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The challenges of socially responsible communicator

The challenges of socially responsible communicator : Advertising in India

There is no society in the world which is totally free of patriarchy and gender discrimination. In some way or the other both keep surfacing even in the most liberal and enlightened societies. However, the hold of both is much more pronounced in traditional societies like India where millions of years of religious and socio-cultural indoctrination has ensured that those values are deeply ingrained in our minds, influencing our thinking, attitudes and behaviors.
All institutions in the society- education, religion, family, marriage, politics, economics etc. work in tandem to reinforce the patriarchal mindsets that promote gender inequality, support discrimination and justify violence. Gender, as we all know, is not about differences between male and female in human society. It is about the socially constructed equations between the two which are unequal, discriminatory and are based on a power relationship where men always have an advantage. Violence is an effective instrument in this process of control and subordination of women by men. Therefore, to bring any kind of change in society, particularly in the status of women, we need to deal with all those institutions which are instrumental in influencing our mindsets. How do we make our families democratic? how do we promote liberal values in education? how do we make our workplaces inclusive? how do we make the messaging in our communication gender sensitive? These are some of the questions we need to raise and work on to usher in a more equal, just and violence free society.

One of the most defining features of today’s world is the predominance of pop- culture mass produced and consumed in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized and is being driven by consumerist aspirations. Everything in this world becomes a commodity that needs to be sold and bought — be it emotion (valentine’s day) or relationships (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day etc.). Globalization demands that the differences are minimized and aspirations are universalized to ensure mass consumption of products and ideas.

Mass media, Films, Internet, and advertising are some of the means through which pop culture is created. An important aspect of pop culture in a globalized context is that it irons out the cultural differences. The same products and services are produced and sold across different cultural contexts, which require that the differences are subsumed under a universal culture.

Advertising is one of the major means which creates a pop culture with its specific values, attitudes and aspirations that makes us avid consumers of what is being produced, It is important to understand the role of advertising in promoting pop culture as it influences us in an insidious and subliminal manner through its clever messaging and imagery.

Advertising leaders often argue that their job is to sell products and not to bring about social change. They say they reflect reality. The question is, which reality? The reality that is characterized by stereotypes and discrimination? Or the emerging reality of new aspirations for a more gender equal and just society? They are always making a choice between the two. While social change may not be the job of advertising one cannot deny the fact that change is the bedrock of advertising. Without creating new desires, wants and aspirations it is not possible to make clients buy what the advertisers want to sell.

Take for example Maggie noodles which replaced the traditional breakfast. Firstly, it projected making parathas and poories for breakfast as a tedious and time-consuming task. Secondly, it showed the kids not liking the food, making the woman somehow feel responsible for not feeding her children well. Thirdly, it said that smart women make smart choices and opt for two-minute noodles. It targeted not just the mothers who are shown smartly dressed and beaming (remember there is no drudgery) but also the kids who were shown slurping away the noodles. Maggie thus became the most desired snack for the children and the mothers.

Advertising not only builds aspirations but also thrives on insecurities. Thus, the Maggie ad while promoting aspiration for being a smart mom also plays on the insecurity of the mother regarding feeding her child well.
In fact, advertising starts influencing us from the time we are small children in a subliminal way. The recurring images shape our perceptions about what we are and what we want to be. A small study conducted by me in 2008 revealed that girls i.e. below 10 years of age were always shown in advertisements in a very stereotypical fashion with fair skin, curly hair, pink dresses tagging along with their parents. Boys on the other hand were shown in many hues and shapes. They were shown in different moods and contexts. They promoted products on their own. They were dreamers, achievers, thinkers and doers! Girls were in the margins. Being spectators or an extension of their parents. It may be argued that this is how girls and boys are in our society. But the fact is, projection of that reality with amplification of it’s desirability further reinforces the way families and society perceive and treat girls and boys!
Similarly, most advertisements showed two boys or a girl and a boy whenever they depicted a family. Never a family with two daughters, reflecting the general perception that an ideal family composition is two boys or a girl and boy. Two girls is a definite No. Even our family planning communication had for a long-time girl and a boy with a couple along with the caption ‘hum do hamare do’. Such communication silently gives support to the prevailing son preference in society.

It was also observed that it was mostly a boy who was shown whenever celebrities were endorsing a product once again reflecting the desirability of boys in families.

The most striking exceptions are the HDFC advertisements where in one a professionally successful daughter is shown buying a big car for the father with her own savings and in another shown as sending the parents abroad for a vacation. There are also advertisements, particularly of the financial products, which show parents investing in the education of their daughters. This is a welcome deviation from the earlier advertisements where savings were promoted to meet the requirements of a son’s education and a daughter’s marriage.

