Campaign India Team
Mar 08, 2016

Gender sensitivity in ads: Truth or tokenism?

Interviews with adlanders on portrayal of women in advertising throws up as many questions as answers

Gender sensitivity in ads: Truth or tokenism?
Is Indian advertising gender sensitive in its portrayal of women today? Conversations with adlanders reveal that there can be no absolute ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to the question. But we are more sensitive today than we were, say, a decade ago, they say. And the number of brands taking the lead in portraying the progressive Indian woman, and society’s admiration and applause for brands that have taken such initiative, is encouraging. “We’re getting there,” says one set of adlanders.
And as always, there is another side to the story; another set of stakeholders who say that Indian advertising engages in stereotyping and objectification as much as ever, and perhaps more today. It’s just that the silver linings blind us, they contend.
A study commissioned by Population First (Laadli) through Campaign India, sought perspectives from adlanders on (i) progressive portrayals, stereotyping and objectification of women in ads (ii) sensitivity of agency folk today and (iii) factors contributing to this sensitivity.
Last things first, advertising is mirroring a highly sensitive society today, concurred respondents, with brands cautious not to tread an insensitive line, and risk death of reputation on social media.
The agency folk are also more sensitive because of an awakened societal consciousness. Some even dare say that some brands are leading this change today with their advertising. But can advertising change the game? Does it not have the compulsion of mirroring society, and running the risk therefore of furthering a stereotype?
“In my view, gender  sensitivity cannot be prescribed. It is a question  of sensibility, of both advertiser and agency, which will help create work that portrays women progressively. Having said that,  creating a conversation around the subject is definitely a step in the right  direction,” says Kartik Smetacek, ECD, L&K Saatchi&Saatchi.
It's impossible to please everybody. What appeals to one as sensitive, might seem otherwise to another. The examples are all around us, including in advertising.   
Ajay Gahlaut, ECD, Ogilvy & Mather, notes, “The portrayal of women is much more progressive now than earlier. Women are shown as much more than just wives, mothers and homemakers. They are shown increasingly as strong and self actualised individuals who can be professionals, entrepreneurs or whoever they choose to be.”
Rajesh Ramaswamy, ECD at Lowe Lintas, holds the view that stereotyping continues to exist, and while it is changing, ‘we have a long way to go’. Objectification seems to have come down, he contends, adding that positive and progressive portrayals are many today. 
“It’s refreshing to see a lot of brands making an attempt to capture the changing woman. And they get talked about making more and more marketers take notice of it and attracted to make that change,” he adds.
“More and more ads are showing men and women sharing responsibilities at home. Fathers taking care of children. Wives working and looking after homes too,” notes Dentsu Marcom NCD Titus Upputuru, referring to the Raymond TVC where a man stays back to look after their infant while his wife leaves for work. 
Scarecrow’s ECD Anjali Rawat meanwhile opines that most products which sell today show women in their stereotypical role. “Be it fairness creams with fair women or cooking oil showing typical caring mothers or jewellery showing beautiful women. All of them show women as most Indians would like to see.” 
Kartik Smetacek, ECD, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, notes, “Advertising is definitely changing the way women are traditionally portrayed. In fact, in recent times, the ‘strong woman’ has emerged as a stereotype in herself.”
There are others who strongly disagree with making advertising the ‘fall guy’ for society’s ills. Out of the Box’s Viral Pandya is one of them. He says, “Advertising is stereotyping. When you narrate a story in thirty seconds, your attempt is to convey things telegraphically. So often we end up relying on short cuts – there’s no escaping that. Further, it’s a little unfair to blame advertising alone for stereotyping. Mostly, advertising reflects the mindset of society; it isn’t, except in rare cases, a corrective force. Let us not make advertising the fall guy for society’s ills.”   
Anupama Ramaswamy, ECD, Cheil India, makes the point that the change is gradual rather than in the face. While overall, she thinks adland has become much more sensitive, there are brands who have particularly put across the point beautifully, she observes – like Titan Raga (exes at airport film).
Adlanders point to two categories where change is still in a minority – automobiles (four wheelers) and male deodorants. And some are more scathing than others in their criticism of the work.
“Progressive portrayal of women has increased from the past but there is a long way to go.
Progressive portrayal is a natural outcome of times but what is disturbing is that stereotyping and objectification remains strong,” says Hemant Misra, CEO, Publicis Capital.
