What started as an initiative to address a skewed sex ratio in the country has, over the last ten years, grown into a campaign that aims to take into its fold all possible major communications spheres to put out content with as gender sensitive an approach as possible.
Sharada recounts, “Population First was registered in 2002 and its functioning began in June 2003. That was when a drastic fall in the sex ratio was recorded across India. There was a lot of discussion around it which prompted me and Mr Sista to address the issue. That was the original idea.”
But over time, tackling just one issue seemed like an effort covering too small a base for too large a problem. The objective of the Laadli campaign thus began to evolve. Sista notes, “A woman has a big role to play at home and therefore in society. But, look at the way our elections are held across decades, where 50 per cent of the vote bank is women but they are still totally neglected. Laadli started off as a platform to address particular issues but is working towards women empowerment.”
Laadli’s journey until now has involved organising awards that incentivise the creation of gender sensitive pieces of communication, conducting workshops that promote that approach and has broader ideas lined up for the future.
Sharada recalls, “Initially we were more concerned about creating awareness. We were the first ones to do an audit of the clinics in Mumbai to check if they were in compliance (with the related government acts) and it got covered really well in the media. This led to the media routinely following with the government. We were shocked to find that out of 41 clinics surveyed, 39 were found to be flouting the law.
“We did a lot of campaigns in colleges, at community events and then even came up with the Laadli Media Awards. But in 2008, we decided that we need to clearly define our focus area. We found out that our basic strength is that of an influencer, working with media and advertising. Whatever we have done over the years, we have done it in a differentiated way.”
Laadli recently conducted a five-day workshop for 170 film scriptwriters from all over India. One of the participants said, as Sharada recalls, that in some communities when children start drinking, the families put a cockroach in the drink to put them off the habit. Whenever they do drink, later on, there may not be a cockroach but they will think they can spot one. The participant likened the work that Laadli was doing to this – making the creative fraternity aware of the cockroach in their drink.
Sista speaks about the process of gradual change. “Initially, there was apathy which reflected the society’s view of the girl child. But this began to change once we started to share our thoughts with them. It now has shifted from apathy to looking at the issue from our point of view. Our basic role was to create awareness since we’re not a grassroots organisation which is in a position to directly effect change.”
In 2008, Laadli conducted an analysis of ads featuring girls and boys below ten years of age. That was when adlanders were shocked to see how gendered the ads were. “After that the support that we have received from the advertising industry has been beautiful,” Sharada notes.
Targeting the influencers to spread the message of being gender sensitive is the strategy currently at play for Laadli. Given the uproar in recent months on some of the ‘advertising’ work, that is just as good a place to begin as any.
Sharada points out, “It should not be as if you are labouring to make a point. FabAlley got it wrong with the language that was used, the aggression, the disgust towards the system. The very purpose of the ad is to show that you have a choice and that choice should be exercised with confidence and naturalness. The fact that they showed a woman in the nude in a confident, matter-of-fact manner is appreciable, but the execution was not up to the mark, of how it was projected.
“The ‘My Choice’ video on one level was quite good in that it addressed various issues related to patriarchy, namely, curtailed access to spaces, curtailed access to choices of sexual expression, restrictions on reproduction. The fact that they wanted to address those issues was appreciable but even they got it wrong in small things such as showing a pregnant woman while referencing size 15.”
The efforts had begun by making the advertising industry aware of the core issues. She adds, “We started off making presentations at Leo Burnett, J. Walter Thompson and other such agencies. We found that we were able to reach the younger a workforce in addition to the top influencers.
Another space to reach out to the seniors of the ad industry was through our association with IAA. We also had National Creative Excellence Awards where we asked the creatives to send in their entries on particular themes. We had two rounds and we provided feedback on their work. The creatives were reworked based on our suggestions and put forth to a jury panel which had names like Ambi, Balki, (KV) Sridhar, (Mohammed) Khan, Ramesh Narayan. We made two presentations at Portfolio Night to try to make our case about maintaining gender sensitivity in communication.”
Need of the hour
The campaign is now focusing on film scriptwriters since the last two years by conducting workshops for them. Next on the agenda, aimed at communication outfits, in association with the Press Council of India, is to try to bring in guidelines on gender in media and to initiate a facilities’ survey in media organisations.
If the Laadli team is disappointed about one thing, it is that gender sensitivity is treated as a separate issue. Sharada notes, “It is supposed to be an integral part of a good piece of communication. It is not a separate issue that needs to be addressed. Somehow, this is what the advertising industry still needs to understand. It should be our natural way of communicating.
