The murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement shook racist biases to the core, driving home narratives of social injustice and prejudice, not only in the USA but around the world.
This forced brands and businesses to re-evaluate their business strategies to become more inclusive as well as diverse, so much so that today, they have become unignorable imperatives. Corporations have become much more focused on ensuring balanced gender representation in the workforce as well as in the C suite. Iconic brands such as Hindustan Unilever’s Fair & Lovely dropped the highly controversial first part of its name.
J&J withdrew its fairness product portfolio from Asia. Both these moves were perhaps prompted by the fear of a backlash.
But the bigger question is whether the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement is even felt at the grassroots level. Indian society is rife with divisiveness, as indicated by the GTS report, Ipsos 2021. “Racism” is rampant in a variety of forms of discrimination – religion, caste, colour, cultural dissimilarities and class. Stereotyping persists in almost all spheres of society.
It is time for Indian brands to think boldly and definitively. India thrives on its inherent diversity, and it is about time that brands and corporations embed that into their fabric, naturally and automatically.
There is a need and opportunity to make conversations authentic and heterogenous, a need to move towards a world where diverse stories across the spectrum all find a place. After all, great brands don’t just reflect safe and accepted norms, they dare to set agendas in the culture at large.
The recently published UNICEF Gender Bias and Inclusion in Advertising in India Report (April 2021) measures the level and type of gender stereotyping in Indian advertising through an analysis of the 1000 most viewed advertisements on television and YouTube until 2019. This report throws up some interesting insights. Women are as likely as men to be represented in advertising and are even dominating screen time. Despite this strong presence, the representation of women remains replete with stereotypes:
- Women tend to be portrayed as young and attractive, in line with traditional beauty norms
- They are shown as mothers/ primary caregivers who are primarily seen in private rather than public spaces. They are shown as being responsible for household decisions. They are more likely to be shown cleaning, cooking, or shopping for household products than men
- Six in ten female characters have light skin tones and only 4% of female characters have dark skin. Those who have lighter skin are more desirable and are likely to belong to the middle and upper classes; those with darker skin are more likely to belong to the lower classes
- Young boys (1-12 years) outnumber young girls
- Men are more likely to be shown as having a paid occupation and as leaders and very seldom involved in matters of the home
- There is virtually no representation of those with disabilities (0.3%).
- Representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in mainstream advertising is also absent (0.2%). Smaller niche brands have occasionally used this route but none of the bigger mainstream brands has been brave enough. Those that have used known LGBTQIA+ in their advertising have focused more on their celebrity status
- Only 6.4% of ads featured lower-class protagonists.
Beyond this report, many other glaring omissions are obvious. The Grey Generation is generally depicted mainly as doting grandparents. Although this is a rapidly growing segment with higher than before disposable income, almost no one other than travel operators appears to be creating products that meet their lifestyle aspirations. Though working women are significant, if not equal, contributors to household income (especially in the larger metros), it is still very uncommon to see ads for financial products or automobiles or even high-end mobile phones targeting them.
As far as gender equality is concerned, we know that the Covid-19 pandemic sowed the seeds of greater fluidity in set gender roles. Men have been contributing to household chores from cooking, cleaning, and looking after children as they attend online classes. The EY report Sentiments of India (October 2020) captures how life has been impacted by the pandemic - how male members have been contributing to household chores, influencing brand choices of even household products while shopping online. Yet, it is probably safe to say that most brands have not made any significant changes in their brand or communication strategies to reflect the new status quo emerging as a result of the pandemic.
How Brands Are Responding
It is not as if no brands have tried to shatter gender or other stereotypes (or haven’t had serious conversations about the same). There are many famous examples – Ariel (#ShareTheLoad), Havell’s (Hawa Badlegi), Tanishq, Vicks Generations of Care (about a transgender mother), Gilette (Man Enough), Flipkart, Red Label, Surf Excel, Ghadi (festival ads), Bhima Jewellery’s Pure as Love campaign (capturing a young boy’s journey as he transforms into a transsexual), Cadbury’s role reversal in its iconic Kuch Khaas Hai ad etc. Some of these brands began their more inclusive journey even before 2020 and some have begun the process of transformation since then.
Other than Tanishq and Red Label who have bound unstereotyping in the DNA of the brand communications, most other brands have typically run single, topical campaigns, more to communicate brand purpose. Once these campaigns run their course, brands go back to mainstream advertising, focusing on product benefits which inevitably address the traditional stereotypes.
Some winds of change are evident in mainstream advertising. The depiction of the woman and mother has changed – from someone who lived in the husband’s and child’s shadow to someone today who is actively responsible for enabling their success, from someone who always subdued her personality to someone today who is a sum of various personalities. There are efforts to reflect a different kind of man too – softer, more vulnerable, more “woke”. But these are more like ripples in water. It goes without saying that stereotypes abound.
It may be argued that any attempt to change narratives draws severe criticism and backlash. Many brands in recent times would bear witness to this – Tanishq, Dabur’s Fem, Fabindia, Manyavar Mohey et al. All change is always going to be met with resistance until it no longer feels different. The changes in the depiction of women and mothers and men are testimony to this.
Stereotype-breaking advertising stands out from the clutter, and this is bound to have dividends for the brand in the short and longer term. There is also bound to be a positive rub-off on brand equity. There is evidence to show that ads that show more progressive gender roles generate 32% short-term sales and as much as 51% positive impact on the brand’s equity3. Beyond that, there is a much bigger opportunity for the brand to drive behavioural and societal change.
Beyond advertising, there is low visible evidence of brands have launched new products or have modified brand strategies to address the new emerging target groups such as men for household products, the grey population, or those with disabilities (though some automotive companies are viewing the latter segment seriously). Here too lies an opportunity to drive a more inclusive discourse.
Greater inclusivity is the need of the hour in an increasingly polarised and divided Indian society. Brands can be major catalysts of change and positive reinforcement of more inclusive behaviours and attitudes.
Advertising in particular needs to adopt more progressive and inclusive codes. Given the potential dividends, it is worth taking the plunge!
(The author is the executive director of Ipsos UU, qualitative research)