Would a ‘Touch the Pickle’ or ‘Bold is Beautiful’ have seen the light of day a decade ago? Probably not, says Curry Nation Brand Conversations’ creative head Vikrant Dange. He adds, “Advertising reflects reality. I think, the way our society is responding to all the prejudices today, things are bound to change. There has been a paradigm shift in gender portrayal, and it has been organic.” 
What is objectification?
As we have witnessed several times in the three-plus years of the gender reviews of ads (alongside regular ad reviews) in Campaign India, the same ad or a certain portrayal sometimes evokes completely different reactions from different stakeholders.
Sabuj Sengupta, ECD, Hakuhodo Percept, agrees that advertising professionals are definitely more sensitive today, adding that in some ways advertising is reflecting the positive change in society. Yet, he contends that objectification is rampant. He says, “I don’t think we have moved much in this (objectification). Most of us are still happy showing a pretty woman. Job done.”
Former Lowe creative Shayondeep Pal cedes that while some brands are getting noticed for positive portrayals, not all have ‘arrived’. Objectification, he says, is still rampant. “Specially when you go to small towns where local billboards objectify women to the extent of being hilarious,” he adds.
On the subject of objectification, Gahlaut asks, “Is showing a woman as sexy and attractive objectifying her? Does every role necessarily have to show her as a serious, driven individual with no reference to her physicality or sexuality? At times ads do show women as attractive members of the female species being admired by the males. Sometimes that does overstep the line and tend towards objectification.” 
The reactions have been mixed on ads like the one for Airtel, that featured a woman boss returning home before her husband and cooking for him. Auryndom Bose, senior CD, Dentsu Creative Impact, questions, “People asked, if your wife is your boss, does she still cook for you at home? Of course she can, because she reached home early, because it was Tuesday-her turn, because she loves cooking. Why should the act of cooking be regressive? Now that’s insensitivity towards a primary human function, it belittles the love our grandmothers put in their cooking – and in many unsaid ways they were respected as the Annapurnas of the households.”
Misra counters: “The Airtel ad of a wife who was the husband’s boss ended with the wife slaving over dinner waiting for her husband to return home after work. Really confused stuff – progressive yet hugely stereotyped.”
The ‘reverse stereotype’
Sangeetha N, president – West and ECD, RK Swamy BBDO, contends that there is a new form of ‘reverse stereo typing’. She explains, “From depicting women as housewives the entire industry has taken the position that only working women have thinking minds and can make clever, independent choices. It’s as if home makers who have made the choice to be at home and nurture their families, are not smart. It should be about choice – you can stay at home and be a successful home maker or go to work and be a successful career woman. Some balancing is needed in both types of choices, there is no need to glorify only one way!”
Hakuhodo Percept’s Jayanto Banerjee points out that objectification of women, if anything, has achieved legitimacy today. “Be it through IPL cheerleaders or Bollywood heroines, we have come to accept it as part of popular culture. In the past sexual codes were hidden and symbolic. Today it is brazen. I am not debating whether it is right or wrong. It just is,” he observes. 
“Truthfully, haven’t really seen it evolve. Car brands still don’t depict women drivers, banks don’t show the woman as the chief wage earner, and washing powder and food brands still talk to the stereotypical mom. For every progressive campaign that you can quote, I can refer you to a regressive one,” he adds.
There are more people who echo the viewpoint. “I think we have not seen progress in past five years; most brands have gone conservative in their portrayal, some may have even regressed,” says Bang in the Middle’s Naresh Gupta. 
He contends that the industry has regressed a lot from mid 2000, ‘when brands were experimenting more, and telling stores that were gender sensitive’. “While the categories like soaps and fairness creams have not changed, many new categories like real estate, cement and cars and durables have become more stereotypical than before,” argues Gupta.
FCB Ulka group CD Vasudha Misra offers a balanced view on the reality, when asked about the change. She says, “India is a very heterogeneous market. So a lot co-exists together. While we have these parallel, inspiring narratives by Anouk, Tanishq, Dove, the dominant narrative has not changed. So, a lot of communication on the real, mass brands is still within the popular, socially acceptable framework.” 
She enlists the Parachute Body Lotion work and Fair and Lovely as brands stuck with the old narrative, and adds, “But, if more and more of bigger brands set an inspiring communication narrative, others will follow.”
The creation of a gender sensitivity review and score was as much to celebrate the positive portrayals of women in advertising, as to provide a platform for conversations on the subject. Clearly, there is a lot of room for rich conversation and debate, given the multitude of perspectives that emerge.
Change from within… 
