Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Reimagining gender ads

As we see more and more stereotypical gender roles portrayed in advertising, we are also seeing new roles being envisaged for husband, wife, brother, sister

Erving Goffman was a Canadian-American sociologist and writer, considered “the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century". He was also a member of the sociology department at the University of California, Berkeley. He was the first sociologist to study the depiction of genders in advertisements. His book Gender Advertisements, published four decades ago, continues to be a classic on the subject. Collecting over 500 ads during the period 1950 to 1970, the author presented a vivid pictorial analysis of how genders are portrayed in US (and I suppose global) advertising.

I had bought a copy of the book through Amazon.com’s used bookseller network at significant cost seven years ago and in a book talk at the Institute of Media Studies in Pune, I was politely reminded that it is now easily available as a PDF. How things have changed!

One of the anchor concepts that Goffman speaks about is ‘hyper-ritualization’ of gender stereotypes in print advertisements. Men were portrayed as taller and stronger. Women were always more dainty, smaller, softer. The analysis even pointed out how in most ads the man tends to tower over the women (check this out the next time you are browsing a magazine).

The book continues to be relevant and numerous academic studies have followed along that tread the same path. I have also done my bit of analysis of how women are portrayed in Indian packaged goods advertising and presented a paper at an Association for Consumer Research conference in Beijing.

As we see more and more stereotypical gender roles portrayed in advertising, we are also seeing new roles being envisaged for husband, wife, brother, sister. I call this phenomenon ‘neo-visualization’. One of the early proponents of this type of advertising was the Airtel ‘woman boss’ ad that was aired two years ago. In that ad, the woman is the boss and the husband is the subordinate who is struggling at office as she calls it a day. She does not visit a spa after work, but heads home to do some innovative cooking. The ad got criticized for presenting the woman in a stereotypical role. What the critics failed to probably notice was that she was enjoying the cooking process—call it the Masterchef effect.

If Airtel questioned one set of roles, Procter & Gamble with its Ariel ad is trying to address a bigger problem of gender roles. In the long-format ad that I saw on YouTube (which incidentally is one of the top five most watched video ads in the country), it is the father of the girl who is regretting how he has neglected playing a meaningful role in the running of the household. His wife did the cooking, cleaning, washing, etc., as he went to work and came back to read the newspaper. He regrets that his daughter has been brainwashed to believe that it is her duty to do all that, though she is no longer a homemaker, but is a successful business executive. The old man heads home and asks his wife to teach him how to load the washing machine. A start, he says, hoping that this will get his daughter to start demanding more attention to house work from her husband, and maybe kids.

Why should cooking and cleaning be the preserve of women, especially if most of them are now pursuing successful careers? What is the reality in developed markets?

In the US, it has been reported that in over 40% of the homes (with a couple living together), cooking is the primary job of the male of the household; 45% of them are in charge of grocery shopping; and over 40% are in charge of dropping the kids to school and picking them up.

As I travel the country delivering my book (Nawabs Nudes Noodles, which looks at India through 50 years of advertising) talk, I use the above data to get the men in the audience to do a show of hands on cooking. How many of you men folk here know how to cook? And I have been pleasantly surprised that when it comes to an audience of under 30-year-olds, there is a fair number of hands going up. But if the audience is the 40-plus age cohort, the numbers are very few.

You may call it the Masterchef effect, but I would call it a change in the gender role perception in a changing Indian society.

Even the humble Prestige pressure cooker, which once tom-tommed its ‘gasket release system’ as the true sign of marital love, is singing a slightly different tune today with the husband (Abhishek Bachchan) cooking for his wife (Aishwarya Rai) with a modern pressure cooker!

So it would be interesting to track this changing dialogue in television advertising over the next 10 years and see if, finally, Goffman’s theories get a new twist, from hyper-ritualization to neo-visualization.

Ambi M.G. Parameswaran is brand strategist and founder of Brand-Building.com. A former chief executive of FCB Ulka Advertising, he will take stock of consumers, brands and advertising every month. The views expressed in the column are his personal views.

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