Women in Our Ads

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It’s not just that Tanishq ad, a swarm of new promotional campaigns project women as strong, independent and in control of their worlds

In October last year, ahead of Diwali and the impending wedding season, retail jewellery brand Tanishq came up with a commercial that created quite a stir. The advertisement, directed by Gauri Shinde of English Vinglish fame, is a simple video for the brand’s new collection, and has been commended for breaking away from the stereotype of fair-skinned virginal brides and introducing the concept of remarriage—perhaps a first in Indian advertising.

The ad features a dusky Indian woman— played by theatre actor Priyanka Bose—looking at herself in the mirror while getting ready. A little girl walks up to her, and after a brief conversation, the two of them walk towards the mandap (altar). The little girl settles down with her grandparents, but soon wishes to be a part of the pheras. While she is shushed by her grandparents and the bride, the groom calls out to her and asks her to join them while the ceremony is carried out. The ad ends with the girl asking the groom if she can call him ‘daddy’.

Within days of going online, the ad went viral, with the online community lauding it as ‘taboo-breaking’, ‘fantastic’ and ‘progressive’. The ad recently made it to the list of ‘7 most inspiring campaigns for women in 2013’ compiled by US-based trade magazine Adweek, which described it as ‘not only revolutionary [but] crazy bold’. The ad was ranked fourth, beaten by an ad for a school in Kentucky, a Pantene shampoo spot that plays on tropes of gender politics at the workplace, and a Dove commercial.

While the Tanishq ad tinkers with traditional notions of marriage and complexion, Indian advertising has more often than not piggy-backed on these concepts to promote fairness creams, soaps, shampoos and possibly every other consumer product under the sun. The ad also comes at a time when Indian advertising is grappling with a new women’s discourse on rights, stereotypes and representation that is gathering momentum.

The furore over a series of Ford Figo print ads by JWT India last year—ads showing women gagged and thrown into the back of a Figo to highlight the car’s ample boot space—led to the stepping down of senior staff. Released around early March 2013, the ads did not go down well with a country still fuming over the gangrape in Delhi on 16 December 2012. The campaign, which was created for submission to ad awards and eventually retracted, raised hackles for its ‘offensive’ and ‘sexist’ use of exaggeration.

While the ad fraternity pledged to be more responsible in the future, the Indian Chapter of the International Advertising Association has since kick- started a campaign on gender sensitisation called Violence on Women (VoW). Issues like over-sexualisation of deodorant ads and stereotypical roles represented in cooking oil ads were taken up by this campaign. What trickled in over the months that followed were ads like Gillette’s soldier ad that called for protection of women and Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Jaago Re’ ad in which he pledged that he would make way for the heroine’s name to be listed first in the casting credits of his films.

The Gillette soldier ad was critiqued for being ‘superficial’; its creators at BBDO India were seen as calling out to men to embrace soldierly values by protecting women. The clear implication is that women are vulnerable, and need men to defend them. SRK, too, has only pledged to ‘make way’ for his leading ladies to be listed first.

Advertising agency Taproot, which released a series of press ads on social media networking sites to combat domestic violence, resorted to portraying women as goddesses who shouldn’t be assaulted or violated. Its images of battered and bruised goddesses were meant to appeal to cultural sensibilities against violence being inflicted on women, but again, the subtext suggested that women seen as goddesses should be respected, that there is no place for the ordinary.

It is in the context of these rather lukewarm responses to the gender discourse triggered by the gangrape and the reaction to them within the public realm that the Tanishq ad seems to shine through, though it may be accused of echoing a Femina campaign some years ago. Indeed, the ad has its share of detractors.

According to veteran advertising professional Alyque Padamsee, who in the 70s and 80s created iconic female characters like Lalitaji for Surf, marketed by Hindustan Lever, and the Liril girl, the Tanishq ad is “refreshing” but it fails in one crucial aspect. “While the ad focuses on the woman, she has no voice,” he says. The jewellery ad, according to Padamsee, still reflects on the man. “It still takes a man to make a statement and marry a woman who already has a child. Where is the woman here?” he asks.

