Skin-deep advertising

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Gender in Indian Advertising
By Sharada J. Schaffter
Publishers: Promilla & Co
Price: Rs 650

Rasheeda Bhagat

For long years, countless women have been outraged at the portrayal of women in Indian advertising in a way that leaves a lot to be desired. But the lone woman who has done painstaking research on the advertising industry's blatant attempt to reinforce gender stereotypes such as a girl child being a prospective mother, a woman as a sex object or an eye catcher, a woman as a homemaker, etc is Sharada J. Schaffter.

In her book,

Privileging the Privileged - Gender in Indian Advertising

, she attacks not only the stereotyping but also "the unethical and offensive representations of women in advertisements that work to their detriment" and perpetuate an undesirable gender hierarchy.

The author places her detailed analysis of individual ads a whopping 2,000 against the backdrop of Indian societal, cultural and religious norms that reinforce patriarchy and the inherent violence in Indian society against women, be it through bride burning, rape, or a number of other ways.

Charging that the media loves to concentrate on men... "their concerns, their activities, their achievements, their woes", she says that it generally disregards women and their interests and is hence "sexist". And with the media depending heavily on advertisements for revenue, it happily plays host to sexist ads.

Sharada has reviewed ads over a 12-year period from 1994 to 2005, but admits that the majority of the ads are from the 1990s, and her critical analysis raises some crucial questions that have troubled not only women but also social scientists cutting across gender. Unsparing in her observations, the author asks: "Does a woman need to be always tall and slim, young and light-skinned with silken skin and mop of gloriously shining hair? Is all this calculated to catch a man, and once she has caught him, to spend the rest of her life preparing mouthwatering dishes and washing his shirts until they outshine the sun of course with a man (the voice in the ad) telling her what detergent to use as ads persuade us to believe?"

She points out the dangerous repercussions of sexist advertisements in a "caste-conscious, tradition-bound, superstitious, feudal and intensely patriarchal Indian society. She maintains that while there is nothing demeaning in a woman being represented as a homemaker, "the profusion of such ads gives birth to an ideology" which implies that women should be primarily homemakers, and nothing more.

The author comes down particularly heavily on ads that turn "women into commodities that please men" and project "women's images as male-defined" as against "individuals of inherent worth".

Some of the pertinent questions she raises include:

* Do advertisers turn women into commodities that please men, or do they portray them as human beings conscious of their own worth?

* Are women shown preponderantly serving others or as pursuing profitable careers?

* Are they shown as objects of men's fancy, relying on their largesse, or as persons of value, capable of managing their own lives?

* Are they shown silly, stupid and mindless, or are they portrayed intelligent, strong and assertive, capable of successfully undertaking responsibilities and contributing to productivity in society?

* Are women shown fanatical about cleanliness around the house?

She also questions the need to irrelevantly divide the woman's body into segments lips, arms, legs, etc. and represent her as an inveterate, irrational shopper. While on the subject of advertisements for beauty pageants and supermodel shows, Sharada is at her sparkling best. Commenting on how the "fame and fortune" attached to such contests brings parents of aspiring beauties into the act, she recalls how when Sushmita Sen won the Miss Universe contest in the 1990s, it was written of her: "The winner does not need just a beautiful face, it's the mind that matters most." Adds the author, "But what she entered was not an intelligence contest, but a beauty contest. One of the requirements was to parade before the judges in a swimsuit."

Quoting the experience of Nelia Sancho, a former beauty queen of the Pacific from the Philippines, Sharada points out how the woman was expected to only smile and look pretty at an event. "When after the preliminary greetings nobody tried to have any sort of intelligent conversation with her, she realised that she was only a pretty object beautifying a room."

Raising another major concern of our times, the author says the association of "beauty (read desirability) with women is so strong that society tends to look at an ugly woman almost with abhorrence." While male ugliness can be overcome, female ugliness becomes the ultimate shortcoming; the booming of an entire personal care products and cosmetic industry is heavily dependent on the surmise that a woman has to be beautiful to be accepted, and hence the proliferation and immense success of beauty parlours.

The author acknowledges at the outset that over the years it took to write and publish the book "there have been changes in advertising. Men are now shown doing domestic chores on TV" and both boys and girls are shown plugging for education and more equal opportunities. "But there is still a long way to go."

What is striking about this effort is the meticulous dissection and analysis of advertisements, some of them serial ads, such as those of mobile telephone companies, where both men and women are shown as the consumers; but the subtle, unstated discrimination is that while the man is seen as one who works hard for a living, the suggestion is that the woman is a compulsive shopper and hence adept at going through long bills!

In the concluding chapter, Sharada presents a new code of ethics, challenging advertisers to re-examine their notions of gender in order to uphold women's inviolable right to be treated with respect and dignity.

But is anybody listening?

An excellent read, particularly for the younger generation, especially those who are getting into advertising. For what better hope can there be for the industry than a sensitised mind?

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 31, 2006)
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