Are brands and agencies getting women portrayal right?

Experts believe the industry is progressing thanks to changing market dynamics

MUMBAI: A new deodorant has come into the market, a man uses it and suddenly all the ladies go gaga over him. Then enter a common household, a woman doing all the dishes or washing all the dirty clothes of her husband to make him more presentable at work place. And if you are an independent dark-skinned woman, using fairness cream is a necessity to be equal to men or to succeed. This is just how commercials have been working till now.

In the last two decades, gender roles have transcended and both men and women are taking part in offices, household chores. While for a long time women have been objectified and degraded in narratives of advertisements, the socio-economic change has started influencing marketers and advertising agencies too. Although the change is happening at a slow pace, many brands in India are going in the right direction.

Campaigns like Ariel detergent powder’s Share the Load asking why laundry is women’s work reaffirms the progress. A recent campaign by Metro Shoes also ridicules the idea of always prioritising men through our words and asks to "change words".

Marketers and advertising professionals also believe that certain progress is noticeable but there's a long way to go. Adman Prahlad Kakkar  who believes the way women are being portrayed is changing, also mentions one of the changes is that there are a lot more women in advertising than there were in the beginning. He points out, "When the demographic of a profession changes, when you get a lot more women in advertising and media field, you will see a difference compared to ten years ago and what there is today. There are a lot more women now in offices. Don't you think that makes a difference in sensitivity, whatever you are trying to sell? When women are dealing with female issues and products, they will be much more sensitive."

TheSmallBigIdea CEO Harikrishnan Pillai says  marketers, film makers, advertising agencies, the entire advertising ecosystem has become more sensitive to how they portray women. Pillai believes it’s a representation of where our society is heading. There is a larger women representation in the workforce, especially in decision making positions. Thought leaders are voicing their concerns and social media has become a powerful medium to express dissent. He mentions that one cannot get away with misogyny.

Kakkar adds that nobody realised that advertising being popular with men did not matter because men don't buy products, it's women who buy the products. Therefore, brands have to appeal to women. He adds that the ecosystem is getting a lot more women creators, advertising professionals and they are writing for women.

"Also, advertising is something where people will not start a revolution for the sake of starting a revolution. They will follow market trend. If women find you are objectifying women, they won't buy the product. So, it comes to actually commerce. Market demanded, so they changed," Kakkar adds.

McCann Worldgroup vice chairman and managing director Partha Sinha says now it’s almost compulsory that in a three ad campaign, one story has to be that of a woman. But he finds it as tokenism. "The problem with tokenism is that it comes more from the pressure to be correct than to be right and natural. You have to be right and natural, not correct. The desire to be correct, at times, becomes dishonest. If you have respect and understand the gender, then you will not try to force fit. I don’t think there is a natural understanding and appreciation of the gender in advertising," he mentions.

The Ad Reaction Report 2019 by Kantar mentioned that earlier 76 per cent of female consumers and 71 per cent of male consumers believe the way they are portrayed in advertising is completely out of touch. It was also found that men speak seven times the amount women do in ads. Men get four times more screen time than women. And men are 62 per cent more likely to be shown as ‘smart’.

Advertising and marketing professional Jishnu Sen says that brands have been inclusive of women for relevant categories. He mentions that a lot of brands like Clinic Plus, Bournvita, Times of India have done good work in terms of portraying women properly. But he also accepts that brands can be found which have not shown women in proper light. While he mentions that mainstream Bollywood also objectifies women and has not changed, he believes brands and marketers are going in the right direction.

Sen cites the example of Surf Excel's Lalita Ji who has been shown as a home-maker but as the "CEO of the house" which he thinks is not regressive. He also adds that women always take the decision while buying groceries, the target group for FMCGs. Hence, a tale of a mom in a Maggie ad is not sexist in nature.

"However, the market dynamic is changing in the extent that the women you are selling to have evolved a lot in the last 10-20 years. TG remains the same but consumer insight has changed," Sen says.

"Creators are now sensitised and careful with their ideas and representation. And inclusion at large is a great sign of things to come. We are seeing better representation of the LGBTQ community, we are being more body positive, and every box made to ridicule through the eyes of self-created perfect world is now been shattered. Is it enough? Not yet. Is it a good sign? About time," Pillai states.

But what makes misogyny persist? "If you look at North India, the strong market of advertisers and brands, they are way behind other parts of India in their attitude to women. Moreover, there is a Bollywood influence in advertisings as well. And Bollywood, in turn, has a huge North Indian influence. So advertising ends up carrying an underlying sense of misogyny. People try hard, but they can’t go beyond their inherent limitations. We are progressing but the prejudice is still deep rooted," Sinha reminds. As he sums up,  "I don’t want to see empowered women in advertising. I want to see powerful women."

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