“Kya Aapke Advertisements Mein Sexism Hain?”: A Take on Sexism in Indian Advertising

By Shivika Maheshwari


Be it the MDH Masala’s Uncle or the Airtel girl who is found anywhere and everywhere, advertisements have influenced our society and culture. It is a form of media which has to impress the consumer within a few seconds, which creates the need for innovation and creativity. Since in the 21st century, we are constantly surrounded by media, we subconsciously get influenced by these advertisements. Thus, it is important to take the business of advertising seriously.

We have a history of advertisements which continue to reflect the age-old problem of gender inequality. However, many advertisements today are blurring these lines of gender roles. This article seeks to examine the changing trends of Indian advertising, by focusing on the representation of cis-women in advertisements. Have our advertisements become progressive or is there still a long way to go? Let’s find out!


Representation of women in Indian Advertisements:

Do Indian advertisements propagate centuries-old patriarchy and sexism? Well, unfortunately, the answer is yes. We are still living in a world where the lines of gender roles are clearly defined and advertisements continue to reinforce these. They portray women in passive, submissive roles, engaged in household chores alone. Even with the advertisements that have sought to challenge these stereotypes, problems still persist. Using women as objects to grab attention of the consumers for commercial gain worsens the situation. It also sets unrealistic beauty standards which harms self-esteem of women.

Let’s explore these strands in detail and see how the advertisements have changed over the years.

  1. Perpetuating Gender Roles

Advertisements in the last decade have continued to reinforce gender roles and the public-private divide. They endorse the idea that women are suited to the domestic or private sphere while the public sphere is for the men to thrive in. The emphasis was on making women ideal housewives.

Advertisements of household products like dishwashing bars, detergent powders, cooking oil are typically associated with women. Thus, according to advertisers, an ideal woman’s day must start with XYZ detergent powder for doing laundry, then using PQR food mix to fulfil the varying breakfast demands of her family members, and then using ABC dish bar to make the utensils shiny enough to see her ‘beautiful’, ‘feminine’ face.


However, when it comes to advertisements related to financial services, or those depicting corporate settings tend to represent men in the dominant role.

For instance, when it comes to insurance policies, advertisements have depicted men as the sole breadwinner and decision maker of the family, while women are placed as a prop who are helpless and ‘of course’ dependent on the men. Post-liberalised India of 1991, we have more than 36 crore insurance policies. In 2019, about 29 million new polices were issued but advertisements have been stuck in the time of early 2000s. These advertisements have not paid heed to women’s earnings and their financial inclusions. Same is the case with the loan sector. If you observe home loan advertisements, you will realise how women are not involved in finalising the decision of loan but are always shown to be surprised by the new home that her husband bought.


Similarly, in advertisements selling cars, bikes, and other vehicles as well as vehicle accessories such as engine oil and tyres, men are the central figures. Rarely do we see a woman playing the lead role in these advertisements, especially in case of bikes which are considered to be predominantly a man’s vehicle.

However, in the past decade, this hazard of gender stereotyping is changing to an extent. Brands are understanding that advertising is the reflection of the society, hence they must adapt to the changes.

Brands are embracing the idea of shared household responsibilities. Ariel stirred the discussion of gender equality by unleashing the campaign “#ShareTheLoad”. It blurred the lines of gender roles by urging men to take up household chores like doing the laundry. MTR Breakfast mixes ads have shifted from a woman trying to multitask to meet her family’s demands to depicting a family collectively making breakfast. Besides this, cooking oil brands have finally started to present that cooking food is not merely a woman’s job. In 2016, Adani Wilmar owned Fortune Soyabean Oil played the magic of role reversal when the protagonists’ colleague got surprised seeing her father cook dinner.



Tea brands like Tata Tea have also made an effort to bring gender sensitivity through their “Jaago re” campaign. It aims to make parents aware of how children are conditioned to fit in gender roles right from childhood and encourages them to develop a gender-sensitive environment for their kids. Besides this, Flipkart also urged parents to raise a “Gen E” in which the demarcations of gender roles are erased.


Not only this, the automobile sector has also taken a step forward by showing women playing lead roles. In the past 5-6 years, advertisements of Honda Pleasure, Yamaha Fascino, Hero Duet, Ford Ecosport have put women in the driving seat.

These advertisements are indeed a step forward, however, in the long run, it is important to normalise the idea of shared responsibilities rather than depicting it as an exemplary act. In any case, such advertisements remain in the minority. As per TAM Media Research which is a Television audience measurement analysis firm, advertisements of household products like toilet and floor cleaners, washing powders and branded jewellery have been 57% more in Indian Premier League 2020 as compared to that in 2019. This is because 43% viewership in the first week was of women. Thus, brands continue to uphold the stereotypes and rigid gender roles while selling their products.

  1. Passive character roles for women

Advertisements often show women in passive, submissive and vulnerable roles. To the contrary, men are shown as independent, rational, dominant beings. Thus, in most advertisements, typically men are shown in the capacities of experts and professionals. Even for advertisements that depict a homemaker, they often show a man trying to mansplain regular household products to homemakers.

