Stereotyping in Indian Ads

Where’s the gender sensitivity in ads?

Gender stereotypes rule Indian ads which portray women unflatteringly..

A random review of some of the advertisements show that there is a gender bias; they also sound irreverent and pushy. Young girls are portrayed as coy with no self-esteem or respect and devoid of scruples. Another area of concern relating to gender is depiction of the body in relation to nudity and sexual innuendo.

Vijayalakshmi Viswanathan
Television programmes with high viewership invariably have a large dose of advertising to promote a spate of products and services. The key to the success of these ads lies in their ability to communicate the message to the target customer effectively.

Recently, refreshingly innovative advertisements with a touch of humour from Vodafone had caught the attention of young and old alike. Equally arresting was the advertisement from Airtel with celebrity stars, which generated a feeling of togetherness, an emotion so vital for nostalgia and an ingredient essential for recall.

No wonder that a poll conducted after analysing several ad campaigns that have been aired over the last few years has rated Vidya Balan’s voice as a close second to that of Amitabh Bachchan.
Advertising, it is believed ‘holds up a mirror to society’. There is a conviction that commercial advertisements should be free to air their views lest their freedom of expression is infringed. Yet another aspect is the advertisers’ right to choose their audience. Regulation is therefore anathema to the industry. World over national self-regulatory organisations enforce advertising codes.

The code, so far as it relates to the portrayal of women, has identified two areas of concern. The first relates to gender stereotyping. The norms contemplate that while it is unrealistic to expect total avoidance of advertisements showing women in traditional roles carrying out household tasks and looking after children, care is needed to prevent any suggestion that women are by nature less intelligent, lacking in assertiveness or analytical ability. It is also enjoined that no impression should be created that women are mainly fulfilling a service function. Further, no offensive or demeaning image of women either as individuals or as members of society is acceptable.

The advertising regulation pertaining to gender is covered under ‘taste and decency’, and conforms to Article 4 of the International Chamber of Commerce’s consolidated code of advertising. It states that: "Marketing communication should respect human dignity and should not incite or condone any form of discrimination, including that based on race, national origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation."

The Advertising Standards Council of India’s (ASCI) code prescribes that "to ensure that advertisements are not offensive to the generally accepted standards of public decency" no advertisement shall be permitted which derides any race, caste, colour, creed or nationality. Gender is not included in this.

European countries prohibit discriminative treatment in advertisements based on gender. Spain enacted a law in 2004 that deals with violence against women. This law places specific restrictions on advertising too by banning advertising, which uses a woman’s image in a humiliating or discriminative way.

Austrian code lay down that advertising should avoid any textual, material or verbal statement of sexual nature, which would be degrading to women.

A random review of some of the advertisements telecast by companies manufacturing food products, beverages and items of personal hygiene appear to suffer from a gender bias and also sound irreverent and pushy. Let us take the ad for a popular brand of biscuits which projects that its product adds spice and flavour to the gossip mill!

It is appalling that the old man in the advertisement has the cheek to propose to the lady who gave him the happy tiding of an ‘offer’ of an outing for three days to accompany him!

The husband in the tea advertisement with lucky sponsorship for a second ‘honeymoon’ stuns his startled wife with a remark that shamelessly reveals his infidelity. Perhaps the advertising company felt it was a casual remark with a sense of humour. In another candy advertisement, the person who is sponsoring a gold credit card is put off by a similar embarrassing question.
Young girls are portrayed as coy with no self-esteem or respect and devoid of scruples. An ad for a popular brand of toothpaste with claims to fresh breath portrays the lady ticket examiner as a person who lacks duty consciousness, as she lets off a man without a ticket! Another girl in a body spray advertisement reveals her mobile number in an ingenious way to the customer and solicits his phone call.

There are a number of advertisements, which overemphasise the traditional role of women. The emphasis on washing clothes and cleaning kitchens/toilets as the domain of women reveals a mind-set which is sadly reflective of conservatism! Women have to be told what to use for best results by men and get appreciative nods from the men folk of the family! All the women in these advertisements are shown as dumb and incapable of making their own choice!
Western influences have led to a spurt of advertisements, which are totally alien to our culture. Kisses galore to promote a sunscreen cream are nauseating. Equally despicable is the hugging spree portrayed in an advertisement for a toilet soap brand. I still remember the ad used to launch the soap; though the ad was considered ‘bold’ at that time, it was also considered refreshing. The present ad can not be rated so!

