India is full of contradictions. Some of them are positive because they make India the diverse populous that it is. The bad ones however have huge consequences. One such contradiction is the growth in women’s aspirations versus their portrayal in Indian media.
Engendered, a data intelligence company advocating for the economic case of gender equity published a white paper to highlight the contradictions in growth in women’s aspiration and economic status versus their portrayal in popular media. Engendered analysed 80 print and audiovisual ads from the Diwali blitz period – October 26, 2018 – November 10, 2018.
Out of 80 ads, 47.5% of advertisements reinforced gender stereotypes. Women were shown to rule the domestic sphere – they cook food, serve it, and operate kitchen appliances. Male ambassadors posed with kitchen appliances, while women were necessarily shown using it. In contrast, public sphere products like cars were dominated by men. The number of women using cars doubled in the past 5 years, but the ads didn’t reflect that.
Men were also shown as being in charge of buying high value goods – houses, gold and diamonds, for instance, while women were shown to be making low value purchase decisions like FMCG goods. Real-estate and jewellery were bought by men for the women in their lives. In reality, a recent survey revealed that 76% of rural women interviewed made purchasing decisions on their own.
Esther Duflo FBA, a French-American economist, did a policy experiment in India. The findings reflected that women leaders had a positive impact on the aspirations and educational attainment of young girls. The role model effect is strong. If advertisers don’t showcase the changed profile of an Indian woman, how will the young girls ever know about it?
The media and advertising industry in India is trying to break free from stereotypes. 17 out of 80 ads actively breached the gender norms. Though small, the number of positive advertisements was on the rise. Even when brands couldn’t take a stand, they chose to be on the fence in such a manner that they also didn’t further stereotypes. Around 25 ads from the 70 were actually neutral and didn’t sway either way.
Engendered only looked at 80 ads and therefore sweeping statements can’t be made about the difference between Indian and foreign brands. From the small sample size however, we noticed that foreign brands were definitely more progressive than the Indian ones.
Interestingly, even ads that were created to bring change in society by showcasing causes like environment protection or charity wouldn’t go beyond traditional roles assigned to genders.
Let’s look at the analysis of ads from across business sectors in greater detail.
This comprised of ads for mobile phones, TVs, washing machines, dish TVs, ACs, water purifiers, grills, toasters, utensils and plywood.
- Out of the 17 ads analysed in this category, 15 showed a case of gender bias.
- Kitchen items were represented by female as well as male models. The male models however, were posing with them while women were typically shown using them.
- One ad showcased a family where the mother was wearing a chef uniform and the father was in athletics gear. All that the ad needed to show was that they could keep the clothes white – the mother could very well have been wearing just a white saree.
This comprised of ads of cars as well as two wheeler products and brand ads of auto manufacturers.
- Out of the 11 ads in this category, only two were positive.
- All car ads were marketed towards a male audience. In the past five years, the percentage of women car buyers has nearly doubled, to 10-12 per cent from about 6 per cent. The ads didn’t represent this change. In the case of two wheelers though, scooters were typically promoted using female models and ambassadors.
Banking and financial services:
These included home loans, credit and debit cards, insurance and payment gateways.
- All ads were fairly neutral and didn’t exhibit much bias with reference to gender roles. They did rely on stereotyping gender traits though. The larger bias of money being the world for men was prevalent.
- Credit and debit cards necessarily had women selling them.
- Investment ads necessarily had men taking care of financial planning.
- Loans for entrepreneurs had both women and men, home loans typically had only men.
- Ads about financial support schemes by government stuck to traditional gender roles.
This included all web based delivery and shopping services.
- Several ads had a social cause that would appeal to the millennials but few tried to break the confines of gender stereotypes. Overall the ads were definitely more progressive than the average appliance ads.
- Ironically, an ad that showed a woman to be a problem-solver had a man admitting to having a male ego and justifying it humorously. There was no attempt made to create a counter narrative to the male ego. This would have been creatively easy to do and wouldn’t have hampered the story line.
This included clothing lines, designers, clothing stores and shoes.
- Festive clothes were necessarily for women but sportswear was reserved for men.
- Out of the 11 analysed ads, only three actively made an attempt to smash patriarchy.
- ‘Let’s celebrate a change’, a campaign by Sabhyata, particularly stood out in the crowded space of fashion where women are still the key customer and models are predominantly female.
FMCG, home décor, retail and food:
This consisted of food items, cutlery, pan masalas and supermarket chains, for example.
- Male ambassadors posed with the food products while female models were necessarily shown cooking using the products.
- Products like Pan Masalas primarily catered to the male ego and in some ways justified having one.
- FMCG products had progressive issues being discussed but stuck to the societally defined gender roles.
- Home décor ads went so far as to show women in pillow fights, an overdone stereotype that’s lasted for generations.
Luxury – jewellery and gold:
This included jewellery stores and jewellery industry association ads.
- High value goods such as gold showed men as the buyers.
- They often depicted the man gifting luxury goods to the woman – wife, daughter etc.
- This assumption that only men buy high value goods is dangerous because in 2006, 60% women were consulted during purchasing decisions while in 2016 it was 73%.
- There has also been a 20% growth the in the number of positions held by women at leadership level.
- Another high value purchase was the home. Real estate ads were as biased as the auto and gold sector. They mainly catered to men as buyers and women as the nester of the house or the influencer.
An article “It’s the Image That Is Imperfect: Advertising and Its Impact on Women” by Indhu Rajagopal and Jennifer Gales in Economic and Political Weekly stated that the power of advertisements and media images had a stronger impact in shaping gender images than books on feminism. It is important for brands and agencies to recognise their responsibilities in shaping a future generation.