With time, this is changing. Men are increasingly being shown as emotionally involved in familial responsibilities while women are shown in active, determined, independent roles. Thus, advertisements of Nirma Washing powder have shifted from depicting Indian middle-class women enjoying washing clothes to four young women who pull out an ambulance stuck in a muddy pit, while showing hesitant men reluctant to help due to the fear of spoiling their clothes. Ethnic clothing brands Anouk and Biba are challenging the traditional notions regarding a woman’s life, be it single parenting, discrimination due to pregnancy, or starting careers afresh. The recent Horlicks advertisement in which a mother and her two daughters got stuck in the middle of a road and the daughter fixes the flat tyre evinces the gradual change coming in the society. Prega News #SheIsCompleteInHerself campaign for Women’s day that raises social awareness about the sensitive issue of infertility and its consequences upon couples, especially women.

Despite these changes, we have a long way to go. This is evinced by the fact that some brands continue to give strict internal guidelines to advertising agencies to not represent women in authoritative roles and rather show them in docile and submissive-to-in-laws roles.


  1. Objectification of Women


There is no denying in the fact that women are represented in many advertisements, however, not as a woman but as an object. The bitter reality is that many advertisements reflect women as a mere prop in order to glam up their product, be it a men’s deodorant, a car, a mango drink or a cement. In order to grab viewers’ attention in a span of a minute, advertisers have blatantly used the theme of unwanted nudity and sex in the race of standing out from competitors.


But seeing the silver lining under this dark cloud, there have been advertisements of Nivea Men and He deodorant which have not only sold their products without sexually objectifying women, but have in fact acknowledged that objectification is present in advertising and it is not appropriate.

Besides this, advertising also sets beauty standards for women through aggressive selling. Due to the uncalled societal pressure, women are more prone to suffer from body dissatisfaction, appearance anxiety and even eating disorders in some cases. Advertisers take advantage of these insecurities in order to sell their product. Be it weight loss aids, cosmetics, fairness creams or fashion brands, marketers try to present how their product magically transformed the protagonist.


However, this “magic” which sets beauty standards is actually the magic of photoshop and airbrush. A 2015 study shows that even observing an advertisement regarding the sexualisation of men and women for 3 minutes can lead to development of negative feelings towards one’s body. In her book Privileging the Privileged in Indian Advertising published in the year 2006, Sharada J Schaffer asked “Does a woman need to be always tall and slim, young and light skinned with silken skin and mop of gloriously shining hair?”. It is 2021 and it is devastating how in these 15 years the situation has changed only a little. However, contributing in this little change came Dove’s very recent campaign #StopTheBeautyTest is a commendable step in shattering these set beauty standards.

Media has both the responsibility as well as the power to change people’s attitude towards sexism and direct them to a positive environment where all genders are raised equally. However, advertising has not been able to fully influence the public towards creating a gender sensitive world and it has indulged in exploiting the image of women for commercial gain. Marketers should set their commercial goals, without demeaning any section of the society, hence, they should not present women as an object and set beauty standards for them. Instead, they should play an important part in widening the narrow mind set of the society.


Reasons for Change

With time, advertisements are moving towards a positive change and these changes can be attributed to a couple of reasons. Education has played a vital role in bringing such progressive transformation in the last two decades. In the last 20 years, the education gap between a husband and wife has diminished. Thus, women are able to stand along with men. Challenging the societal notions of submissiveness and docility, there is a growing sense of freedom in expressing their desires.

Ambi Parmeswaran in ‘Nawabs, Nudes, and Noodles'' points out that changes in the trend of joint families and migration of couples to metropolitan cities, has increased the cost and standards of living. In turn, the pressure of being more self-sufficient increases on the men who now need women’s help to financially support him. Hence, a new dimension entered where both women and men started working in order to financially aid themselves.


Another reason for the same can be the rising consciousness about feminism and gender equality. Along with the use of the internet by the fourth wave of feminism, various advertisements where women are shown to be sexually objectified have been “called out”. Thus, marketers would not take the risk to sell their products through objectification of women.


Conclusion

The representation of women in advertisements has been problematic and reinforces existing patriarchal notions. This is changing today with some advertisements challenging the status quo. However, we still have a long way to go.

We must acknowledge that advertisements are not limited to mere marketing of products but often mirror societal notions and reinforce them. Sexist advertisements reflect the prevailing patriarchy in the society and hinders the goal of gender equality. Gendered advertisements normalise the idea of rigid socially defined gender roles wherein women have to take care of household chores and children while men have to be the sole breadwinners of the family. It also builds in the idea of women being objects of sex and sets unrealistic beauty standards, which reduces the self-worth of women. This would lead to a vicious circle of sexism and our future generation would reflect our generation’s vices.


In a nutshell, “Hum mein hai hero” would be real when we acknowledge a woman’s power and respect her dignity. Let every Hema, Jaya, Rekha and Sushma also be empowered. Thus, it is high time that consumers wake up or as they say “Jaago grahak jaago'' in order to address the issue of sexism in advertising. Thus, for getting the narrative of “Buland Bharat ki Buland Tasveer'' right, advertisers need to show Buland women.


Shivika Maheshwari is a Mass Media student in Mumbai.

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