Mumbai:A few days ago when A.L Sharda, programme director, Population First, a communication and advocacy NGO, was flipping through television channels for a presentation on ‘Gender nuances in advertising’, she discovered a shocking trend.
Majority advertisements featuring children had little boys in varying shapes, sizes and moods. And the few ads that did feature young girls, projected them with their mothers in ads for beauty products. Most reinforced stereotypical images of being chatterboxes, or sweet delicate ‘things’.
Media reinforces stereotypes
“The media has to make an effort to avoid stereotypes, which are so internalized that we don’t even realize what we are doing,” said Sharda, speaking at a seminar on “Gender nuances in advertising” hosted by the Advertising Club Bombay and Population First.
Citing the Daag Achae Hai! campaign for Surf Excel, a detergent brand from Hindustan Unilever, she said that all their advertisements featured little boys in different roles, one as a protector – brother beats up a mud puddle to make his sister laugh, another as crusader, and yet another as a well-intentioned individual who gets into a mock fight to break up another.
“Majority feature boys as dirty, naughty, rowdy, intelligent, cute or with celebrities making them appear even more desirable to parents,” she said, pointing out that when you do see two children in ads, its usually a boy and girl or two boys and rarely is a family with two girls spotted.
Drawing attention to the child sex ratio in India, she maintained that the current ratio of 927 girls for every 1000 boys was a dangerous indicator of preference for the male child.
Advertising industry to enhance value of girl child
“There is need to enhance the value of the girl child and the advertising fraternity can play a role here,” said SV Sista, advertising veteran and executive trustee, Population First.
While Priti J Nair, national creative director, Grey India agreed with the view, that as communicators, there was need for greater consciousness on gender nuances, it was impossible for them to take on the responsibility of changing society.
Citing the example of the Surf Excel campaign she said the first challenge for the team was to make women accept dirt as a good thing. “We got the stereotyped image of a woman washing clothes and beaming at a freshly washed, white shirt substituted with little boys rolling in mud. ” Nair worked on the campaign during her stint at Lintas India Pvt Ltd and she feels that for starters it is better to take one step at a time.
Echoing the same thought was Sukanya Kripalu, director, Consulting for Strategic Marketing , saying that while agencies can’t change society purely through representation in advertising, they should look for opportunities to highlight instances where society has changed or is changing.
A classic example was the ad for TVS Scooty, which shows two sisters in small town India, who are enjoying the freedom and independence that mobility brings them. Or the ad for ICICI Prudential Life Insurance where the wife urges her husband to get life insurance as it would secure their future as well as provide for their daughter’s education.
Experts maintained that advertising could influence society and big brands could take the initiative to break stereotypes. These did not necessarily have to translate into a radical anti-thesis. “There is need for communication to be more reflective. If communicated through these small departures [from the norm], it could make for an interesting process,” said Nair, whose ad for Maruti Suzuki India Ltd’s (Esteem) featured a conversation between a father and daughter and one which worked well for the brand.
Portrayal of women largely unchanged
Santosh Desai, managing director and chief executive officer, Future Brands drew attention to how little the portrayal of women in Indian advertising, had changed over the years.
“There are very few new representations. So while the woman is now out of the home, she still lives within her skin. Anxieties have shifted from performing within the home to appearing outside,” he said, drawing attention to the growing number of ads that featured the “body as a traitor” by highlighting problems such as dandruff and body odour.
The idea of stealing the consumers love for self and selling it back, as a product is “purely a market development strategy,” he said. Also, traditional roles had been upgraded, and it was not surprising to see the detergent mom being replaced by a washing machine mom, empowered by technology.