Posted By Shivani Ekkanath
Like any other modern primarily capitalist society, advertisements continue to play a pivotal role in our lives. They have come to take on a truly larger than life form as we see them in our quotidian lives. Yet, they continue to carry some of the most entrenched forms of sexism, misogyny and patriarchal power in our country’s media and pop culture.
Perhaps we all remember the so-called, ‘Unisex’ washing machine that was seemingly so easy to use even ‘for men’ or the simply outrageous Snickers ad, Jab tujhe bhook lagti hain na, tab tu heroine ban jata hain? How about the inflammatory Ford India advertisement that featured sex-offender Berlusconi driving a Ford Figo hatchback with three girls tied up in the trunk?
Unfortunately, such scenes of absolute blasphemy continue to dominate our billboards and screens. As companies begin to find creative and ingenious solutions to boost their profits with the advent of phenomena like big data and emotional branding, sexism, discrimination, and inequality still remain rampant and in some cases, are even grossly aggravated.
As companies begin to find creative and ingenious solutions to boost their profits with the advent of phenomena like big data and emotional branding, sexism, discrimination, and inequality still remain rampant and in some cases, are even grossly aggravated.
Advertisements: Cultural Embeddedness And Its Adverse Impacts
By and large, a lot of our advertisements are the products of the cultural and social norms of our environments usually, particularly in many conservative households that are still prevalent across societies. The societal and cultural pressures that women grapple with continue to be overlooked as they continue to fight against the shackles of domestic confinement and family obligations. The effects of patriarchy and gender norms continue to cast an ugly shadow and cloud the judgments of viewers.
Unfortunately, putting women in positions subservient to men is done to craft a specific brand image and reach a target market by making products and services relatable to the public. Yet, in this case, ‘relatability’ involves harsh gender stereotyping. For instance, many advertisements continue to show women primarily as caregivers for the household and the children while husbands go to work and earn a living to support the family. It is even more astonishing that such regressive portrayals cater even to urban populations in big cities and hubs across the country. The visual imagery of femininity is repressive and contribute to an evermore regressive narrative about women’s positions and duties.
Moreover, such advertisements open an entire host of debilitating problems. Issues in India such as colourism have been largely caused by the existence and dominance of skin whitening creams such as fair and lovely which tell women that they are insignificant unless they adhere to certain blasphemously imposed beauty standards. Once again, women become objects for the male gaze and target, which in turn, contributes to the normalisation of similar themes into our media as well as pop culture, thereby becoming an ever-growing and vicious cycle.
By doing so, we cement many of the pre-existing regressive gender and cultural norms that are present in society. Sexism in advertising and marketing, though at times even rather subtle, can prove to be the most toxic and deceiving due to the way it is perceived and internalised by the public, thereby aggravating the vicious cycle hidebound patriarchy. Advertisements like the one by Ford India viciously ‘normalises’ the dangerous shadow that rape culture continues to have in India by expressing to audiences that it is somehow appropriate to heinously enslave women.
Some Good News?
Despite some of the revolting marketing techniques we see around us, there has certainly been some level of steady progress and footing in a certain sense. Audiences are beginning to recognise the undercurrents of hypocrisy and gender prejudices that seem to be afflicting a large proportion of today’s advertisements. The post-Nirbhaya era has warned us against the vices of sexism and discrimination, particularly violence and sex crimes. As a society, we are beginning to progressively become more cognizant and socially conscious and aware of the many inequalities and the danger of the toxicity of internalised norms.
The post-Nirbhaya era has warned us against the vices of sexism and discrimination, particularly violence and sex crimes. As a society, we are beginning to progressively become more cognizant and socially conscious and aware of the many inequalities and the danger of the toxicity of internalised norms.
To elaborate, the #Unfairandlovely campaign catalysed a movement to question the now highly questionable fair and lovely advertisements that grazed our television screens every day. It cast doubt and a great degree of scepticism on our nation’s long fangled obsession with skin whitening products and creams like Fair and lovely. It helped shed light on deeply entrenched forms of societal discriminations like colourism in Indian society as well. Skincare brands like Nivea have even recently apologised for contributing to colourism through some of their racially oppressive deodorant advertisements. Brands like Tanishq and Nirma seem to have been trying to crumble commonly held notions about women and reduce the stigmas associated with remarriage and divorce.
A new method of advertising that relies on social marketing, better known under the hashtag ‘femvertising’ is working specifically on improving the ways in which women are perceived in the realm of advertising. These advertisements challenge the traditionally gendered scripts present in advertisements, particularly where the woman is seen performing domestic tasks and uses different forms of role reversal to challenge traditional gender norms and stereotypes present in our lives.
Furthermore, advertisements are also seeking to overturn and challenge social taboos and stigmas through further dialogue and discussion. For example, a 2016 Biba advertisement took on the voluminous topic of marital dowry and went viral for the moral and social depth it carried and conveyed to audiences. Amir Khan’s show, Satyamev Jayate even once tackled issues pertaining to toxic masculinity and how it traditional notions and conceptions of masculinity harmed men. Fortunately, such changes are also complemented by developments in other facets of our country’s pop culture, especially in areas like film. In recent times, popular films like Queen have not only garnered international acclaim and been box office hits, but have also been essential vehicles for social commentary and female liberation.
Gender discourse is shifting, albeit slowly and steadily as our country is at a crossroads as it grapples with generational gaps and the impetus for change. Women’s positions in advertising thus, become a question of representation and first and foremost, intersectionality. If advertisements are as powerful as they are given there manipulative and ubiquitous nature, they can also be an essential vehicle for social change in 2019.