It would seem that the advertising industry is not covering itself with glory, at least in relation to the portrayal of women.

ASCI has reported that representation from the advertisers’ category continues to be lower than required to extend the observance of self-regulation. Over 100 major advertisers are yet to become members of ASCI!

The second area of concern relating to gender is the depiction of the body in relation to nudity and sexual innuendo. In this area, there is greater awareness and perhaps greater compliance.
The Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), Girija Vyas, has emphasised the need to modify the existing ‘Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986’ by widening its scope during a seminar organised by the Commission in May 2008.

Dr Vyas said the commission would hold five seminars across the country to garner views and suggestions from film personalities, members of the Press Council, advertising professionals and social workers. Elaborating about widening of the Act, she said the electronic media and cyber space should be covered by the Act because several indecent ads were being screened on television channels and the Internet.

Dr Vyas said the commission would also recommend an enhancement of punishment and penalty from two years to five years and from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000 respectively. The definition of ‘obscenity’ should be described in detail in the modified Act, she observed.
The law relating to obscenity in the country is codified in sections 292, 293 and 294 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

In spite of these provisions, there are growing incidents of the indecent representation of women or references to women in publications, advertisements and other modes, which have a derogatory effect on dignity of women, Dr Vyas added.

It is expected that the proposed changes will bring about the required restraint from the advertising industry!

It would be appropriate to conclude this review by drawing reference to a call from the group of global leaders called the Elders to challenge and change harmful teachings and practices which justify discrimination against women.

As the former US President Jimmy Carter puts it: "The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day…it damages all of us."

Advertising is one of the areas where some introspection and transformation would be welcomed!

Is the Advertisement Sorority Sensitive to Feminist Concerns?

Gender perception in communication has truly evolved by introspection of the roles of men and women in Society. Advertisers are more than willing to manipulate and exploit our anxieties regarding our identities to sell products. And henceforth advertisements in both television and print provide an especially intriguing field of study for gender bias in advertising.

Media is definitely about catching the attention of the viewer or the target audience. Thousands of Rupees are spent on this purpose. Advertisements are no exception. The advertisers want the maximum output for their endorsements timed in few seconds and costing in several thousands. So when we look around, what do we see as the most common glamorized element in the endorsements of most of the products? Females, from ideal mothers and wives to sensuous girlfriends, portray a significant array of roles. However, in this contemporary state of affairs where the very definition of feminism has changed drastically and will continue to do so…the very question in concern would be whether the images portrayed by females in endorsements are close to reality? And if they are not real, then what are the forces that govern that difference? And how much are the audiences, especially in a developing country like India, accepting this difference?

The argument also involves imperative analysis on how popular myths and mechanisms are employed by the advertisers to influence masses in order to promote their product. Myths and mechanisms that specifically operate in echelon of gender pigeonholing. The depiction of females in advertisements is not only divergent to their reality but also indifferent to their needs and true position in the society.

For example, as the study pointed out, Advertisers seem to be oblivious of the fact that customer is no more the "king" because now customer is a "queen". We all know that the female members of the household take the purchase decisions in most of the family units. They are the ones who manage the inflow and the outflow of financial resources in the family. It has to be kept in mind by the endorsement designers that advertisements have to be created in order to persuade and please women instead of men because ultimately the former are the ones who take the purchase decision. But sadly only those females are seen as virtuous homemakers who care about their husband’s shirts, trousers, cholesterols and take great pleasure in running after kids, play excellent hosts, washing clothes in the endorsed washing machine and detergent or storing great provisions in the "favourite" refrigerator.

Clearly such themes corroborate and reinforce the unreal notions of women in the male centric social order that we are a part of. Attractive, giggling and submissive females are clearly canvassing a culture, which is hyped as euphoric but is again not based on fact. In fact, many feminists and thinkers see this culture as a great peril to the socially developing status of women. For example, says Piyush Pandey (a prominent name in advertising industry):

"Since advertising agencies in India are predominantly run by men, portrayal of women in either indecent or superhuman roles has been inherent in the content of Indian Advertising. Accurate portrayals of women in commercials wherein they are realistically depicted as useful contributors to the world of politics, business, economics and development are sadly lacking".

