Guest column: The changing face of women empowerment, reflected in Women's Day campaigns

The modern woman today wants much more than to marry and elevate her social status.

NEW DELHI: In a world that is increasing being polarised with ideologies, caste, creed, class and gender radicalisation, while also expanding on progressive ideas of gender inclusivity, no-gender binary identities and enhancing gender equity in corporate and social settings, we sure live in a dynamic world, where the term International Women's day, has renewed meaning. And even as we work towards rebuilding a resilient workforce and stronger economics in the new normal, the changing face of women empowerment, is a brave testimonial to their ever increasing role in the modern world. And aptly so, the theme for this year’s women’s day, as set by the UN, is focusing on ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid2019 world’.

Indeed, women and girls worldwide have donned the cape and took on pioneering roles to help the world cope with the crisis. From frontline workers, care givers, nurturers and home makers to new age media influencers, social entrepreneurs, environmental activists, business and wealth consultants to even women in politics, have all made their presence felt and voice heard, as organisations and leaders around the world, turn to their diversified workforces to gain insightful solutions and ideas to tackle the challenges thrown at us by the global pandemic.

Indeed the Pride and Prejudice universe of Jane Austen has long passed, and the modern woman today wants much more than to marry and elevate her social status.

 The 21st-century woman is smart, efficient, and ambitious, looking to conquer the world, with her strength, belief and resilience. She seeks her meaning and value not just by playing the stereotypical roles, rather by breaking free from them.

Modern brand campaigns and advertisements around women: A reflection of changing times

A great way to chart the changing perspective around Women's Day and women's role at large is through the branded advertisement campaigns. Ads are a true reflection of the common beliefs and aspirations of a society, and are often created to appeal to the imagination of the larger section of the population.

Looking back to just a few decades ago, the Women's Day celebrations in India were more meek and stereotypical. The number of ads launched around the day could be counted on your fingertips. Even then, they were limited to a few women's brands doing a lazy, stereotypical campaign, almost as if out of obligation.

Popular narratives showcased the meek housewife focusing on managing the responsibilities of managing a house, raising children and nurturing the seniors, with a never complaining, perpetual smile! The entire movement, concentrated around the 8th of March, was just a reminder for the rest of the society to appreciate the modern super woman!

Brand campaigns through ‘80s and ‘90s:

Let's take a look at old campaigns of the popular Nirma washing Powder. It was always the first choice of Hema, Rekha, Jaya and Sushma, who were busy with household chores like washing clothes. An old Tata Salt campaign shows a woman trying to make pizza for her family at her conservative home. For Santoor in the 80s, the beauty soap user was a docile, homebody housewife.

In each case, the family seems to be a priority for the woman.

Products like cooking salt, washing powder were always considered a woman's product, which is a controversial debate in itself.

In stark contrast stands the carefree, bubbly "new woman" showcased by Liril in the 90s, who is not afraid to bathe, sing and dance openly under a waterfall. We all saw a stunning Sonali Bendre for Nirma Soap in the 90s travelling the world alone.

However, she is still accompanied by a male chaperon – although unconventional, and therefore not completely alone. So dependency on men, respecting boundaries, and abiding to the celebrated feminine notions of innocence and beauty, continued to be the common themes throughout the 90s.

What has changed?

With the dawn of the new century, Women's Day has managed to create a greater social-cultural-economical relevance, as women found their places and voices in corporate and social leadership. Post 2010, we have seen a lot of growth in women's portrayal in mainstream media, which was not limited to stereotypical campaigns or around Women’s Day or Mother’s Day, with brands adopting stronger and impactful narratives that are also stories of empowerment and change.

The new women of the Ads Now:

Needless to say, almost all major brands today launch a well-thought campaign centered around Women's Day. In fact, many brands do not limit their celebration to a single day alone. Ad campaigns focused on women keep coming up all year round. Some of the noteworthy ones:

The 21st-century woman of Santoor is a beauty with brains and a mother, conquering her workspace proudly. Nirma's iconic four women have now stepped up to push an ambulance out of the mud when nobody would volunteer for the difficult, physically arduous task.

Titan Raga appealed to make a positive change in how we look at a woman's success. Prega News has time and again highlighted myriad women's issues like postpartum depression and, in 2021, infertility, which has attempted to change the narrative around the very defining aspect that ‘completes’ a woman – motherhood!

Usha has also spoken up for women's equality in households on Women's Day campaigns. Parachute Body lotion is building narratives around women's freedom of choice around clothing, and appreciating herself and other women.

Body positive brands such as "All"- the plus-size apparel store by Future Lifestyle has launched campaigns that encourage women to be unapologetically sassy and confident, irrespective of their size.

Lotte Choco Pie's "Pause to Celebrate" also initiates serious conversations around the area of women's need to pause, rest and relax.

The most recently, the Dove Ad campaign questions the age-old understanding of "beauty standards" through the lens of a stereotypical arranged marriage setting where women continue to be questioned/ scrutinized and criticized for some of the basic aspects of their natural appearance, thereby suffer being objectified.

A future of equality

Log into the most popular search engine today- Google, and you are going to be welcomed with a campaign again- "The First Of Many: Women's History Month, 2021."

Indeed Women's Day campaigns have evolved to sometimes reflect and at other times, drive the change, towards a progressive, more positive society. Today the “she” is no more vilified for having ambitions or dressing or speaking in a certain way.

Today, the “she” defies gender norms, breaking boundaries and winning in fields traditionally dominated by men. Women's issues like the pay gap, gender bias at workplace, presence in leadership roles and at board meetings, lack of menstrual leave, etc, continue to drive the progressive movement towards gender equality, along with gender neutral and inclusive work policies, and shattering away gender binary stereotypes. From ignorance to glorification to finally an acknowledgement- indeed, women's day campaigns have come a long way!

(The author is co-founder, Scenic Communication. The views expressed are her own and may not subscribe to them.)

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