Indepth: This Women’s Day, a hard look at women’s portrayal in ads

With Women’s Day round the corner, Adgully takes a look at portrayal of women in advertising and why women still continue to be stereotyped & objectified in ads, as well as how brands need to relook at their communication targeted at the women TG. 

For years, ads have been portraying women in set roles of either a care-giver or a femme fatale and the communication has rarely moved away from stereotypes. However, the scenario is changing today, given the multiple and strong roles that women essay and brand communication is slowly but steadily moving with the times.

To highlight various issues regarding women in advertisements, Adgully spoke to Sujata Dwibedy, Head of Buying and Trading, Amplifi (the Media Trading Division of Dentsu Aegis Network); Sonia Sarin, General Manager - Business Communication, Madison; and Priyanka Bhatt, Founder & CEO, Equations PR and Media, who candidly shared their views and insights on the topic. 

How do you see the portrayal of women in ads evolving over the years? 

Sujata Dwibedy: The trend has shifted from portrayal of women only as a care-giver, like a mother, a daughter or a sister to a powerful role of an individual. Women are also often shown as the family nurturer, a role that was out of limits for men. Today, she is portrayed as moving out of the domestic sphere, she is representing a successful office goer, a mother who need not only be a homemaker, but has independent thinking, she looks at life differently, an ambitious girl who dreams big and speaks her mind out. She draws inspiration from the successful sports women, actresses, professionals. Advertising has always mirrored the society. As the society is evolving, so is the role of a woman in the ad story. She is not scared to start all over again, she is open to living life her own way, wants to pursue her dreams, she is health conscious and cares for everyone around her, she is a pillar and she is real. Finally, today after more than half a century of advertising, ad content is moving away from classic typecasts, which is partly driven by the brands and partly driven by reality. For it to be effective, it must be done in the right tone. It needs to replicate the issues that the editorial content is reflecting – and of course, not be sexist. 

Priyanka Bhatt: The portrayal of women in Indian ads has indeed evolved, but marginally. Brands and content creators are still lagging behind in terms of narrowing the apparent gender stereotypes. Women are still shown laying around in petals for soap ads, which is a blatant degradation. The same concept, along with many others, has been dragged along for decades, which falsely portray the life of an Indian woman. Women are still sexualised for a plethora of products, which sadly feeds patriarchy. The current state of affairs must change, and the onus lies on brands and their content creators. Women will soon be directly calling the shots on such decisions as they continue to climb the workforce ladder in increasing numbers.

Sonia Sarin: With time, the portrayal has become far superior…today’s woman is evolved, skillful to carry forward many roles with dignity. She is ideal for many other women across metros and small towns… totally relatable.  

Despite the awareness and protests, women continue to be objectified in ads. Why has it continued? How can the industry address this? 

Sujata Dwibedy: Since the inception of advertising years ago, women have been objectified, and in some instances, insulted or dishonoured. Despite the efforts of many people, it is apparent that society has seen the same patterns of objectification and the mindless use and exploitation of women in advertising campaigns for the longest.The other issue has been that, with the spread of photoshop software, women’s bodies are not just flawless, they are anatomically impossible. This is harmful at many levels. Products also objectify women, look at a Barbie doll, since childhood, girls grow up thinking that she must be like Barbie, and men think that’s how a woman should be! Look at fairness creams, if it was not enough for women, now even men are targeted by such products! This prevalence of glorifying superficial looks and propagating such unrealistic goals have been impacting generations. 

In many respects, the problem has been in discussion in the industry. People have spoken up about this and we are seeing changes now. Thanks to social media, the escalation of things on society is faster in the last couple of years. What the industry must come in terms with, is that if a woman is objectified, she is made less than human, once less than human, violence becomes more acceptable. Pointing out and raising a flag on any kind of objectification right then and there is important. 

Priyanka Bhatt: The industry must first break the barrier of perception that women are mere homemakers or objects of sexualisation. Thought leaders within brands and content creation agencies must initiate a positive influence. I fail to understand how this can be difficult. They must simply portray women as what they are; they must portray the truth. 

Men are not the only ones who toil day in, day out. Working class women are equally boarding the cramped local trains and buses, while being sole bread earners for their families. Indian women provide both financial and emotional aid to both children and elders of the household. Hence, the misrepresentation must be addressed and solved by industry players. 

Sonia Sarin: The society is divided into diverse sets of people with dissimilar ideologies and they see women differently. Some see her as an achiever and others still stuck with the same old thought process or portrayal. I don’t have any message for the industry folks, as the brand prerequisite, target audience, creative beliefs and many such factors are taken into consideration while creating a campaign. So, they know their job well and it is the brand necessity which plays a vital role. 

Could you mention about 3 campaigns that have stood out in the way they handled the issue of gender sensitivity? What did you find the most impressive about them? 

Sujata Dwibedy: -#bruisescanbegood – How would you react when you see a bruised woman? Reebok India and Isobar, their agency, invited a group of people to have a similar encounter. Their reactions highlighted a cruel prevalence in our society. Looking at the wounds of the girl, people had many interpretations to make, but the reality was that she was into martial arts and her bruises were her strength, she liked them as they were part and parcel of what she loved. The girl became an inspiration for other girls. They also took it to a different level by urging schools and colleges to make self-defense mandatory in their curriculum. 

#generationequal – Flipkart, a brand that has been using children as adults in campaigns, has now rolled out an ad film that aims to showcase gender equality. Conceptualised by DentsuWebchutney, the film features ‘#Generationequal’ and takes on dated ideas of gender roles. It says it’s okay for both girls and boys to like the colour pink, and cars as gifts among other scenarios. They push for liberal thinking among parents, in letting the children choose for themselves in numerousfacets, so that they get to do what they love. Be it their hobbies, passions, interests, and personality traits that come naturally to them… whether it’s a boy who wants to learn cooking, or a girl passionate about amassing superhero toys.