“A recent ad showed a pregnant lady in an office which as an idea was so simple and good especially given that the product being advertised has nothing to do with pregnancy or motherhood. That is the kind of communication that we are looking for – moving beyond the stereotyped image of a woman and reflecting reality. It is upsetting when I hear people say that the Abbys are only for quality communication and not a forum to address a cause. Gender is not a cause, it is an intrinsic part of a communication. Until the industry as a whole has gender sensitivity ingrained in its communication and awarded on that basis as well, we need to promote that thinking by incentivising creative work to create and maintain an enabling environment. We would like an Abby to be instituted for gender sensitivity.
“We’re not asking for a woman to be the main protagonist in all creative work; but for whenever she is in the frame, for her to be depicted as somebody who is an individual in her own right and with a mind of her own.”
Sista highlights the challenges the campaign faces. He explains, “We don’t take the entire credit for the change as during these ten years, fortunately, a lot of other organisations and individuals have also started taking up the cause of the girl child. Funding is a major concern it being an advocacy initiative. People ask us what is the outcome, impact. How do we measure that? It is difficult to convince people that what we are doing is having an impact. When funding is based on impact we are at a loss. They look at everything against RoI, how many people have you managed to convert with the campaign – they look for a direct correlation. It is intangible and hence difficult to measure.
“Even though we don’t have any such measures, we are convinced that a there’s a lot more awareness on the issues relating to the girl child now than there was, say, five or six years ago,” he concludes.
The Laadli team can consider having influenced a large portion of the industry positively as an achievement. It is something the team is rightly proud to have contributed to, in good measure.
KV Sridhar, CCO, SapientNitro
When Sharada and Bobby came to me seeking advice on how to go about putting things in motion my main advice was that they needed to influence the influencers - be it in advertising or media or television.
In the first year we had hardly any entries (National Laadli Media Awards) and this has grown to what we have today (around 1,700) indicating that today people are far more alert to gender sensitivity in advertising.
Laadli was able to bring in good forward looking advertising thinkers, creative directors of all age groups.
Ramesh Narayan, founder, Canco Advertising
Laadli is one of those NGOs that adopts a very constructive and positive attitude while carrying on its role as an activist in an area that could be contentious at times, but very relevant and important at all times. They have been championing the rights of the girl child in all its many facets whether it be legal issues, attitudinal issues, societal issues and so on.
A recent survey conducted by the IAA and Hansa Research on gender sensitivity in advertisements over the last year has pointed out that there has been a lot of positive activity in our industry. That does not mean we are gender sensitive. It means awareness about gender sensitivity as a meaningful issue is rising, and as women become more financially empowered, marketers will obviously treat them with the respect they deserve.
Industry Associations like the India Chapter of the IAA have also taken up these issues along with Laadli and this shows an increasingly proactive side of the industry on these issues.
I have had occasion to interact with Laadli and have found them to be committed professionals and wonderful human beings.
Priti Nair, founder, Curry-Nation
We are seeing a change in the way women are being portrayed in TVCs, half of it is a reflection of society and part of that is an attempt to make progress happen. There is still a long way to go but Laadli has got the dialogue started by reaching out to people in the advertising industry who are in a position to influence their teams to have a gender sensitive approach to ads.
My association with Laadli has been from when they launched the awards (2007). Sharada and Bobby, with the passion they have for the work they are doing, are trying to make the industry think about how women can be portrayed better.
For me, going forward, Laadli should get a lot of marketers involved since they can be considered as the first level of operation as it is them who give you the brief. If both the adland and the marketing fraternity are sensitised there will be a far greater effect. There has to be a marketer's award for Laadli. Going forward I want Laadli to be a part of the mainstream of awards in the industry.
Preeti Gopalkrishnan, communications manager, Population First (2005 to 2010)
Huge improvement. There are more girls/women and more positive portrayals. The recent ad of a suitcase brand featured a visually impaired girl going on a foreign trip. So we've come a long way... not just more girls, but within that seeing differently-abled girls on TV is a huge leap. More brands need to realise these stories can also sell your product and break clutter on TV.
I fondly remember the late nights with Dr Sharada and our team planning every minute detail of the birth of our Laadli on 9 June 2005. The logo was created by us when we were tired of the stereotypical pinks and purples being offered to us by creative agencies. The flow, the lines, the simple two-colour logo and the tag line ‘Celebrate her Life’ was just that... a celebration of the victories to come. And 10 years by no small measure is a huge achievement.
Working with Population First was a big learning experience... on how a campaign needs to address an issue holistically and work with various stakeholders to make a change. For example, here although it is a girl child campaign, the men and boys are equally, if not more important, to change the situation.
(This article first appeared in the 15 May 2015 issue of Campaign India)