Stereotyping in Indian Ads

article 1:
19 July 2006

The ad for a certain shampoo on the television portraying two of the most sensuous and physically attractive star models, (who are also an off-screen pair in real life) is an indicator of how sex roles have changed in Indian advertising. Cinematographed in monochrome with the right shades of darkness and mood lighting, the word 'hot' recurs like a double-edged metaphor in the ad, an adjective that has no direct relationship with the product being advertised. Why?

This, and other contemporary ads raise pertinent questions about perspectives on gender in media representations of men and women. The Bipasha Basu-John Abraham ad mentioned above for instance, underscores how men in Indian ads are being presented in a much more macho-dominant manner than they were before. Another ad for male underwear shows a number of females with pseudo-coy expressions on their faces coming out of a toilet. The camera cuts to a shot inside the toilet where a handsome male model lies prostrate with telltale lipstick marks across his body. Again, the product advertised does not really bear a direct relationship with the message or the script since few Indian males would be caught dead before females catch them in their underwear inside what appears to be a public toilet! These are Western concepts imposed on Indian ad scripts and prove that visuals need not necessarily represent the social norms of a society.

On the other hand, while sports and athletics sported more men than women in the past in India and in the West, today however, real achievers like Sania Mirza have changed all that. Also, you may see a cricketer like Mahendra Dhoni as often as you see Mirza, never mind the product they are posing for. Women in Indian ads are being presented in less dependent roles than they were before. An ad for a leading women's fortnightly recently carried a delightful image of an ageing woman in bridal attire. It later transpires that her daughter is getting her married again! This is an example of positive advertising that subtly carries a social message.

Many mother-daughter ads in recent times bear out female bonding, in effect, subtly marginalising the role of men by cutting them out completely from such ads. Yet, women do not appear in ads for 'solid' products such as steel and cement and even if they do, they are sidetracked within the script.

Have male and female roles in Indian ads changed over the past decade? Are men more frequently visible in Indian ads than they were, say, ten years ago? Have the images of men and women in ads softened over time, blurring the stereotypes, or have they hardened? How do these images compare with international trends? Is media literacy, especially for women and girls, a necessity? This area is marked by a paucity of research, but a study authored by Mallika Das published in the November 2000 issue of Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, revealed interesting findings.

The Sex Roles study drew similarities and differences in the way women and men are portrayed in Indian magazine ads and the way they are portrayed in other countries. The similarities, according to the study, largely borne out by fact seem to be that

(1) overall, men and women in Indian ads are also portrayed in stereotypical ways;
(2) the stereotypes in India also seem to be changing and softening, albeit slowly;
(3) as in the case of western ads, women and men appear for different types of products in Indian ads; and
(4) role portrayals seem to be affected by the nature of the product in the case of women, as in other nations.

In the case of male role portrayals, the following major differences were found:

1. The study quoted an earlier 1997 US study (Kolbe and Albanese) which found that men were often portrayed in athletic roles. By comparison, the study recorded that only 11.4 per cent of Indian ads showed men in such roles. This percentage was less than 9.5 per cent in previous years.

2. Although men in Indian ads appeared more often in traditional ways, the study also recorded that men were not portrayed in very negative ways. This seems contradictory to findings from other nations, where male portrayals have changed to a lesser extent than female role portrayals over the past few decades.

In addition, my own observation is that there is an increased appearance of men in Indian ads. This may be attributable to a number of factors. First, India is one of the fastest growing markets for consumer durables and several "male-oriented" products such as insurance, medical, industrial, and technology-related products. Because men are more often considered to be the primary decision makers for such products, the increase is understandable. Second, the number of ads in business and general interest magazines in India has increased tremendously while the number in women's magazines has not. Both of these factors could have led to an increase in the number of men appearing in Indian ads.

Three, the increased visibility may also be attributed to stars, sportsmen and celebrities from different fields stepping into the modelling world. No one would have dreamt of Amitabh Bachchan modelling for any product when he was at the peak of his career as hero. Today, he is modelling for nearly 70 products across the board. Female stars were popular as models earlier, and this has changed. Today, male stars from Shahrukh Khan to Amir Khan to Akshay and Aftab, and even smaller names like Irfan Khan, Zayed Khan and Emraan Hashmi are into modelling. Those who were already models but are now celebrated stars such as John Abraham, are chased by agencies to function as brand ambassadors.

