The advertising that women want

HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR | Updated on March 08, 2018

Equal and empowered ... And today’s advertising featuring women should reflect that truth. K Ananthan   -  THE HINDU

Can we expect to see it a decade from now?

The movement for women’s empowerment worldwide and in India is almost a century old. Before the 20th century, while there were brave women who tried to live life on their own terms, were willing to challenge societal norms or in many cases were forced to, by life circumstances such as early widowhood, there was no concerted and organised effort to enhance the status of women or to empower them.

When we critically analyse the effort of the Women’s Movement, we find that most of the effort has been to establish women’s equality to men. The first truth that was sought to be established socio-culturally is that women are equal to men in terms of capabilities and decision-making capacities. In the modern world, there are no jobs that men do that women cannot do equally well, daughters are no less than sons in terms of their capability to take care of parents, and women have equal rights of inheritance in terms of family wealth.

Home-bound to forward-looking

Indian advertising, while selling products, has sought to either mirror traditional societal norms so as to connect with the brand’s target group or to put forward progressive views on gender equality. In the former category, we find ads for Basmati rice, spices, cooking oil, household cleaners, detergents, and such. These invariably highlight the trials, tribulations and rewards of being a home-maker, situating the woman in the home, responsible for the successful running of the home. While we may find a challenger brand or a one-off ‘digital’ campaign that seeks to challenge these norms, by and large, the advertising mirrors traditional values and changes in script and casting are minor. The successful exception in recent years has been Ariel detergent powder’s Share the Load campaign. It asked why laundry is women’s work. If women can work and earn on par with men, then why should they have to navigate the requirements of home-making and domesticity while men do not? Ariel is a laundry brand that has done its bit for women’s equality.

Progressive advertising, ads that show that daughters are no less than sons and women are equal to men in the world of work, are to be found in financial services ads, in jewellery ads, in telecom ads, in the ads of many categories. In today’s world, taking such a stance is uncontroversial, most consumers would not disagree and some may even applaud, depending on how good the ad is.

One such applause-worthy ad is the most recent TVC of PC Chandra Jewellers in Calcutta. It takes a provocative stance on Women’s Day, stating let’s ‘uncelebrate’ Women’s Day and celebrate women everyday instead. In the ad, women question the rules and customs that they are subject to because the world is ruled by men. A well-made ad, it makes its points engagingly.

The next truth that the Women’s Movement has sought to establish socio-culturally goes beyond ‘I am no less than you’. It is the truth that women deserve to share power with men, that they have a right to empowerment, that women’s quest for power is legitimate. Now that we are equal and power no longer accrues from physical strength, I can aspire for visible power that I can exercise, with you or against you. I need not be apologetic or work from behind the scenes to do that, is the sentiment.

Power portrayal

In advertising, the most easily recognisable, progressive symbols of women who hold power are the ‘Female Boss’ and the sexually predatory female. Traditional symbols of powerful women – the grandmother, mother-in-law/matriarch and goddess – are not relevant to tell modern tales. However, ad script writers and clients exhibit a discomfort, an uneasiness around the portrayal of the female boss, the powerful woman. It is hard to think of an ad that is engaging and feels true in which the female boss is shown in a positive light. Invariably, she is shown as harsh or callous, conniving, mean and horrible. The relationship between the boss and her male subordinates has not been depicted well yet. The entire area of power – is power a ‘gendered’ concept or a ‘de-gendered’ concept – has hardly been explored or depicted interestingly in Indian advertising.

The last socio-cultural truth sought to be established by the Women’s Movement is that of agency/privilege. A woman is an individual in her own right, while still being a member of her family. When she is equal and empowered, why should she be denied the privileges that are accorded to men in our society and culture? Why does she not have the right to make her own decisions and live her life in accordance with her own needs, thoughts and viewpoints? Why does she need ‘permissions’ and ‘sanctions’ from others for her choices?

Achievement and high self-worth are the other sides of the coin of women’s empowerment. Here, brands that target women have found it easier to make ads that encourage women to achieve and value themselves highly. Two ads for Women’s Day that carry this message well, in powerful and engaging ads are Reebok’s ‘Bruises are good’ and Tanishq’s ‘For the Woman You Always Wanted to Be’.

The one privilege that men, not women, almost exclusively enjoy in the Indian context is freedom. Freedom to go out when they want, where they want and the way they want to and to a lesser extent, to live their life on their own terms. Women are almost completely denied this freedom, ostensibly due to ever present fears for their physical safety. Hence, their lives are largely lived within the confines of their homes.

The two-wheeler and car are the most powerful symbols of this freedom and two-wheeler advertising has talked to women’s aspirations for freedom with campaigns that ask why boys should have all the fun? In two-wheelers, the Scooty is the ‘women’s vehicle’ of freedom, while the scooter is de-gendered. Hence, the Honda Activa is one of the largest selling two-wheelers in the country. But the motorcycle is almost exclusively a man’s product. Motorcycle and car advertising are aimed at men and talk the male language of product. There are groups of women bikers (Bikernis, as they call themselves) who are challenging the male bastion of freedom to travel and explore the world. But their views or behaviours are by no means a part of mainstream culture yet.

Here is a set of ads one would like to see – these have not been made, may never be made, but if made, would mirror a society in which women and men are equal, empowered and privileged (or not) in a similar way. No gender discrimination, but socio-cultural norms that accept that men and women are different, but equal, and it is up to each to choose what it means to live a purposeful and meaningful life.

For Basmati rice or cooking oil

It is a festival day or a feast day or the first week of marriage with the parents visiting. The son/husband/man has cooked the feast at home and serves everyone, while the daughter/wife/woman has made the arrangements for everyone’s comfort. The girl’s parents bless the couple while the boy’s parents’ look on.

For a motorcycle brand

A mixed group of friends is setting out on a road trip to Ladakh. The women drive while the men sit pillion. They take turns at riding, fixing and taking care of the bikes as well as at helping the people they meet along the way. They sit together as a group on the edge of a cliff and enjoy the scenic beauty and majesty of the landscape of Ladakh.

For a financial services brand

A team of women investors are deciding on the funding to be awarded to startup entrepreneurs, both men and women. They are listening to pitches being made by the young entrepreneurs and travelling around the world. While one investor is being tough and aggressive, the other is supportive and reasonable. In the end, they are shown celebrating with their young investees the success of their companies.

Hamsini Shivakumar is a semiotician, cultural analyst, brand and advertising strategist

Published on March 08, 2018

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