Business Economy

Analysing gender portrayal in Indian advertising

Ambi Parameswaran | Updated on: Jan 08, 2022
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In Beauty Paradigm,Jaishri Jethwaney describes how there is blatant stereotyping and objectification of women in ad narratives

I was introduced to the book. Gender Advertisements by Erving Goffman by my friend Prof Arvind Rajagopal of NYU. We were enjoying a cup of coffee when I casually mentioned that I had been studying television ads from the 1970s to the 2000s and that I found some interesting trends in the way women were being portrayed. The Prof wanted me to read this book before I started writing my article. I searched high and low for the book and finally managed to get a used copy on What is so unique about the book you may wonder.

Advertising has been the punching bag of sociologists and media experts all over the world. This is all the more true in the US which, incidentally, has among the highest advertising spends to GDP ratio [at 1.4 per cent]. Sociologists and academics from the broader media sector believe that advertising creates unnecessary wants and is an evil spell being cast on society. Books such as Fables of Abundance and Adcult USA build on this narrative. There is also an ongoing debate that advertising is part and parcel of popular culture just as music, movies and television. While advertising was getting its hammering, no one had thought of dicing and slicing advertising through the gender lens.

In his book, Prof Goffman [UC Berkeley] analysed over 500 print advertisements from the 1960s and 1970s to enquire into the question of how the issue of gender was interpreted in them. And what he found was disturbing to say the least.

Gender portrayal

When I started reading Prof JaishriJethwaney’s book Beauty Paradigm – Gender Discourse in Indian Advertising , I was wondering if she would give a hat tip to Prof Goffman. To my delight she not only referred to the classic but also, probably for the first time, used Goffman’s Theoretical Construct on Gender Portrayal to analyse all types of Indian ads. What does this construct consist of? The analysis factors considered include ‘Relative Size’, ‘Feminine Touch’, ‘Function Ranking’, ‘The Family Situation’, ‘The Ritualisation of subordination’, ‘Licensed Withdrawal’, ‘Patriarchy’ and ‘Objectification’.

Prof Jethwaney and team analysed a cross section of 1,100 ads from five broad categories across print, television and digital. The author found that ‘unambiguously in the analysis of Indian ads across various brand categories is the blatant stereotyping and objectification of women in the ad narrative’.

One chapter is dedicated to this research and it makes interesting reading since it shows how various categories are almost uniformly poor in handling gender equality. The chapter that looks at specific ads makes an interesting read. Here the author has pointed out ads that stood out in terms of handling gender issues. Tanishiq [second marriage], Hero Pleasure [why should boys have all the fun], Airtel [boss or wife] come in for praise, while ads from brands like TVS Scooty [Babelicious], Wild Stone Deo, Durex and many others get called out.

Gender sensitisation

Why are advertisers and agencies not able to weave in a better gender narrative? The author speaks about conducting numerous FGDs with advertising agency executives to find out their ‘gender sensitivity quotient’ and finds that missing. Given the academic nature of the book, one chapter is dedicated to the need for creating gender sensitisation courses in UG and PG courses. The book also provides a very interesting Gender Sensitivity Test; a self-analysis to check the gender sensitivity of a campaign.

The author has mentioned that the Advertising Standards Council of India was doing its own study of ads and their gender representation. This book GenderNext is now available and while not as academic as Beauty Paradigm , makes some interesting points. Two areas that Prof Jethwaney has not covered in her book finds significant mention in GenderNext: the role of marketers or brand owners and the changing self-perception of women of India. GenderNext has also interviewed people like DrSharada who has been doing great work in spreading the gender sensitivity cause and awards like the Laadli Awards.

But, as Prof Jethwaney has said, not enough has been done. It is easy for brand owners and ad agencies to say that ‘ads only reflect society’. That, she argues, is a lame excuse. While advertising cannot change society it can at least try and present a better version of society. I suppose that was also the argument that got Prof Goffman to do his work. Beauty Paradigm is a must read for those who are concerned about depiction of gender in advertisements and how we can all play a more meaningful role in bringing about positive change.

The Beauty Paradigm: Gender Discourse in Indian Advertising


(Ambi Parameswaran is an independent brand / CEO Coach and author of several books including‘Nawabs Nudes Noodles – India Through 50 Years of Advertising’)

Published on January 08, 2022

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