Joint family always means dada-dadi never nana-nani in advertising. How reflective is this of reality, particularly when many parents are staying with their daughters? Can we promote such a perception of family when increasingly parents are opting for a single girl child and many parents are living with their daughters? Such portrayal of joint family reinforces the belief that parents have no place in a daughter’s home or that it is natural and your right to stay with your son’s family.

Advertising feeds on the insecurities of the adolescents, particularly girls to promote a number of beauty products for fairness creams, face washes and creams to clear pimples, shampoos and other products for hair care etc.
The focus is on being physically attractive and desirable.

However, advertising for the electronic goods and services like mobile phones, Internet services show young women and men in their late teens participating and enjoying together a number of activities, defying gender stereotypes. This is also market driven as both young girls and boys/ men and women are the consumers of these products.
There are very few advertisements which show women as professionals or in work contexts. Mostly women are shown as doctors who are promoting household hygiene products or as house maids, teachers, secretaries and nurses, the typical women-oriented professions. Very rarely do we have women shown in work contexts that are realistic. The recent Airtel ad did show a woman as a boss and her husband as reporting to her, yet it ended up negating the positive message by placing her back in the kitchen waiting and pleading with her man to come home to enjoy a lavish spread that she had prepared.

Most of the time women are shown at home catering to the needs of the family members, particularly the men. The hard-working self-neglecting and sacrificing woman is glorified. She is shown using pain balms, crack creams and having health drinks to continue her hectic engagement at home. Rarely is she shown negotiating a more equitable work division at the household level.

However, a few recent advertisements do show men cooking. And what is important is that they are shown being comfortable doing that.

In the recent past we are also seeing more advertisements showing super moms begging their sons and daughters to perform better in sports. This is a welcome trend, though once again it places the responsibility on the woman alone.
However, the changing aspirations and increased participation of women as influencers in decisions regarding purchase of goods and services has led to projection of women as assertive, capable and sensitive. These advertisements show that it is possible to have gender sensitive communication without compromising on the bottom lines.

A few advertisements which need special mention in any discussion on advertising are:

Bharat Matrimony: promoting the matrimony services which help.one find a partner who meets one’s requirements, the two sensitive ads of the service show men who are comfortable with the career aspirations of their wives and are shown as supporting them in achieving the same.

Havells: The brand has been making amazing ads that focused on inclusiveness breaking gender, class and religious barriers. It’s campaign in 2014 called ‘Respect women’ shows that men should not take women for granted to meet their requirements and should show more respect towards them. The comment of one of the respondents, a young man, to Havells ad ‘Chutney nahi Patni’ captures the message of the ad succinctly — ‘The man, instead of being appreciative of his wife who has made breakfast for him with love, compares her cooking to his own mother’s cooking and thus runs her down. It is this lack of respect and sensitivity towards the woman who does so much for the man which is captured by the ad’. The creative team had succeeded in showing women who are assertive and are not willing to be taken for granted by their husbands without in any way undermining the product.

We see considerable change in the advertisements for fairness and beauty products which initially positioned fairness as a means to win the hearts of men or win back the husbands who are losing interest in the woman. Subsequently, the advertisements projected fairness and beauty is confidence boosters which would help one achieve professional success — to become a cricket commentator or an air hostess. Currently we see more of tendency to focus on the qualities of the product and what they do to the skin, the products are being promoted more as a feel-good experience for the women.

Population First has been working closely with the advertising professionals to bring in greater gender sensitivity in advertising. Small things can make a big difference. For instance, the very choice whether you want to project a girl or a boy can make a tremendous difference to the message that is being conveyed. For example, in a country where more than 50% of girls are anemic there are very few ads for health drinks show girls having health drinks. The argument of the marketers’ is that families are more willing to invest in the health of a boy. However, the much acclaimed Bournvita ad was able to appeal to the audiences as it showed a mother encouraging a daughter to succeed in boxing by fighting with a senior boxer telling her that the fight in the world is not always between equals.

A Gender Sensitive Advertising professional can make a big difference by using every communication opportunity to subtly convey messages that question the existing inequality and projecting a more positive gender image. The Kaun Banega Crorepati promo ‘badhai ho, ladki hui hai’ has brought the discrimination against girls into the drawing rooms at prime time.

The latest Samsung ad which showed a father bonding with the daughter and participating in her School annual day celebrations while at the same time taking time out for his official commitments is path breaking as it shows a hands-on daddy who is achieving work-life balance.

As viewers it is important that each of us look at the advertisements more critically and initiate a discussion on the same. Advertisements also provide rich training material for all those who are working to raise awareness about gender issues. Finally, we all have a moral responsibility to complain to Advertising Standards Council of India (www.asci.org) about ads that project women in poor light.

Dr. A. L. Sharada ( Miloon Saryajani — March 2015 )