The examples are too many to count. The guiltiest are the endorsements, which promote toiletries, cosmetics and undergarments used not by females but men. For example, in the Gillette Mac 3 advertisement, a skimpily clad female, who is sensuously clad, gets swayed by the male model who uses the product. She even ventures forth to shave him. Or let us even consider the Brylcream hair cream advertisement featuring noted cricketer Mahendra Dhoni who recommends the product to a youngster who is made a butt of joke by his female friends because of his hairstyle. Later they seem to be changing their opinions about him because he now has used the hair cream. Why, even Actor Abhishek Bachchan imagines that he can woo any woman because of his Motorola razr mobile phone.

Thankfully he is disappointed. Clearly, the portrayal of females in all these advertisements is obscene, irrational, passive and debased.Several popular advertisements were carefully assessed for bringing out the answers for various moot questions raised by the case study. It was pointed out by the team that the themes of many of the ads were incoherent and inarticulate but they caught attention only when they glamorised a female icon there, say, a nubile young teenager or a popular actress. Amongst the ads that were assessed, the ones presented were to the likes of 7-up, Close up, Fair and Lovely, Motorbike ads, Safi Skin Tonic, Minto Fresh, The Pepsi "TV" commercial etc.In 7-up commercial, for example, the female is an idle specimen who wishes to be the "coolest" creature in the planet in spite of not being ugly. The spirit then converts her into the 7up bottle and all that we can hear is her giggle. Clearly her character does not even faintly resemble to any of the females in real world when we look around.

Or Lets take the example of Fair and lovely endorsements or those of Safi skin tonic which portray women as a genus that get an inferior treatment by the society due to their unattractive looks. The message from the endorsements clearly interprets to the biased opinion that success is only for those faces, which are attractive and pretty. Finer notions like hard work, determination and focus are conveniently marginalized. Such ads that encourage portrayal of gender stereotypes in the society are hazardous to the perception of feminism by the social order.

Worse, even the products used by men, say, motorbikes or shaving creams debase the role of females in the most unreal manner because in these endorsements women are glamorously glorified as objects of sexual magnetism who get attracted to men only if the latter use the specified products. Such depiction of Womanhood has been thankfully known for inciting strong and vociferous objection from various groups of the society. There are hardly any examples in the society, which find a sense of belonging or identification or even respect from such portrayals.

Jayasri ViswanathanMA in Journalism and Mass Communication, Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication

Son-centric ads a killer for girls

INDIA'S Health Minister has demanded a ban on "son-centric" advertising, saying it reinforces the prejudice that leads to the killing of girl babies.

Anbumani Ramadoss, a father of three girls, says he is troubled by the overwhelming gender bias in Indian advertising, which portrays happy families as being a mum and dad with two or three sons - and not a girl in sight.

An estimated 10 million baby girls have been murdered in India in the past 20 years because parents see boys as better future breadwinners.

Recent figures have shown the situation is getting worse, with the gender ratio down to 927 girls for every 1000 boys and falling, particularly in well-heeled urban areas where people have access to the technology that enables them to determine their child's sex.

Gender determination is banned in India, but the law is widely ignored.

Mr Ramadoss said yesterday that it was essential as part of the campaign against the killing of girl babies to ensure girls were included in advertising and that he was determined to get "son-centric" advertising banned.

"We need to see more daughters in advertisements, and complete families should be shown with one or more girls," he said.

"There is a lot of bias, particularly in the regional television channels. Advertisements that show parents looking happy at the birth of a son or saving for their son's education send out the wrong message and reinforce son-preference in society.

"Feticide and neglect of the girl child are a result, and advertisements should not be allowed to callously reinforce these beliefs."

The Government announced an ambitious scheme last week aimed at encouraging parents who do not want their girl babies to take them to official "Cradles" to be established across the country so the girls can be taken care of in institutions, rather than killed.

