Ambi Parameswaran, now advisor to DraftFCB Ulka, has written For God’s Sake, a book on how religion, business and consumer behaviour interact in India.

It was September 1994. Our agency DraftFCB Ulka (then Ulka Advertising) had just completed a new advertising film for the soap brand Santoor. All of us in the agency believed that it would work in the marketplace to resurrect the brand that had hit a plateau after seeing great growth for a few years. We had in fact bet the agency’s reputation on this ad with our long-term client Wipro. But I was very worried.

I suddenly remembered that right through the film the Santoor woman was not shown sporting a bindi. In the story, she was a mother and her kid enters the scene with a loud ‘mummy’ squeal much to the surprise of onlookers. How could we have missed out on the bindi, I wondered.

First thing next morning I called our film manager Monia Pinto and asked her if we could ‘rotoscope’ a bindi on the model Priya Kakkar’s forehead (rotoscopy is a technique whereby you insert a digital image into a real-life moving picture; it was relatively new and very expensive in the mid 1990s). Monia, the liberal that she is, pooh-poohed my worry.

As did many of my other colleagues.

The film was presented to the client, aired on television and became a landmark film in the history of brand Santoor. The Santoor woman, sans bindi, went on to play cricket, teach hula hoop to her kid and even made film stars dance to her tune over the next decade, helping make Santoor the third largest soap brand in the country.

But the bindi thought stayed with me. The bindi is a part of Hindu culture and even has a strong tantric underpinning. Both men and women wear the bindi or bindu, which means drop or globule. It is supposed to be the sacred symbol of the universe, depicted as a dot or the zero.

My curiosity was piqued and I wanted to see if Indian advertising had evolved from the ‘bindi–mangalsutra’ trap. Accessing advertising archive services, my colleagues and I managed to extract around a hundred television commercials for packaged consumer goods (soaps, toothpastes, shampoos, tea, etc.) from 1987, 1997 and 2007.

We discovered the portrayal of women had not changed very much over the thirty years. By and large, women were shown as homemakers, at home caring for their family. However, something else we discovered came across as a big surprise. We found that advertisers were moving away from showing Indian women draped in a sari.

There were two other discoveries of interest… there was a dramatic drop in women shown sporting the mangalsutra. As against almost 75 per cent of the 1997 ads showing women with a mangalsutra, the number had dropped to less than 35 per cent in 2007 — a very significant drop.

Finally the bindi. From almost 75 per cent of women in ads in 1997 sporting a bindi, it was down to less than 30 per cent in 2007. (The next time you watch television, do check if you can spot an ad that shows a woman sporting a sari, a mangalsutra and a bindi. And reflect if these symbols trigger something in your mind. What do you think is the woman’s education level? What social class do you think she belongs to? What is her age? What would her outlook to innovative products and services be?)

We then turned our gaze towards print advertising. Our researchers spent several days at the Femina archives pulling out ads that portrayed women… almost 500 ads… over the five-decade period.

We found that as against 3 per cent of ads portraying working women in the 1960s, the number had increased to 16 per cent in the new millennium. Once again, the sari and bindi stood out in our analysis. While 55 per cent of women shown in the ads from the 1960s were draped in a sari, the number was down to 9 per cent five decades later. What about the bindi? The dot had almost vanished — from 45 per cent to 5 per cent in the same period.

Devdutt Pattanaik, who has published several bestselling books reinterpreting the ancient stories, called these bindi-less women in Indian ads ‘Advertising Widows’. He pointed out that while women in ads were abandoning their bindis, women in television serials seemed to have a continuing love affair with more and more exotic forms of bindis.

By rapidly doing away with the sari, mangalsutra and bindi, Indian advertisers are trying to portray the modern Indian woman, even if she is performing the gender-defined role of a homemaker. The marketers of modern Indian products are resorting to the ‘hype of hyper-ritualization’.

In contrast to Indian advertising, the sari and bindi are predominant in Indian television programming. How does one explain that? Can we surmise that Indian general entertainment television is still pitching its story at lower-middle-class women, where the numbers lie? Or is, as a colleague suggested, advertising all about ‘aspiration’, while television entertainment is all about ‘identification’ bordering on voyeurism?

So if you are trying to market a modern gadget like a washing machine or a microwave, you are well advised to show your protagonist in modern attire. The famous Whirlpool Mom, who debuted on television a decade ago, appeared just once in a sari; thereafter, she was always shown in western clothes, often trousers and shirt. And never with a bindi.

However, if you want to channel traditionalism in your communication, it would make sense to show the consumer in a sari with a bindi. So the daughter who got a new tattoo is in a pair of jeans and her mother is in a sari in the Tata Docomo ad. Or the mother who is preparing a special Ayurvedic remedy for her daughter’s acne problem, as in the Chandrika ad, could be in a sari.

Edited excerpts with permission from the author and Penguin Books India