Thursday, May 06, 2010


Has today’s advertising kept pace with scores of Indian women emerging from the shadows to seek their rightful place in society? 4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri presents various views

Resurgent India! India shining! Woman power unleashed! Superwomen in the corridors of power! Evolved, educated, accomplished, articulate and confident, this new woman is a blazing reality in today’s India! After decades of prejudice inflicted by tradition and a male-dominated society, women – at least a significant minority – seem to be coming into their own. And magazines, publications, special supplements, debates, discussions and seminars, they all seem to be fixated on energetically championing the female cause now!

But has Indian advertising – which has made huge waves globally in all major platforms, forums and meets – for its turn been able to sensitively, fairly and realistically track, reflect, mirror or portray this seismic change? Has Indian advertising been able to capture the nuances of this fascinating creature successfully straddling several universes with all the complexity, confidence and contradictions at her disposal? Or is the re-enforcing of stereotypes with corny and predictable makeovers simply cosmetic tokenism?

It is interesting to note what Michele Kristula-Green (the revered Asia-Pacific President of Leo Burnett) articulated at a recent presentation that she made on this subject, where she accused advertisers of constantly portraying women “in the man’s version of what they should be.” The ad biz guys, a recent study says, seem to be way-off on at least five crucial parameters – money, sexuality, humour, emotion and authenticity. The study also revealed that unlike the West, women in the Asian society are not comfortable with blatant portrayals of sex, because for them it is a part of their intrinsic femininity – and not something to be exhibited in a titillating, man-baiting way. Finally – and this is critical – the study says that in Asian societies, girls are taught to view emotions as a strength not a weakness; and hence their responses to messages and communication are far different from what is shown in today’s well-packaged yet logically worthless advertisements!

We asked a few evolved, intelligent women and their reactions were both interesting. And startling!

Journalist Mahua Chatterjee fires the first salvo. She believes that despite all the blah-blah and ra-ra in the media, women like her were still an aberration, an exception. “However, our tribe is on the ascent and definitely a quantum leap from our mother’s generation. Advertising’s essential agenda is engaging, convincing and catering to its target group, which for most part, is still steeped in tradition. So, you get what you get. Sure, there are exceptions – like the insurance ad where the granny cosies up with her husband and later, gets blackmailed repeatedly by her chaalu grandson – which is wonderful, but alas, nowhere enough. We could do with a lot more courageous, adventurous, risk-free and exciting advertising that reflects today’s woman with both drama and chutzpah. Can the ad guys do it?”

Film-maker Aparna Sen – whose latest movie The Japanese Wife released to rave reviews – while talking to us, conveys her huge disappointment. While she salutes the crafting and slickness (of advertisements), she is convinced that most of these efforts are blatantly one-dimensional. “North Indian, fair, urban, advertising seems to be fixated on this stereotype! How and why is there practically no sign of the southern, eastern or north-eastern woman? Don’t they exist? If at all they feature, it’s either in caricature form or tokenism! Such a pity.” Kolkata-based media personality Rita Bhimani disagrees and reckons that change indeed is in the air. “Sure, there will always be stereotyping, catering and pandering to connect with the masses, but within categories – cosmetics, healthcare, bikes and automobiles – there has been a lot of quirky, funny and interesting ads portraying today’s woman with large quotients of fun, energy and enterprise.”

Masscom expert Tiyasha Ray begs to differ. “Most of the stuff that pans out is totally regressive and out-of-sync with the here and now! I guess it has to do with ‘Adville’ not mustering up the required guts and ability to effect a breakthrough and content to bogey along a familiar comfort zone as also women themselves being quite content to be seen in that light. Generations of conditioning have programmed them to think in a certain way. Today, they believe that perhaps, this is the way we need to be perceived and what’s all this feminist hoo-haa about?”

Ray, however, admits that she personally is prepared to go into this battle, anytime, any day! Theatre luminary Lushin Dubey switches lanes to offer a completely new perspective. “More than advertising projecting the ‘New Woman’, the New Woman seems to be totally seduced by advertising! She appears to totally believe, even celebrate the image that she sees... and this is both distressing and dangerous because it sends out the wrong signals. It implies that TV is this big hospital-cum-beauty parlour-cum-gym, where all shapes and sizes are photo-shopped and air-brushed to perfection! Scary...”

The last words must come from Omkar Sane, author (Welcome To Advertising. Now Get Lost!) and ad-tracker. “Actually, it’s because of the tainted windows, AC cabins and the advertising code for women established during the dark ages!” He points out that in the area of finance or healthcare, it is always the man who understands, applies and takes credit for the action while the woman sits and smiles. “Gul Panag didn’t talk too much in the Tata Sky ads, did she? It was Aamir who apparently knew everything and played a starring role.” Sane laments the fact that advertising “seems to wait for society to change and then show its spurs; while society, for its turn, hopes like hell that advertising will lead the way and effect the much-needed change.” Neither does that; and all one ends up doing is... changing the damn channel!

Well, if you belong to the club that thinks Julius ‘advertising’ Caesar is a brute, then friends, Indians, ladies, unite...


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