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Depiction of women in ads matters, but their absence also tells a story: ASCI's Manisha Kapoor

ASCI's on a journey to bring brands in tune with the larger shifts in society on gender narrative.

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MUMBAI: The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) and Futurebrands have announced the launch of their first-ever deep, immersive dive into gender depiction in Indian advertising. The study titled ‘GenderNext’ aims to provide actionable insights that can positively shape the gender narratives in advertising. It is the first of several initiatives that ASCI will undertake this year. The full report is expected to be out by September.

In a free-wheeling discussion with indiantelevision.com’s Anupama Sajeet, ASCI secretary-general Manisha Kapoor talked about the skewed portrayal of women, gender roles in Indian advertising and the idea behind the initiative.

Edited excerpts:

On the objective of the study.

We wanted to examine the portrayal and the narratives around women in advertisements and their roles, the vocabulary that is used – whether they are shown to be with family, friends, or alone, at home or at work. Then, use this information to bring about a much more positive depiction of the narrative. We felt that advertisers need to be given a different starting point to explore gender narratives in advertising, in a more relatable way that’s also inspirational and progressive. It is not just for advertisers, but policymakers, for academia, the government, and civil society. The study is not an audit. We are not trying to audit advertising, we are trying to learn through observations of what could be a better way of saying things and open up newer ways this conversation could be taken ahead.

On whether the ad industry is losing connect with consumers with changing times.

Advertisers and brands do realise that consumers have changed. However, the change is complex, it is not simple to understand. To illustrate my point, why is it that every time we need to show something traditional we resort to showing a homemaker – a homemaker today may not necessarily see herself as traditional. This points to an indirect manner in which advertising has thought of women. Some brands have tried to break the mould and succeeded.  There is a larger shift that’s happening globally and the idea is to bring that larger shift into focus. Society and ads- both influence each other. Ads will show the truths that they pick up from societal changes and vice-versa. So, there is a need to be more responsible as well as progressive. 

On plans to deal with the continued objectification of women in ads.

ASCII already has guidelines that say that ads cannot be derogatory or demeaning to women. So in cases where it is quite evident, we process complaints against these ads. Depending on what has been said or depicted we could uphold the complaint against such an advertisement. Now the challenge lies in what is permissible and what’s not outright derogatory.  So within that, what are the positive narratives that we can pick up?; it's not just about correcting a wrong, we are trying to move the needle in terms of more aspirational, relatable, positive depiction. We want advertisers to make better ads.

On tackling ingrained, stereotypical gender roles in Indian ads.

There are five enquiry frameworks that we are using in the study. First, we will culturally decode advertisements. We will look at ads from different regions and different categories over some time and try to understand what is the gender dynamics that are being depicted in the ad. This involves decoding advertisements that are already out there in the public domain. Second, we will talk to consumers about how they perceive certain ads. We’ll do in-depth qualitative research across 10 centres with groups of consumers to this effect. Next, we’ll talk to the creators of the ads- to the brands, advertisers, leading creative voices in the industry, to understand their perspective. The fourth part will be to talk to the policymakers, social activists and those who have worked in the gender space.

Finally, we will look at what our partner in this initiative – Futurebrands – brings to the table. Futurebrands has an ongoing primary study for 11 years now, which has covered more than 200 small and large towns in India. It’s called Bharat Darshan and it maps the changes in Indian society. This will provide the foundation on which we will review some of the information which we assimilate now.

On guidelines for the ad industry post the study.

We may draft certain guidelines in future which could be helpful to advertisers to navigate this space. Our code already provides for the fact that advertising should not be derogatory to women, but we may offer more by way of explanation, examples and illustrations and certain more specifics. We are looking at a broad spectrum of categories, it includes categories that have traditionally spoken to women, as well as, those which have not. Thus, even the absence of women in certain categories of ads is something to be noted. While the presence of women and their depiction matters, the absence also tells a story. Hence with GenderNext, we hope to provide an insight that will help advertisers navigate these conventional tropes.

On ASCI’s plan to focus on gender initiatives.

Gender is the big focus and our flagship initiative this year. To further this agenda, we are looking at the formation of more alliances and collaborative efforts with other organisations, like the kind we have done with Futurebrands, which will be revealed in time. This is only a beginning. We will have much more coming up as the year goes by. Companies have stepped forward to fund the study. Nobel Hygiene is one of our principal sponsors. GenderNext is a first-of-its-kind study and expected to be of significant value to advertisers and creative agencies, as well as academia, policymakers and advocacy bodies.

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