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There is a power shift in the portrayal of couples in brand marketing
Of all media, advertising most likes to view men and women, especially women, as stock characters. The woman is usually circumscribed to the kitchen or bedroom—as the nitpicky housewife, the sacrificial mother, or the sexpot. It’s old hat to discuss advertising stereotypes. But, apart from selling products, sometimes advertising shows us the way we lead our lives, or the way we ought to. A series of commercials on television seem to be changing the contours of the most frequently used trope in advertising, that of the married couple.

A recent Domino’s commercial for its new product Subwich uses a cutesy and recognisable premise of a husband floundering about at home, unused to domestic tasks, but gives it a new context by placing the woman at the workplace. The husband is on leave and keeps calling her and interrupting her work. It is funny and familiar: he asks her where the new toothpaste tube is stored, what to pay the presswaala, how to turn on the knob for the gas cylinder. She finally orders a Subwich for herself and one for him, and calls him to say, “Ab usse khao, mera dimag mat khao (Now eat this, not my brain).”

Indian advertising appears to have made a discovery, that there is another type of woman, the working woman. She is here and is changing the relationship between men and women as seen on TV.

Raymond is a brand that stands for a softer side of masculinity. ‘The Complete Man’ is a caring family man who is also a metrosexual, always dressed in a dapper suit. In a recent campaign, The Complete Man gets a new-age twist. In a film titled ‘Being There’, the husband volunteers to stay at home and take care of their baby as the wife drives off to work. A spokesperson of the advertising agency behind the campaign was quoted in an interview saying that, “The unique situation of the husband deciding to stay at home while the wife goes to work is relevant today and wouldn’t work for our older generation.” Raymond’s Complete Man is now the Evolved Complete Man.

The most surprising portrayal of the working woman comes from a brand in a conservative category, jewellery. In a commercial for PC Jewellers, a husband and wife are shown at a party interacting with another couple; the woman admires the jewellery of the wife, and her husband says she is married to an investment banker after all. The banker husband tells them that he is taking a break from work to write a book (it does seem inspired by Chetan Bhagat’s life choices) while his wife runs the house. “So you’re the man of the house,” says the friend. “Even better, I’m the woman of the house,” she replies.

The ad is at best hamhanded in its approach to breaking stereotypes. There is a self-congratulatory note that is hard to miss. The advertisers seem to be saying, ‘Here, look at us, aren’t we progressive?’

But, as Anuja Chauhan, author and creative consultant at JWT, an ad agency, says, anything is better than nothing. “Advertising is the most scared of all media. It is even more regressive than TV, which we blame for all our ills. We need some drastic correction and even if some of these ads are obvious in their intention, they balance all the sexist stuff that we see.” It’s not just the content she points out, even the casting is faulty. “Most ads will show a fake Indian woman, a dark- haired, fair, Brazilian model. And we’re so used to the low standards that are set by advertising, that when an ad like Tanishq comes along with a dusky woman and the concept of remarriage, we go all out, thinking it deserves a Nobel for being sensitive,” she says.

The one advertisement that brings out all the red flags is an Airtel commercial airing on TV a few months ago, the one that portrayed the wife as the boss, who goes home and cooks an elaborate meal for her husband, an employee whom she reprimanded in office. An apology on her part for being his superior at work.

The ad evoked a fair measure of outrage on social media and primetime television. Santosh Padhi, partner at Taproot India, which created the ad, says that the ad worked so well that the brand was in favour of having a sequel. “It was talked- about and that is important,” he says. His explanation for the coda which shows the woman cooking: ‘She is not forced to cook, she realises that she’s done the job of the boss and now she can do the job of a wife and cook for her husband. If it was the husband who was home early, he would have done the same.”

That, somehow, is impossible to believe. As the American actress and author Joan Collins said some time back, “We should celebrate being women and having the opportunities to do things that our mothers and grandmothers were not allowed to do. They were expected to stay at home and do the cooking and the cleaning. Though now, of course, we are expected to do the cooking and the cleaning and the working.”

According to Taproot’s Padhi, the Airtel commercial was an effort to move away from the stereotypical couple and tell a story about new relationships that reflect a changing India.

The small changes that have come in advertising take stock of the fact that more women are in the workplace. But, it’s not just Indian advertising that has been loath to portray women at work, it is no less true for Western markets. As a recent article that appeared in The New Republic noted, ‘For decades, academic studies have documented the tendency for advertising to portray women in subordinate roles. One recent meta-analysis of 64 studies (in Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science) noted that women are more likely to be depicted as product users, not authority figures, and three times more likely to be placed at home, rather than at work. A 2010 study found that in the U.S., women were portrayed as professionals in only 5.4 percent of ads, while men were depicted in professional settings nearly three times more often. When ads included images of housekeeping, men were virtually non-existent, showing up in only 1.4 percent of ads studied, while women were shown in housekeeping roles in 32.4 percent of the ads.’

All this leads back to the question: can advertising alter perceptions? Advertising professional R Balki, who heads Lowe Lintas, says that good advertising has to be intuitive of change in society and not just go about following it. Lowe Lintas created a clutter- breaking campaign for Havells, which is all the more surprising since the category is mired in stereotypes. Its series ‘Respect for Women’ shows several stories in which women tell men that they will not be identified as kitchen appliances. In one of the spots on air, the wife tells her husband to iron his own shirt; in another, the husband orders fresh juice from his wife, who dumps the juicer on him and goes off for her jog. “The thought behind the campaign was simple, that we cannot equate women with kitchen appliances. It’s taken for granted that women will cook and work in the house... we don’t even think about it. It has worked extremely well for a brand like Havells to say this should not be so.”

Not all brands are ready for this leap. The pressure cooker brand, Prestige, which has had the same tagline since the 1980s, ‘Jo biwi se kare pyaar, woh Prestige se kaise kare inkaar’ (He who loves his wife, how can he say ‘no’ to Prestige?) has a new commercial for the festive season with Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. As they unpack all their newly purchased ware on the kitchen counter, Aishwarya tells him that he will be doing the cooking. But, it does not strike a new note, there is a sameness to it, as if the brand acknowledges that it is not politically correct to tie down the woman alone to the kitchen, but the old tagline is louder than the new storyline. The wife will tease the husband, but she will cook for him.