Sunday, May 14, 2006

DeCOdiNG AdLaNDS FEmale GaZE....Stereotyped or NOT?

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri fast forwards the spirit of enquiry...

Carnal in bed. Confident at the workplace. Chef in the kitchen. Caring with the kids. Compassionate with the aged. Cool at parties. Considerate with friends. Calm in adversity. Cheered by everyone (including his eccentric toothless aunt) and continuously celebrated by a zonked media… is the Indian woman really all that she is made out to be? Is the ad world’s hysterical wooing of this ‘just discovered’ breed – ripe with aspirations, powered with desire, confidence and means to walk the talk – really happening, or are the hidden persuaders playing out their well-practised and brilliantly choreographed routine of “creating” wants and “manufacturing” needs to a vulnerable constituency, forever longing to step out of the shadows and take their rightful place under the sun?!!

First things first. Only guys in dire need of an instant brain transplant perceive advertising to be the unsoiled harbinger of truth or relentless Brand Ambassador of reality. Advertising is after all (first and last) a crucial marketing tool mandated to do a job as effectively as possible. Toward achieving this end – like Bollywood – magnifying, hyping, dramatising, exaggerating and colouring comes with the territory. “Agreed,” says the hugely respected Asia Pacific President of Leo Burnett, Michelle Kristula-Green, “but are we reading the writing on the wall correctly?” In a hard-hitting presentation she made recently in Delhi titled ‘Mis understood – why she’s not buying your ads,’ she let fly some disturbing whoppers based on her findings on an extensive survey across Asian markets – China, Japan and India. Woman, she said, accused advertisers of portraying them in a man’s version of what they should be like. Further, the basic communication slant was way off on fire solid counts: money, sexuality, humour, emotion and authenticity. The survey also revealed that unlike the West, women here weren’t comfortable with blatant portrayals of sex. It was more an internal paradigm shift where they’ve learnt to handle and appreciate sex appeal as part of their intrinsic feminity rather than an exhibitionistic, brazen and titillating man-baiting USP. Finally, in Asian society, girls are taught to view emotions as their strength, not weakness, hence they seem to respond to a message that is authentic & real-warts and all – more positively than one that is beautifully packaged but phoney.

Ad film maker and now celeb debutante in the Feature Film (Parineeta) arena, Pradeep Sarkar refuses to bite. He believes – like in the movies – the shift towards realism has begun in the Ad film scenario. No wonder the new war-cry in today’s Ad-scene is “yaar, make it less ad-dy!” Meaning, don’t make it look like a typical ad; make it look real.”
High profile head honcho of PNC, Pritish Nandy dismisses advertising as nothing more than a 30 second recreational capsule. Regarding depiction of women in ads, he believes “they throw up two stereotypes, neither of which is anchored in reality.” The first is the firang model, the sassy and sexy international (Kate Moss?) import who sashays across up-market glossies, Sunday supplements, as also our TV screens in the likes of the Raymond ad series. The creators of this persona believe that teaming with the brand owners, they can successfully hawk style, attitude and looks because after all, what you see is where the action is! This tragi-comical colonisation of their mind is, mercifully, not shared by the Indian consumer, and reflects their total disconnect with reality. It brilliantly symbolises what India is “NOT.” The second is the homegrown Kanta Bai / Lalitaji model. This representation attempts to propagate non-threatening, old-fashioned values of thrift and choices. “Pity is, that’s exactly what it symbolises: India of yesterday, not today! It is a corny, unreal and romanticised version that just doesn’t resonate with today’s life and times: where is the Real Woman – of complexities and contradictions, magic and mystique – that any sensitive male sees everywhere across a nation on the move?” Gifted director Aparna Sen (36 chowringhee Lane, Mr. & Mrs. Iyer, 15, Park Avenue) joins the fray. She believes that the Indian woman is represented in pathetic fashion, forever one-dimensional – North Indian, fair, urban – with occasional, degrading forays into tokenism. “How is it that beyond this cardboard cut-out, one hardly ever gets to connect with a real, believable, flesh & blood type! When was the last time one saw a woman from the South, East or North-East as ad models?” Enter adworld’s superstar, O&M’s mustachioed Piyush Pandey. “I have no problem with debates and discussions but the feminist and educationist take is difficult to swallow because it comes with an agenda. Advertising is not a pure art form, so truth and integrity – in that pristine fashion – doesn’t happen. The representation of women is totally dependant on what we are selling, where, to whom and in what way. This is not an art film for niche audiences where one can experiment or explore talents of unknown actresses, but a marketing activity with a sharp focus on creating communication that demands accountability.” India is not a country, it’s a universe! Hence, commucation is an unbelievably complex process. On the whole, I don’t think we need to feel guilty.”

Okay, so what gives? We believe advertising’s endeavour (in this sensitive area) is to identify, dramatise, even magnify some “real” emerging trends, traits and directions. The actual portrayal is seldom clinically accurate; it is more a mythologised version, but to the critical question whether it throws up some authentic trends, vis-a-vis the womanscape of today, the answer must be a resounding YES. One certainly gets to see a fascinating representation (across the spectrum) with the housewife playing a starring role! Suddenly, this harassed, sacrificial, 24X7 slogger, performer, gatekeeper and provider of her family’s joy and well-being has morphed into a zestful and joyous participant as well. She seems to be able to say YES (rather then the earlier NO) with more √©lan than before. She seems to also enjoy a much greater sense of control, along with the ability to be playful with her (earlier pativrata – obsessed?) husband, rather than treat him as the authoritative, fearing, lord and master. She is no longer defined by the role she plays, but slips in and out of her several roles – daughter, wife, mother, daughter-in-law – with a greater degree of style, conviction and consummate confidence. Overall, she seems to be much more aware of who she is, what she’s doing, the effect she has… and she uses that more consciously than ever before. In fact, ironically, the most dramatic paradigm shift has been in this area, not the so-called westernised, hot-babe segment.

The house-wife portrayed in ads appears much more confident, secure, positive and driven than the “am I looking good and smelling nice?” insecure chic, constantly dancing on her (self-created) hot tin roof! 


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