Article 4

Media portrayal of women
2006 October 17
by Nita

Some thought it ‘cute’ – a photograph in an English daily of the future mayor of Mumbai shown cooking in her kitchen.

But why, one wonders, should a person who wishes to hold an important public post, be placed in the kitchen? Who has ever seen a picture of a male politician carrying the bazaar bag home, or changing the bulb?

Media decides the context in which a woman should be placed, and reinforces it constantly. Take, for instance, an episode of Crime Time on TVI channel. The subject: difficulties of a woman police officer’s job. The very first visual is of Pratima Sharma, a police inspector, combing her child’s hair and saying how much she loves to cook. In the next scene, her husband describes how much the family suffers due to his wife’s job.

Even Phoolan Devi the dacoit was shown serving food to her husband.

The media loves to see women as homemakers. And it loves to see her as an avid consumer. The woman is the one who buys without end and her hair, her dress, her shoes, each bears the stamp of the latest, the most expensive products. Practically no woman in any of the serials repeats a dress. She makes sure that her house is decorated with the latest gadgets and that her family spends their holidays in places straight of out travel company brochures.

‘Though the media purports to project the modern, liberated woman, it is actually endorsing women as consumers,’ says Malini Bhattacharya, erstwhile M.P. and professor. ‘This is derogatory to the image of women and is only remotely linked with their real concerns.’
A study conducted by the Delhi based Media Advocacy group highlighted instances of stereotyping and of discrimination.

Interviews of men in newspapers, says the study, hardly ever mentions their marital status or their dress sense. The focus is on their work. By contrast, women achievers are subject to irrelevant, even distasteful queries. Take for example the interview of Tarjani Vakil, a banker, which was carried, in a leading daily. The interview treated the reader to colourful details about her appearance and personal life, such as her penchant for beautiful sarees, her decision to stay single and her living in an extended joint family. Her feminine qualities, like her soft voice, were emphasised and she (so said the article) was ‘no power lady.’

The amount of coverage women get overall is also much less that men do. The study reveals that men are provided with a larger number of opportunities to present their viewpoints and shown in diverse roles…in all areas like administration, law, business, science and technology. Representation of women varies from negligible to total exclusions and women in certain accepted professions are interviewed and talked about. For example women educationists or women doctors. If they are interviewed for achieving success in a ‘male’ profession, then the article often goes to great pains to point out her ‘feminity’. For example in a television interview the senior police officer Kiran Bedi was asked if she liked to cook.

Even when the issue of reservation of seats for women in panchayats was discussed on television, it was men who did the talking while women sat as silent spectators.
When expert opinion is sought on an issue, 90 per cent of the people interviewed by the media are men. When women were shown leading dharnas against the Dunkel Draft, not even a woman parliamentarian like Margaret Alva was approached for her views.

‘We have been living with this stereotyped representation of women for years,’ says Father Rosario, the executive Director of the Chitrabani film Institute. ‘The media does try to establish a woman’s feminity, especially if she is a successful woman.’

While the women in Bollywood films may no longer be portrayed as self-sacrificing doormats, they are often portrayed as hysterical bimbos. Screaming, yelling, and crying is part and parcel of woman’s reaction to a stressful situations, never mind if in real life it’s the men who make the most noise. Also, there are many number of movies where women who assert themselves are considered ‘bad’ while men, even if they tease and hit women are considered ‘heroes’.

(This is an edited version of the article that was published in The Telegraph, Calcutta.)

Note: Not much has changed where portrayal of women in the media is concerned. Though more films are being made with women in strong roles, these are mostly the women-centric films. An exception was seen in the latest commerical Hindi film Kabhi Albida Na Kehna. Preeti Zinta was portrayed as a calm, cool woman who could take her own decisions. However the film itself wasn’t a good one! And today on Indian soaps, women are portrayed quite badly, perhaps worse than before, as evil scheming and selfish.

October 30th: Even Kiran Desai, the winner of the Booker prize this year for her novel The Inheritance of Loss was questioned about why she was not married and did not have children. In her characteristic way she replied that writing took her to a ‘lonely dark place’ and she would not have been able to give a child what he/she needed…but I wonder if a man would have been asked this question? I mean, here is a woman who is obviously not married and she must have good reason for it…why embarrass her about it?

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