Indian advertising needs to speak to the New Indian woman better

Harish Bhat | Updated on November 15, 2021

illustration: aryama somaiyaji   -  illustration: aryama somaiyaji

Mainstream advertising has to evolve a lot to speak to the new Indian woman

The primary job of advertising is to market products and services, but, along the way, it also creates important cultural messaging that influences society. Such messaging is important in many areas, one of the foremost being gender, particularly since one of the fastest transforming segments in urban Indian society has been women. Have Indian advertisers redeemed themselves well in this rapidly shifting landscape? And, if not, what should they do?


“GenderNext”, a ground-breaking research study undertaken by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), jointly with Future Brands, attempts to answer this question. This study is based on extensive analysis of over 600 Indian advertisements, in-depth conversations with women, mining of existing socio-cultural research, views from marketers, advertising professionals and other experts. Here is the bottomline finding – while some good change is underway, Indian advertising continues to borrow from stereotypes, and has a long way to go in creating progressive portrayals of women.

This conclusion may hurt some egos in the marketing and advertising fraternity, since many of us think that we are progressive in our mindsets. But, as “GenderNext” points out, the reality is much more nuanced. What may superficially be regarded as progressive depictions of women could end up, perhaps inadvertently, confirming deep-rooted stereotypes that will require far more conscious effort to dislodge.

Reinforcing stereotypes

For instance, consider the following examples :

· Advertisements for beauty products may today show darker shades of skin, rather than fair tones alone, because this is considered progressive, and the right thing to do. However, the women shown in many of these films or print depictions still exemplify flawless skin and body features that meet conventional yardsticks, thus continuing to reinforce beauty stereotypes that seed self-doubt.

· Women are often shown making new career choices and becoming successful professionals outside the home, thus depicting a new reality. Yet, these very women are often also shown catering to the needs of their family members – for instance, creating happiness by consistently whipping up delicious meals – without any help or family support. This reinforces a new but regressive stereotype of the working woman – who has to continue to bear the domestic workload single-handedly, in addition to her professional pursuits.

· Women wearing traditional Indian clothing – sarees or salwar kameez – are sometimes cast as being less modern and professional than women in western attires. While this may not be intentional or well thought out, it panders subliminally to a stereotype that pervades a large segment of urban and elite corporate India.

· Advertisements for cars or financial services have increasingly begun showing more women in their imagery, thus seeking, perhaps, to be seen as progressive and gender neutral. However, in many of these depictions, the woman is seen as a passive onlooker or, at best, a marginal participant, and not as an active decision-maker, thereby reinforcing the stereotypical belief that these are men’s categories.

Roadmap for change

The “GenderNext” report is a fascinating exploration of many more such nuanced illustrations, across categories as diverse as food and home, beauty and personal care, cars and bikes, and technology products. An eye-opener for the industry, the report makes a powerful point that advertising still has a long way to go in becoming truly gender responsible and progressive.

As well known social commentator Santosh Desai says in his preface – “There are still innumerable ways in which current depictions of women and the context that they operate in serve to cast her in a restricted and stereotypical light. What is needed are bold new representations that help create a new gender landscape.”

Marketers and their advertising agencies face a few important challenges and imperatives as they decide to walk this path. First, particularly for mainstream advertising, there is the challenge of developing progressive advertising depictions that work well across a nation as diverse as India, with our many different demographies and mindsets. Then, there is the challenge of identifying implicit stereotypes or biases which may have quietly crept into storylines or images, without anyone really noticing them. Finally, it is important that marketers and the advertising professionals they work with develop the required collective sensibility to this subject, with all its nuances, so that the creation of advertising takes all these factors into account appropriately, right from the concept to storyboard to finish line.

“GenderNext” concludes by putting forward two good frameworks which can serve as useful guidelines and guardrails. The SEA (Self-Esteemed, Empowered, Allied) framework, which helps advertisers step into the woman’s shoes, and take into account her views of any specific situation - including how she feels about herself, how she relates to the situation she is cast in, and how other characters in the story partner her in progress. And the 3S screener (Subordination-Service-Standardisation), to check if there are implicit or explicit stereotypeswhich may have slipped into the advertisement.

This is a well-researched study on a contemporary subject of great importance. Brand managers, as well as creative heads at advertising agencies should sit up, and take note.


(Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views. )

Published on November 14, 2021

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