Insensitive or just mirroring reality?

10 Jan,2013


By Tuhina Anand and Johnson Napier


The portrayal of women in advertising has always been a contentious issue. It is even more sharply in focus now with questions being raised about whether popular culture causes men to assault women.


Prasoon Joshi

Leading Indian adman Prasoon Joshi, Chairman and CCO, McCann Worldgroup, made a statement on the popular show ‘Storyboard’ on CNBC-TV18 saying in effect that advertising is meant to sell a product, and market reality is “jo dikhta hai who bikta hai”. He cited a song which has offensive lyrics but has also a huge number of hits, so even if someone might be condemning it, huge numbers are still consuming it.


While there may be many who may have thought that he was being candid, Mr Joshi’s statement wasn’t taken too kindly by some of the people who watched the show. In advertising as in films and music videos, instances abound of eyeball-grabbing via alluring depictions of women, often irrelevant to the subject matter. But since we see them, daily, and have been doing so over the years, an eyebrow may be raised at times but we generally don’t think of protesting at the insidious and subtle projection of women as objects.


However, that’s changing. Population First, an NGO set up by veteran adman S V (Bobby) Sista has taken a pioneering role in showing the way and educating advertisers and agencies on the need to be careful about how women are portrayed.


Ranjona Banerji

Senior journalist and MxMIndia Contributing Editor Ranjona Banerji who very severely criticized Mr Joshi for his comment believes there’s got to be an attitudinal shift. “Why should a housewife be seen buying detergent or serving a breakfast cereal? It could be done by a working woman or any other member of the family, the husband may be?” Ms Banerji, like NewsLaundry founder-editor Madhu Trehan on the Storyboad show not, doesn’t damn the objectification of women in ads such as the Amul Macho TVC as much.



KV Sridhar

Echoing the view that advertising has a huge effect on people and there has to be some responsibility in the way ads communicate with them is KV Sridhar (Pops), National Creative Director, Leo Burnett India, who has been working with UNFPA and Population First on the issue of gender sensitivity in media and advertising. He said, “I would not want to criticize anybody but I do believe that currently our advertising and media has been very insensitive in their portrayal of women.”


Pops says that the issue can only be resolved when the influence comes from the influencer. Simply because the person who is working in creating the concept has a white sheet and can bring subtle changes to make the portrayal gender sensitive. Like in HDFC ad, Leo Burnett consciously brings in a girl who wants to become an astronaut and a mother who is listening, rather than bringing in the gender stereotype of the mother serving tea to the father. Pops said, “It would be wonderful that instead of showing a family with father, mother and one boy and a girl why not show a family with two girls. Ads influence people and these kind of subtle changes would go a long way in changing the mindset of people albeit in a small way but it shall be a beginning to show some respect towards the female gender.”


Rahul Sengupta

While Pops talks of bringing a change by subtle but conscious ways, Rahul Sengupta, National Creative Director, TBWA\India, agrees that women are used as props or for glamour in advertising. He said, “To add beauty or sexuality to the film, many a times women are added in the storyline. However, if it’s a derogatory portrayal remember that the communication might catch initial eyeballs but will not go long way in building the brand.”


He added, “Crudeness in advertising will never work especially in the premier segment. Those who do it do it as a short cut. We should definitely refrain from using such regressive concepts like ladki patana (woo a girl) which I can recall from a Virat Kohli ad. There has to be some thought given in what one depicts.”


So then why do we have so many women in ads selling deodorants? Well Pops is of the opinion that it’s the worst-thought-of strategy. Women don’t like men who are abusive, hence he terms these ads as sheer stupidity.


Agnello Dias

Agnello Dias, Co-founder, Taproot India reasons that the advertising fraternity is not really clued in about how women are to be portrayed in commercials today and there is a need for the industry itself to put in some extra effort and have a filter in the way they portray women. He said, “What happens usually is that we get busy thinking about other issues that may get an ad into trouble like religion, animal rights etc because of the perceived repercussions that may arise out of doing something on those lines. But not many think of what may be the short-term repercussions of how women are portrayed.” However, Aggie is optimistic and feels that may possibly change as we move forward.



Srinivasan K Swamy

Voicing his opinion on the issue of portrayal of women in commercials, Srinivasan K Swamy, Chairman & Managing Director, RK Swamy BBDO was categorical as he said: “Advertising reflects the mores of our times. But that does mean we can crudely depict the so-called mores. Typifying women in commercials are not necessary since there are many ways to communicate the message. Also use of women as ‘objects’ in certain product categories like motor cycles, or even deodorant is unnecessary. Having said that, it is important to note that stereo-typing women roles are done by everyone without thinking. Take movies, TV serials or how stories are written in Indian language publications.  A greater level of consciousness is needed to overcome this by everyone.”


However, not everyone believes that a more correct portrayal of women is the answer to the problem. Asks Anita Nayyar, CEO, Havas Media India and South Asia: “If advertising stopped using women or depicted them only as mothers, teachers, businesswomen creating jobs and nation-builders, or wrapped them in gunny sacks, would atrocities against women lessen? Are women safe in nations where only their eyes are visible? What about kid’s stereotype portrayal, does this also need changing to keep two- and six-year-old girls safe? And are we forgetting innocent little boys, now what of that?”


Anita Nayyar

She continues, “Ads tell stories – women help bring them alive. But she is the creator, and there are more positive portrayals than negative ones. Did even one husband run to buy an anniversary gift or make a mobile anniversary reminder, because in Century Ply the wife turned into a gorilla? Well, may be just one! Regulation, moderation and discussion will simply create more breaking news opportunity than any real effect for the present and future brave and unfortunate women.”


Ms Nayyar believes that the need of the hour is education and the courage of conviction to take a stand as would a Nehru, Ambedkar or any of them who gave us liberty, all initially just common men. Every nursery, school -government or private, workplace – from smallest to global must have this as mandatory education and regulation is needed to incorporate it so it is a part of the Indian psyche, embedded as culture, like you must wear clothes. Advertising could in fact help educate and put this into motion; enterprise and government looking at branding can enable a social motion of action over passive discussion.


Clearly, there’s need for all sections of society to prevent excesses against women. But the role of advertisements in furthering stereotypes or reflecting the reality is going to be much debated.


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