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Why gender-based stereotypes continue to plague marketing strategies?

Marketers are reinforcing rather than helping to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes, states the latest ‘AdReaction’ report released by Kantar. The report reveals the disconnect between consumer and business opinions of gender portrayals in advertising. While the clear majority of marketers globally (more than 75 per cent) think they are avoiding gender stereotypes, 76 per cent of female consumers and 71 per cent of male consumers believe that the way they are portrayed in advertising is completely out of touch. 

The ‘AdReaction’ report highlights that the bulk of ads in India are targeted at women; but marketers appear to be targeting them led more by stereotypes. Gender targeting should not be an either/ or decision and these outdated assumptions eed to be challenged. From a portrayals perspective, more emphases need to be made towards aspirational and authoritative roles. The industry as a whole needs to be more aware than ever that things need to change. 

Speaking to Adgully, Babita Baruah, Managing Partner, GTB India, said that there is a move to eradicate gender-based stereotypes, which can be seen in the examples of gender stereotype busting work today, which is very encouraging and also successful marketing assets. 

At the same time, Baruah felt that there is room for more and with momentum. “Unfortunately, most marketers and communication partners are bound or bind themselves by numbers and critical mass. Critical mass cannot move the needle. Sharp shooting and hence, being bold about societal and cultural trends that are aligned with the brand, can create such shifts,” she noted. 

According to Partha Sinha, Vice-Chairman & MD, McCann WorldGroup India, at a broad level, marketing is a reflection of the society we live in. “Our society is steeped deep in stereotypes and misogyny. No wonder marketing is propagating the same traits. If we expect marketing to take lead in eradicating gender biases, we are living in a fool’s paradise,” he commented. 

Sinha felt that institutions that have stronger influence on the society are not just propagating misogyny, but are profiting from it. He noted, “Religious institutions propagate misogyny, politics propagate misogyny, media propagate misogyny even academic institutions are following suit. Marketing and advertising are soft targets to bash.” 

Neena DasGupta, CEO & Director, Zirca Digital Solutions, too, said that any form of a visual medium is often a reflection of the society and its changing constitution. While the Indian society still has a long way to go, over the years, stereotyping women into housewives or preachy grandmothers, has seen a relative drop. DasGupta added, “The industry itself through its advertising narratives is trying to move away from objectification, discrimination or shaming based on skin colour. Women are today increasingly being portrayed as strong, goal-driven individuals, with equal share in decision-making whether it is in their personal or professional lives.” 

When asked why women continue to be objectified in ads despite the awareness and protests, DasGupta replied, “Objectification as a concept has been strongly present in the society for years now and although this mindset is changing, there is still a long way to go. However, the application of objectification to women in ad narratives, although not completely gone, has been reducing considerably over the past few years.” 

She further elaborated, that this is because the ecosystem and society in general are evolving where women are getting the exposure they deserve, and are being increasingly recognized and appreciated for their intelligence, talent, skills and their individual personalities, qualities that go far beyond superficial beauty. 

“Women are getting a greater share of voice in the society and these voices are being heard, and we are also seeing them reflect in ad narratives Although it is still a long way to go, instead of using women as an instrument to draw attention to their products, brands are increasingly looking at building ad narratives that showcase how their offerings are adding value to the lives of men and women alike,” DasGupta further said. 

Responding to what will it take to build a gender-balanced brand in today’s market scenario, Babita Baruah’s answer was a crisp “Marketing from the gut.” She further said that connecting to smaller, sharp-focussed consumer groups rather than a traditional media carpet bom alone is also required. “Digital allows us to go narrow and go deep,” she added. 

According to Sinha, “The day the decision making process will be balanced, the brands will become balanced automatically. In the current stage, one can only exercise caution and protect the brand against gross negatives of gender bias. It needs sensitivity and genuine sensitivity. It will not happen from people and organisations that have ‘claim-level’ gender sensitivity. You can’t have men talk gender sensitivity in boardrooms and go back and support political groups whose fundamental ideology has celibacy and a fear of woman influence hard coded in them. It’s impossible to build genuine gender balanced brand unless the brand ownership is balanced. Brands owned by patriarchal families or male heavy management can at best be gender sensitive.” 

DasGupta also said, “Brand communication needs to change to appeal to women as distinct personalities and not one or the other stereotype with superficial attributes. Unless specifically designed keeping the gender in mind, products and services can address the needs of men and women alike, and so should their advertising narrative. Story-telling can change to highlight the multi-faceted qualities and needs of women as individuals and need not necessarily be biased towards or against their gender.” 

“Stereotypes are short codes for reflecting society. So, we don’t just have gender stereotypes, but ethnicity and community stereotypes as well. But if at all, advertising, thanks to its better gender mix, is trying to break the mould,” Sinha added. 

He further said, “Look at the plight of mainstream media – they are chasing TRPs with ‘Naagin’ serials. And after that advertising is blamed for not trying to break gender stereotypes! We live in a society where the biggest skin care category is women’s fairness cream, where a girl child’s birth is not celebrated with half the enthusiasm as a boy child’s birth, and where roles are more venerated than the person (the every-woman-is-a-mother discourse). It’s extremely difficult for brands to take a completely contrarian stance. But a little increased sensitivity and appreciation for diversity will protect the brands from becoming misogynistic.” 

Baruah observed, “We sometimes expect too much from brands, when we must realise that every brand has a different role in the consumer lives. All brands can’t have a cause marketing or work towards societal shifts if the brand DNA is not about that or the proposition does not allow that. If there is no brand fit, no purpose works. What works for certain, is inclusive growth. Are we taking our brand audience along with us in our promises, benefits, conversations? If we do, we spark off powerful evangelists, who will be strong advocates.”

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