Two major differences in female role portrayals were noted:

1. Some of the common stereotypical portrayals seem less prevalent in Indian ads. For example, unlike in British magazine ads, women in Indian magazine ads were more likely to be portrayed in "neutral/other" ways and less likely to be portrayed as sex objects. Women modelling for mobile phones, cars and two-wheelers, painkillers, and as protagonists carry neutral portrayals. Women were also less likely to be portrayed in "dependency" roles in Indian ads than in British ads. It is noteworthy that these results are similar to those found in two other Asian countries--Korea and Japan--where, again, females were less likely to be portrayed in very negative stereotypical ways than in western nations. As mentioned earlier, the religious and cultural differences between India and western nations may account for this finding.

2. The polarizing trend found in the West, i.e., a tendency to portray women in dependency and housewife roles and in nontraditional activities, career-oriented, and authority figure roles (in British magazine ads), was not found for India by Das' study. 'Polarizing' means strong opposites where one woman is shown driving all alone in a car with an expression of confidence on her face juxtaposed against the image of a woman sensually posing for a cosmetic product or spouting forth the advantages of a health drink for children. In India, the trend seems to be to portray women less often as housewives or concerned with looks, but not more often in nontraditional, career-oriented, or authority figure roles. Instead, there seems to be an increase in neutral portrayals of women, due, in part, to the dramatic increase in the number of ads for such products.

This might be attributable to the fact that although Indian society is changing, it is still a patriarchal society and dramatic changes (such as portraying women in nontraditional ways) may not be accepted as easily in Indian society as in western ones. Any change in role portrayals of women have to be done while being posited clearly within dominant ideology, not from without. Furthermore, as studies by G Ramu (1988) and S Bharat (1995) had found, Indian men and women, regardless of their educational level or career status, hold conservative perceptions of women's roles within the family.

Thus, although portraying women in neutral ways may be acceptable to Indians, portraying them in nontraditional ways may not be. Besides, there is an increasing trend in 'family' and 'couple' representations in ads for consumer durables like washing machines, refrigerators and micro-wave ovens, products earlier dominated by women alone.
Still, with the increasing number of female models shown in advertising today, the media seem to give more equality to female images, but the underlying messages still emphasise sexuality, often presenting women as sex objects. Also, the number of women in "decorative roles" had actually increased over time, according to a 1993 US study by L J Busy and G Leichty.

The importance of media literacy

The danger in all this is that the age of Information and entertainment is still relatively new, and how our constant and growing use of media is affecting us in ways big and small may be easily overlooked. We get used to things very easily, and often the many media images and messages we see and hear enter our brains very quickly, and on a subconscious instead of conscious level. Experts call it passive vs. active processing of information.

This is precisely why it is important to stand back and notice what is going in to our eyes and ears and our brains, how much and how often, how it might affect what we think about, how we think about it, and what we do. This is called Media Literacy or Media Education or Media Awareness. Media Literacy teaches people to analyse messages conveyed by the media, consider the commercial or political purpose of the image or message and who is responsible for it, and other ideas that it implies. It increases our ability to react to and appreciate (or not) media images and messages in a genuine and conscious way. It provides information and statistics on media and culture, and provides a set of tools for critical thinking that can be applied to any media "product" or setting. It is a movement in education and culture that is growing alongside the growth and expansion of the media, each day throughout the country and the world.

Why is it so important for women and girls to be conscious and knowledgeable about media? While it is true that things have changed in a big way for women in the last thirty years due to lots of women (and some cool men) speaking out and acting for progress and equality for women and girls, there's more that needs to be done. We've got all sorts of new, 21st century kinds of challenges---and old problems that still need lots of our attention and energy. These include: good health; genuine self-esteem; understanding of and comfort with sexuality; relationships based on mutual respect and equality; safety from domestic and sexual violence; goal-setting and career success; sound financial judgment; educated participation in government and democracy; and overall power-sharing in society for women and girls.

Lessons in media literacy, articulated clearly or indirectly through public service advertising, posters and so on, can empower women and girls to handle problems that result from a fixation on physical attractiveness rather than on intellectual growth, on wholesome good health rather than on stringent dieting that could lead to chronic psychological trauma like anorexia nervosa and so on.

In the meantime, gender roles in Indian advertising continue to change. Taking celebrities as an example, Amitabh Bachchan is advertising for a brand of diamonds, that across the world till this day, is known as a woman's best friend. Bachan's role is a kind of revolution, since even today, every other diamond advertisement on the small screen and the print media exclusively uses women as the main model. Need one say more?

Shoma Chatterji
19 Jul 2006

Gender stereotyping in advertising

Majority advertisements featuring children show boys in diverse, challenging and macho roles while girls are portrayed in a more streotyped and objectified manner

Gouri Shah

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.