“Lalitaji was a woman who had a voice; she had a no-nonsense demeanour, couldn’t be taken for a ride and could make an informed choice by buying the product without a man telling her to do so,” he explains. Speaking of the bikini- clad Liril girl dancing under a waterfall, Padamsee says that the character represented the fantasy of a typical housewife who could manage to steal some time for herself only while taking a shower.

But Tanishq is not alone. Several ads in recent months seem to have taken a more definitive stance as far as the representation of women is concerned. The recently- released ‘Jeet ki Taiyyari’ campaign by Cadbury Bournvita is an example. Highlighting the role of the mother in ‘progressive parenting’, one of the spots in the series shows a mother, perhaps single, juggling time between working shifts at a takeaway outlet and taking her child for boxing training. Through a grim and sombre tint, the mother and child are seen diligently training together and negotiating a rather hard life of limited resources and opportunities. This is quite different from the standard banter that a mother and son share in ads for similar products. Incidentally, or perhaps by design, the child in this particular ad is a girl. The mother is the one in command here. Compare this to the commonly- seen doting mum running after her child with a glass of milk, often outwitted by his antics and tantrums.

While the brand places itself in a situation where parents are no longer by- standers and actively participate in the competitive lives of their children, it also sees itself as a gender-fair brand. However, the brand is quick to point out that the ad was not meant to make a statement on ‘women empowerment’—that its casting of a strong mother and a girl in practice for boxing is just reflective of changing times.

“We see women as progressive parents in their own right... the philosophy of the brand is absolutely gender fair. There is a representation of both a boy and girl in our series of ads,” says Manjari Upadhye, Vice-president, marketing, cocoa beverages, Cadbury India.

As ads like Tanishq and Bournvita dabble in bending gender stereotypes, Bindu Sethi, chief strategy officer at JWT India, explains that advertising works by dipping a toe in the pool. “Advertising is not like cinema. Films respond first to ideas and change in society—they make a statement and people respond to it and talk about it, but the movie is over in three hours. But advertising takes time to respond because, at the end of the day, it is about building a brand, a concept, and pursuing people to buy the product [regularly].” Taking the example of the ‘Daag Achhe Hain’ campaign started by Ariel, Sethi explains that this was the brand’s way of suggesting that one need not worry about dirty clothes—let children play; the detergent can take care of the rest. Similarly Nirma, a detergent patronised by middle-class and lower-middle class households, toys with idea of women having more agency than just being home-makers by showing four women literally getting their hands dirty and pulling out an ambulance stuck in muddy slush. “The brand is taking ‘permission’ here. After several years of sticking to advertising about homemakers taking pride in [their clothes’] colours remaining intact and clean after using the product, the brand gently suggests an alternative role for women—don’t hold yourself back from stepping into whatever you want to; there is Nirma.”

And before eyes begin to roll at the importance given to washing clothes and detergents in a woman’s life in advertising, Sethi is quick to point out that statistically, only 18 per cent of households in India have domestic help. “It is a myth that we have ample domestic help in our country. Most women still have to worry about laundry,” she says.

There are other campaigns too; a Tata Docomo ad called ‘Open up with Honesty’, in which a bride musters the courage to speak with her in-laws and tell them she hates tinda and lauki; and that Asian Paints ad where a young army man makes the effort of doing up a room for his new bride to make her comfortable. As advertising continues to dabble with portraying women differently and realistically, beyond fair-skinned cutouts, the representation of women in advertising is being re-thought, it would seem.

“Times are changing and we have to keep up,” says SK Swamy, who heads the Indian chapter of the International Advertising Association. He also offers a word of caution: “I recently watched an ad for Titan Fastrack in which a woman was battering a man, and is seen as championing today’s woman’s cause. We should watch out for swinging to the other extreme. Violence should be condemned equally for both the sexes,” he says.