Eularie Saldanha
Mar 6, 2023

When not sexualised, are women sidelined in Indian ads?

Experts speak about the changing role of women in advertisements, why they’re not portrayed the way they should be and where the problem lies...

When not sexualised, are women sidelined in Indian ads?

The talk about gender parity is pretty much used and abused. Although men and women traditionally brought different strengths to the table, the needle is shifting, with women taking up quite a few roles that were restricted to the so-called breadwinner, aka ‘the man'.

Let’s bear in mind that in advertising too, women have been objectified for aeons, sending a message that their power is linked to their sexual desirability to men.

However, this doesn’t let us negate the fact that if not for being sexualised, most advertisements even today portray women as the side character or the caregiver.

The UN says that without investment, achieving full gender equality could take close to 300 years

Nevertheless, how far have brands in India come, concerning breaking age-old stereotypes? Where exactly is the blockade that prevents the lackadaisical ones from upping their game to reflect the ever-changing roles of society? 

We find out.

The business behind bias

A lot of sections in our society are not as evolved as we would like to believe and advertising is a commercial activity which reflects the society it serves. Thus, most brands end up reinforcing gender roles – often negatively.

According to a Forbes article, women make up 70-80% of household purchase decisions. This is probably one of the reasons why it makes business sense for brands to target women.

Ninad Umargekar, chief marketing strategist, JG Hosiery believes that there is more than one factor to this unfortunate situation. “In most cases, the decision about what role a woman plays in an ad is decided by the marketer, who is mostly a man himself,” he said.

Speaking about the sensibilities behind what might come off as a stereotype, Rajdeepak Das, CEO and chief creative officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett, said, “It also depends on the brand category. Sometimes, the decision maker is the man and other times it’s a woman. I can’t change that. If we make too many changes to an ad, consumers will rebel because the brand might no longer feel relevant to them.”

Where are we today?

While we have made leaps and bounds in misogynistic marketing, subtle stereotyping continues.

Ads from campaigns like Huggies’ ‘we got you baby’, still show only a mother talking about and caring for her baby’s diaper requirements.

Explaining this, Das says that it’s because of the many rituals and traditions that are still followed. “When there’s a godh bharai (baby shower) - men are kept away. When the couple goes to the gynaecologist, or during the delivery, the father is seated outside. The father has been out for too long and it will take some time to get him in.”

When asked about Pampers’ ‘It Takes 2’ campaign, Das, whose agency worked on the campaign, shared that the then brand manager, Abhishek Desai, reiterated that the communication was not directed to mothers, but to parents. “A child’s growth is not only important from the mother’s point of view, but also from the father’s. However, you can never remove a mother from these ads.”

Even then, it becomes hard to unsee the fact that if not for being sexualised, women are still seen playing a side character doing stereotypical stuff, while the man talks about the technical aspects. 

An ad for Exide Sunday conceptualised by Wunderman Thompson comprised a series of ads, one of which shows the protagonist, a father talking to his wife about a solar power system, while she’s in the kitchen preparing cake batter.

Justifying the campaign, Arjun Mukherjee, VP and senior creative director, Wunderman Thompson, said, “A casual activity, which takes up a small part of her day, doesn’t necessarily typecast her as a caregiver here. In fact, in one of the films we’ve shown the woman coming up with a better idea when it comes to WFH (work from home) and the man acknowledging it as well.”

Umargekar believes that there is nothing wrong with women being portrayed as caregivers. “This is a reflection of reality. Caring for family comes naturally to women,” he added.

Another campaign from Hyundai India sees a son singing praises of his father and telling his wife that he learnt all the important lessons on ambition from his father. 

Nevertheless, does this mean that women aren't exposed or even experts on facets other than caregiving? Who decides that? 

The decision-makers

Even with ASCI’s (Advertising Standards Council of India) new set of guidelines to help brands break gender stereotypes, experts suggest that compliance is not even close to 100% today.

Das shares how he decides the gender of a protagonist in an ad. “If we’re creating a character in an ad, we see if it can be replaced by a man or a woman. If it does, we work around it.” 

He added that the agency does push to see if women can play the lead role in ads.

Responding to a query about what agencies can do when they believe a client brief might not sit well with a particular segment of society, Mukherjee said, “We should go back to the client, point out the problem, and outline how any kind of wrongful, biased portrayal can affect the ethos of the brand we are representing.”

Das, on the other hand, states that his clients are the ones correcting him, instead of it being the other way around. 

A fair representation

Advertising only on the TV medium in one-year accounts for four trillion dollars, which is more than countries' GDPs, Das shared. 

“If this is the power that we have, are we creating a positive impact?" he asked. 

Experts suggest that advertising, in the end, is merely a whitewash and that the problem lies at the grassroots level.

According to Sanjay Tripathy, co-founder and CEO, Agilio Labs, the change at the grassroots will only begin once women in ads are showcased as the main protagonists. 

Although we are seeing a lot of advertisements that try to escape these pigeonholes, he hints that we might soon also see implicit sexual advertising. “This is called sneaky sexism, a term coined by Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts where advertisers sneakily slip forms of sexism into their marketing campaigns,” he said.

However, Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and angel investor, believes that these days, brands using women for only their sex appeal are few and far between. “Responsible brands are completely egalitarian in their approach vis-à-vis gender. They use good-looking models, as all advertising aims to be appealing.”

Walking the talk is sacrosanct for Das who shares that any commercial done by his agency, is backed by an activity where an X amount is spent on people in tier three and four markets. 

It’s hard for people to remember ads that don’t break stereotypes. Even then, speaking of why it’s taking so long for some brands to adapt to the changing times, Das said, “There are the rebels, the first movers, second movers and then the lagers. There will always be lagers. But they will come on board, they don’t have a choice. The ones who think they have a choice should be ready to get shut down soon.”

Circling back to the original argument about a woman’s role in a commercial, Umargekar suggests that a female character on screen has to be true to the brand or product that she is trying to sell. “I don’t think there’s anything beyond that. Let’s not expect a lot from advertising other than the fact that it’s a sales pitch,” he concluded.

In the end, it's a wait-and-watch approach before we see brands either evolving or dissolving.  

Campaign India

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