This video shows the stereotypes featured in the media and the perpetuation of these stereotypes in the media. In the first video, the simpsons, a popular show among the teenagers portray the stereotypes that indians are closely tied to karma, reincarnation and lastly hinduism. Beyond that, the ads are also insulting when the Indian character plead to Jesus. Secondly, the ad in the second clip, Indians are often potrayed as wearing turbans and having thick bad accents. The third clip shows that indian movies would often break out into a mass dance scenes. As long as these form of clips exist in the media, the stereotypes of Indians would continue.

article 4:
Stereotyping in Indian Films- How long will it continue?

By now its common knowledge that RGV and Vivek Oberoi are re-uniting for Rakta Charitra, a biopic on Paritala Ravi, the dreaded factionalist leader of A.P who was shot down a few years ago. But what is making me look forward to the project is to see if RGV is able to carry off the transition of factional A.P politics and associated violence conveniently into a mainstream Hindi movie. After all it’s not easy to make a transition of this sort without avoiding the typical stereotypes seen in Indian cinema. And no the stereotyping is not a prerogative of Bollywood or any particular regional language cinema; it can be seen usually across Indian cinema. India is growing, developing, changing for the better as a country so why should we still allow the kind of stereotyping that has existed in Indian cinema for ages?

To drive across my point I would definitely look at some of the more common stereotypes seen in Indian cinema with some relevant examples wherever possible.

1.Most South Indian characters are just ‘Madrasis’ who keep saying ‘ayyayyo ayyayyo’- Well right from Mehmood in Padosan to Satish Kaushik in Saajan Chale Sasural or Shreyas Talpade in Golmaal Returns, South Indian characters are mainly shown as caricatures who speak pathetic Hindi and there is very poor detailing done by the director/writer. When Rohit Shetty, a South Indian himself cannot differentiate between a Tamilian & a Telugu personality, what more should I say? In case you do not understand what I say- just watch Golmaal Returns. Shreyas Talpade and Celina Jaitley play Tamilian characters in the movie, but whenever Shreyas is excited- he starts singing- ‘Aa Ante Amalapuram’ a popular song from the Telugu hit movie-Arya, now why would you show it this way, unless you don’t have an eye for detailing?

2.Most North Indian characters have to be a ‘sethji’ in a typical South Indian movie and the character is supposed to directly/indirectly elicit laughter from the audience. You can check out countless Tamil movies in particular for the same. Why can’t a North Indian be shown in a regular capacity instead of being shown as a caricature.

3.It’s ok to show the female lead as a North Indian but not the male lead in South Indian movies. Sure it’s fine to show a typical hero falling sometimes in love with the heroine who happens to be from the North, but the reverse hardly happens. I was very happy to see a recent Tamil movie- Abhiyum Naanum (Akasamantha-Telugu) where Trisha the heroine falls in love with a sardar (Ganesh Venkatraman), at least someone is trying to change things being depicted on screen.

4.Regionalism taking precedence over authenticity- In a recent Tamil movie- Arasangam, the protagonist, Vijaykanth speaks in Tamil to all & sundry in places like Assam & even Canada. Since when did everyone start speaking Tamil all over? Or take a recent Telugu movie- Shouryam- a major part of the movie is shot in Kolkata but no body is seen speaking in Bengali or even Hindi for that matter. It looks like everybody speaks in Telugu in Kolkata. Now can’t this be avoided?

5.Shooting abroad- is it necessary every time for every movie? What started off as an attempt to offer something new to the Indian audiences by shooting mainly songs abroad in exotic locations, later gave way to even the whole movie being shot abroad. But now I think the phenomenon has become a joke & in a lot of cases you actually wonder as to why was the movie shot abroad. Some recent examples of the same include- Yuvvraj and Tasveer 8*10.Did the story in these movies actually have anything compelling for the makers to shoot it overseas instead of basing it in India & shooting it here?

The above given stereotypes are just some of the more commonly seen ones. But the list is definitely not exhaustive. I feel that the issue of stereotyping is avoided as far as possible by people who believe in detailing to the best extent possible. Here I’m referring to people like a Manirathnam,Vishal Bharadwaj,Cheran,Anurag Kashyap etc.These are the people who can by way of getting into detailing take care and avoid stereotypes to the best extent possible.
On a parting note let me remind you all about one of one of my favorite scenes from Indian cinema which shows how detailing can really heighten a scene and virtually avoid any type of stereotyping.

The scene is from Roja (Tamil) after Arvind Swamy has been captured by the militants and he finds himself face to face with their leader, Pankaj Kapur. When Pankaj Kapur questions Arvind in Tamil, he is very much intrigued and wants to know how Pankaj knows Tamil. To this Pankaj Kapur calmly replies that he studied (B.SC) Agriculture from Tamilnadu Agricultural University,Coimbatore and learnt Tamil during those days in college. A great scene conceived and developed by a master story teller/director.

So when do we get to see more and more of the stereotypes being given a farewell in Indian cinema?

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