Tata Tea had launched a film that talked about the need for gender sensitisation. The film makes us aware of instances of gender inequality taking place even in our own homes. It starts with a young girl asking her mother for permission to go out and play with her brother. However, her mother refuses citing that she needs to stay back and learn to cook lest her future in-laws criticize that her mother hasn’t taught her anything. Her brother, on the other hand, is encouraged to go out and play with his father. This inequality is forced on girls at a young age and continues into adulthood giving growing males the mistaken belief that they are superior to women. This film brings to the forefront the biases and typecasts we unconsciously impose on young children that then continue into their adulthood. Jaago Re aimed to make parents aware of this issue and tried to address this issue at the grassroot level by urging people to sign a petition tothe HRD Ministry to make gender sensitisation compulsory in schools. However, not sure if people waited to see the big message in the end, because the story was quite blatant and in your face. 

Priyanka Bhatt: Not only me, but millions if not billions of women across the globe were impressed by Nike’s Dream Crazier ad that shone a spotlight on several female athletes who broke cultural barriers in sport. Serena Williams narrates about how women are deemed crazy whenever they show raw emotions. But apparently ‘crazy’ women “run marathons, box, dunk, coach an NBA team, compete in hijabs, or win 23 grand slams, have a baby, and then come back for more”. Serena’s voice resonated deeply when she signs off with the words, “So if they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can be”. 

Mahindra’s Ladki Haath Se Nikal Jayegi was a compassionate ad as well. It was shot in a semi-urban setting to portray that girl education was not only restricted in rural areas, but in cities as well. A positive twist was introduced to the otherwise derogatory phrase through a conversation between a father and daughter. It was an ode to the father, who represented the unsung heroes who reject the society’s patriarchal mindset and encourage their daughters to soar high and seek education. The phrase was instead used to indicate that her destiny was back in her own hands. 

Another campaign that struck a chord was Indira IVF’s The Choice ad, which dispelled the myths and stigma surrounding IVF treatment through a candid mother-daughter conversation. The ad portrayed how Indian women are reminded on each of their birthdays that their clock is ticking, and must give birth sooner rather than later. The mother (in contrast to the daughter’s aunt) consoles her that with the advancements in health technology she can focus on her career; to think carefully because IVF and adoption are also suitable options. 

Ads such as these are breaking stereotypes, and are not only empowering women, but also present an opportunity to deflate our patriarchal society. 

Sonia Sarin: Stand by Tough Moms is one of my favourite ads. Then there are the Khudko kar Buland ad by Birla Sunlife and Brave & Beautiful ad by Vatika Hair Oil. 

It is hard to pick just three when there are so many fab examples. In the list above, portrayal of women, family members, looking at real life issues with a positive outlook and emotional angle make the creative piece more believable. Actually, the campaigns are making people look at the real life issues as not issues. 

This Women’s Day, what is the one thing that you want changed in the way brands communicate with the women TG going forward? 

Sujata Dwibedy: Firstly, what the brands need to understand is that women are changing with the tide and they are not the conventional TV viewing audience only, so it is important that the advertising is suitable for mobile, videos on multiscreen, voice or audio. It is not like one size fits all, many television heavy brands have run the same creative on social media and have received a lot of negative word of mouth. 

Please understand their purchase journey better. They outdo men in social media sometimes! 

Another thing that is yet to change is stereotyping her as either the nurturer / homemaker or the rebel, independent feminist. Women are not swinging between the extremes, they are normal; even if they are working, they are not partying all night with girl gangs or dying of guilt, if married with children and working. They are normal even if they are home makers – not sulking on the daily chores, and being tortured by family, they too have fun. Please study the audience better and progress towards depicting women in ads as real life women. 

Sonia Sarin: The advertisers, creative agencies are doing a fab job to make the modern contemporary women look idealistic for many. However, I would request to show empowered rural India or rather women from rural India. The change has to come from everywhere and not just the cities. If I have to pick an example, Bitty from the film ‘Bareilly ki Barfi’ is depicted in just the perfect role of a self-reliant, self-assured kind of a girl from a small town. We need to show our women from villages, too, as self-sufficient and accomplished. Not just the modern city women, but even a village woman plays all the roles with ease. 

Priyanka Bhatt: Ads must portray the truth, and brands must also communicate such empowering messages with more frequency. The trend is such that these ads are witnessed either quarterly or half-yearly. Both gender sensitive and empowering ads must be created and distributed with more regularity. The time has come when such ads must be accepted as normality. 

Such messages must be highlighted not just on International Women’s Day, but also continue beyond that with increasing impetus. Each day is worth celebrating the strength of the women of our country, and their voices are growing louder with each passing day. The time has come to dispel misrepresentation of women in Indian ads, with more frequency.

Sharing her views, Arushi G Phillips, Senior Manager Corporate Communications, FCB India, said,Feminism isn’t a badge that I wear and flaunt, but I proudly wear the badge of being a woman and don’t shy away from flaunting it enough. Women’s Day isn’t actually a day to validate and showcase women’s strength; it is actually a day of changing how people in general perceive strength. The women tribe doesn’t need a day as a tribute to worship or acknowledge them. To me, personally, the day in particular has lesser relevance, but has more in the case of bringing along a ‘mindlift’ similar to what’s known as a ‘facelift’, in line with what we at FCB aimed to achieve with the campaign “This Girl Can”. We don’t need a day, we own every day!” 



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