners in a common path to progress. Enabling this collective progress, where the needs of her family and ecosystem are accommodated, without sacrificing her own, is where she believes advertising can help. Advertising can demonstrate what a supporting ecosystem looks like, and how progress is a normalised phenomenon. In doing so, it helps move the needle of collective perception. As Dr. Ranjana Kumari writes in the GenderNext foreword “I have seen that true change for women is not possible without a collective change in perceptions about women’s roles and priorities.”

So, what now?

Of course, bringing about change is easier said than done. So many of the stereotypes are deeply seeded implicit codes that they don’t even appear incorrect at a casual glance. That is precisely where GenderNext comes in.

One of ASCI’s key initiatives this year, the GenderNext study, was to look at the depiction of women in advertising and support advertisers to create more responsible and relevant ads. GenderNext aims to call out the unintentional messaging that has become intrinsic to ad creators' psyche and offers ways of imagining the target audiences in more aspirational ways through the SEA framework. The 3S screener lists out the stereotypical representations that can help avoid these creeping into scripting, casting as well as in production areas like costumes and styling.

The study shows that the change required is subtle, but demands deeper attention

to stubborn tropes and patterns that have made advertising their home. It allows advertisers and advertising to catch up with women’s own imaginations. The “Emerging Indian woman” has long since emerged, and advertising needs to account for this.

*The author is Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI

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