We also asked adlanders about the change that they have witnessed among the fraternity on gender sensitivity, and within themselves.  
Akashneel, creative head at ADK Fortune, admits that there has been a change. He reveals, “Yes, over time I have become more circumspect and so is the whole world of creators. It is showing in the work that’s coming out recently where most of the stuff is either sensitive or at least neutral towards gender biases. People these days not just evaluate a brand on the rational or emotional hook in the communication but also to a point of view that the brand adheres to.”
On the brands championing change, he observes that it’s also about the willingness to do newer things, and notes, “Young brands and the start-ups get bulk of the credit. The courage with which they are taking on the established leaders shows also in their communication. Some of the older, legacy brands still need to get out of their own traps. A notable exception to this would be the Dabur Vatika, ‘Bald Woman’ spot. It takes even more courage for an old established brand which has often resorted to stereotypes to make such a bold move. Kudos.”
“We look at all our works through that filter of how progressive it is. One reason could be that most of our brands are aspirational and are in the lifestyle space and we are careful not to have a regressive subtext to those brands,” reveals Gopal S Krishnan, MD, M&C Saatchi February.
Smetacek points out that even in legacy categories, new codes are emerging: “I think with our demographic break-up the way it is (60 per cent under 35) most brands want to be seen as new-age or progressive. One of the ways to do that is by portraying strong, independent women who challenge the stereotype. Even in categories that have been ruled by the traditional ‘mummy’, we’re seeing new codes emerge.”
The change that we see in terms of positive, progressive portrayal, of the kind that has been appreciated by and large, has its share of issues too, counters RK Swamy’s Sangeeta. She says, “Largely it is tokenism but there are some occasional examples of positive, progressive portrayal. The problem is that progressive portrayal of women invariably becomes dumping on men when there has to be  equality in portrayal if you are truly gender sensitive.”
Can advertising lead the change?
The house is divided on whether advertising can lead the change, with some saying that’s asking for too much. But it isn’t punching above one’s weight, argues Rawat. She says, “We can create awareness through creativity and that is the beauty of our profession. I see a lot of senior professionals using this strength to change a few things and give the common man a perspective which is completely different form the one he has grown up with.”
Cheil’s Ramaswamy offers a relatively more cautious view on what advertising can do.  “I think we are all aware that we are in a profession that is visible and noted. And also to some extent responsible for trends and so seniors are constantly evaluating the work keeping this at the back of their minds. I believe that clients today are ‘choosing work’ which makes people believe in their sensitivity towards this topic,” she adds.
“The idea, for us as a community, I think, is to hold up mirrors in the right way. I would like to think advertising people are kind who want to contribute to this positive change. We should be honest, we should respectful and most importantly we should be tasteful in what we produce, not just for the sake of gender sensitivity but for the sake of good advertising,” rounds off Dentsu’s Bose.
“Till the society doesn’t reject stereotypical appeals, ads will carry those appeals,” surmises Bang in the Middle’s Gupta.
What next?
“I feel rather than limit the exercise to the industry, the engagement should widen its focus to include those who consume advertising. After all, they are the biggest stakeholders, and they have the power to make or break brands.” 
Viral Pandya, Out of the Box
“Can Laadli change the way we think as a society? If it can, welcome guys.”
Shayondeep Pal, ex-Lowe Lintas
“Laadli is an excellent initiative. After all it was the first of its kind. People have become aware that they need to care. They need to save the girl and bring her up as equal as boys.”
Anjali Rawat, Scarecrow
“I think Laadli should also take in to confidence, clients. We just give birth to ideas; it’s the client who makes it happen. If Laadli, clients and agencies work together we can drive this change.”
Pramod Sharma, Rediffusion Y&R
“Nationally relevant films are made tax free. Can we follow a similar approach to gender sensitivity? Large media discounts on projects that exhibit such ambition. Can Laadli get the media community to think like that?”
Auryndom Bose, Dentsu Creative Impact
“We have to understand that there are many different Indias in the country, each one developing at a different pace. The conversations in social media around gender sensitivity are not necessarily the conversations that are happening in many homes. The liberation of women, in its true sense, is yet to happen. We will have achieved it, when we no longer need an award to recognise the rights of women.”
Nilay Moonje, DDB Mudra West

(Compiled by Radhika Joshi. This article first appeared in the 4 March 2016 issue of Campaign India.)

Campaign India

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