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The ad, ad world of chauvinism
Three women, gagged, bound and stuffed into the boot of a car: the visual could fit right into the story that leaps out at you from newspaper front pages almost on a daily basis these days - a lone woman dragged into a passing car, gangraped and dumped after a few hours. To use such an image to sell the, apparently desirable, idea of a car with a sizeable boot calls into question the sensibilities, or rather the lack of them, of the ad makers.
The offensive advertisement has since been taken down from the Ford India website and heads have rolled in JWT, the advertising agency that created it. The client, Ford Motor Company, also announced that the ad did not have its approval.
Most ad executives, however, were quick to dismiss the controversial ad as an error of judgement. "The Figo ad was undoubtedly ill-timed, especially now when people everywhere are thinking differently about gender rights and issues, " says Spandan Mishra, strategic planner, Rediffusion Y&R.
He's not wrong - there's nothing particularly new about advertising that plays on gender stereotypes. If men are in the kitchen they're generally on alien territory and if women are in aftershave ads, it is generally because they just can't keep their hands off men who smell nice. Take the one for Axe deodorants that features leggy, buxom lasses driven cuckoo by the said elixir of desire. One particular Axe Body Spray commercial showed headless bodies of a man and a woman. The premise was that the only thing women see while sizing up the opposite sex is a man's hair, and the men can't see beyond breasts. Others (products ranging from detergent and cooking oils to pain balms and even laminates) have a strong sexist sub-text. They depict women as weak creatures who fit into typecast roles and need to be protected. But there is seldom an outcry.
Kainaz Karmakar, group creative director, Ogilvy and Mather, maintains that sexist ads are nothing more than a reflection of our society, Moreover, they depict the life of a proverbial Kanpur housewife, not career women. "It is about what we call India-2 (tier 2 and 3 towns). All these ads, for instance cooking oil, target India-2. For this audience, if you make a commercial that shows a man coming home after a long day's work and sitting down to do accounts while the wife brings him tea, there is a rewarding moment at the end. "
She adds that according to most research groups, women are often touched by that moment of reward at the end: they like being in charge of the well-being of the family. "For them, it is a sense of belonging, the person who cares, it is their sense of identity. For Tata Salt for example, I used to go for a lot of these groups. We had once done an ad in which we show a lower-middle class family out in the market and the kid wants to buy a pizza but can't get it. They go home and the mother creates a great pizza at home while the husband doesn't do anything. The issue of why no one is helping her in the kitchen never arises. The truth is most of these women (target audience) are not earning, so they enjoy looking after their families, " says Karmakar.
In India, the advertising industry is self-regulated by a voluntary organisation called the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI). The ASCI has a code of conduct on the basis of which it judges complaints against ads;the code, though, doesn't specify any guidelines on how women should be portrayed or on gender stereotyping. In contrast, the Advertising Standards Council of Canada, for instance, has specific guidelines on gender portrayal.
Most ad executives scoff at the tiny minority of "Diesel Jeans wearing", "imported coffee-drinking", urban women lamenting the sexism in ads. "This is an issue in big cities where we have an idealistic view of gender equality. Just go a few kilometres outside, say, to Ghaziabad, and it is a completely different world. That is 90 per cent of the market. If I have three clients, all of them will ask me how the housewife in Kanpur will respond to an ad, " says Nilesh Vaidya, executive creative director, Rediffusion Y&R.
What seems sexist in urban areas might be the convention in rural or semi-urban areas. "Say, I am selling Close Up toothpaste, I don't need to show four skimpily clad women fawning over a guy because of his fresh breath. But research shows that the biggest aspiration of a boy in rural areas is to impress the ladies. This might seem sexist to a liberated woman but it is our responsibility to consider all sensibilities. But we are not immune to requests from women's rights activists, " says Mishra.
Till ten years ago, we had high tolerance levels for ads that were openly and insultingly sexist. There was a detergent campaign in which a man storms into his house, throws his dirty shirt at the wife and screams that it is because of her (and her substandard washing skills) that he did not get promoted at work. Today it is unlikely that ad will get screentime but we still have ads for healthy cooking oils where only women spend time worrying about the health of the husband and family. And when it comes to fitness/weight loss products, it is usually the woman who makes the effort to get herself into shape to regain her husband's attention. As for balms, the husband always struggles with household chores till the woman (presumably after liberal applications of the balm) comes to his rescue.
This is not to say that downright insulting ads do not exist anymore. In one particular ad a woman in a red bikini walks out onto a beach, ostensibly to sell sacks of cement and in another (Mother Dairy), a husband screams at his wife (after coming home from work, of course) for letting their son touch his things. He also questions her right to touch his things, to which she meekly says, "Sorry".
The ad industry maintains that things have improved considerably. "I would say that advertising has become a lot more liberated and women are shown in diverse roles and not just as housewives. Why these ads (above) jump out at you is because there aren't too many of them. Even if you see Fair & Lovely, it isn't about pleasing a man anymore. It is about better skin and confidence, " says Nilesh Vaidya, executive creative director, Rediffusion Y&R.
Both Mishra and Karmakar also point out some recent progressive ads. An ad for Nirma, for instance, shows four women on the road get together to push an ambulance out of a muddy ditch while men stand around, not wanting to dirty their freshly laundered shirts. The Havells fans campaign shows a husband wanting to take on his wife's surname after marriage.
"Ads for ready-to-make food products show couples now, and even men on their own. But the difference between volume and value categories will always exist. I can't change everything, " says Mishra. "With expensive products, I can play on aspiration but with volume products such as soap, shampoo (Rs 2 to 40), sales are affected with every ad. In these ads, I spend hours thinking about every single frame. To expect the client to change this might be too much. "
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