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With International Women’s Day fast approaching, a question worth exploring is whether Indian advertising can move away from women as stereotypes?

According to a study released by UNICEF and Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, “although female characters are prominent in ads in India, they are still highly stereotyped.” 

What are these prevalent stereotypes? 

 Most Indian ads according to the aforementioned study, show women either selling domestic products or food to other women. They are concerned with childcare, household chores and shopping. 

There are seemingly simple reasons behind the dominance of such roles from a market and a sociological point of view. 

Globally as well as locally, we are a role-bound society. Most women continue to or are forced to derive their worth and value in society by playing the traditional roles of a homemaker or a mother. This is true even for working women as we shall see in some of the examples, today. 

For instance, consider this social experiment by Paytm that shows how most women fall behind when it comes to questions of financial literacy and freedom: 

From a marketing perspective, ads mainly cater to decision-makers. In purchasing household durables, cars or other services, women occupy the role of key influencer. Thus, it makes sense to keep them as central characters in brand communication albeit bound sociologically. 

Most ads where women are shown caring for their child embodying the proverbial ‘ma ka ehsas’ or advocating a product such as a detergent/spice/tea etc. based on the belief that a ‘mother knows best’, fall into the stereotypical category. 

The Token Equality 

Lately, with gender awareness and feminism forming large parts of our cultural discourse, most brands have tried or have been forced to take a ‘progressive’ stance by showing women as strong or aware characters. For example, consider this video by Havells, released last month: 

The male character here assumes that the female character would not know anything about tax forms since she has done up her hair in a particular way. He is pleasantly surprised to discover that she does in fact know. The ad thus is premised on an extremely stereotypical viewpoint and does little to flout it. 

The bar is set so low that even bare minimum effort from brands are noticed too, case in point: 

Visibly, the mother is the one cooking while the father is just a token character playing around with vegetables, wearing an apron. All in the name of equal partnership. These half-hearted attempts come across as jarring when one considers stellar campaigns such as the Swiggy Instamart’s cookbook about which we discussed, here.

Old Roles, New Narratives 

A key challenge for brands when trying to adapt newer narratives remains in the unchanged reality that still does not detach women from household chores or childcare. Simply put, it is pretty tough to avoid the stereotypes when the real-life roles in fact stay the same. 

Here, we look at a few illustrative examples to observe if traditional roles can be subverted: 

Bournvita has been showing mothers who have a crucial role in their child’s success for quite some time now. Initially, their narrative depicted mothers sitting on benches with a drink of Bournvita ready as their kid trained in the arena. However, gradually, they have uplifted the mothers from the benches to now running and kicking it out with their kids. 

Mothers are not confined to the role of a facilitator just by the way of a drink. Rather, they are a standard to be bested for budding athletes. They are someone to train with. 

Another example by Bournvita shows a grandmother, running with and helping her granddaughter build resilience: 

Concerned with child care as they might/must be, mothers and grandmothers in Bournvita’s video are coded as strong and athletic. They re-imagine their own conventional role while also adding to the dictum of parents being the first teachers.  

Marriage as a concept and as a market category undoubtedly leads to a very prominent category of stereotyping women. In the time leading to a wedding and after it, the roles to be played by females are marked by limitations upon free will and curbing of freedom. In such a scenario, matrimonial brands must face restricted choices of narratives. 

These factors make the latest initiative by Bharat Matrimony notable:

While it completely skips the direct depiction of female characters, the initiative shows great potential for social impact. It is a welcome change to the stock matrimonial ads that focus on lists of attributes and compatibility thereof between the groom and the bride. The stereotype built around a ‘girl’s choice’ in the context of marriage here is completely reinterpreted. The groom is replaced with an educative qualification thus quite literally removing the metaphorical limits imposed by the structure of marriage. 

Lastly, we look at a landmark campaign that not only advocates for a reversal of stereotypes but addresses them unabashedly: 

In its fifth season now, Ariel’s ShareTheLoad has highlighted the inherent biases within the most progressive of home set-ups. Through the depiction of brunt that almost all women universally continue to bear, the brand has appealed for an equal share of household chores. The campaign has foregrounded practical implications such as loss of sleep or less than adequate sleep that most women have to make do with. 

Let's consider their latest video: 

Recalling the report cited in the beginning would tell us that the characters played by women in Ariel videos still are very much stereotypical- those of a working woman or a homemaker. 

However, what’s remarkable is that as central characters they are powered by a voice that’s their own. Furthermore, the narrative runs according to their perspective. The roles are stereotypes but the perspective is not. It is marked by a vocal protest that is very coherent in its demand for equality. The women here, therefore, are coded as aware, vocal and coherent individuals who are anything but submissive in the face of inequality. 

Having discussed tokenistic portrayals as well as ones where the stereotypical roles are given a fresh perspective, we must also look at developments that are able to skip the gender bound role narrative, altogether. There have been examples though far and few that portray female characters who are not defined just by their femininity. In part 2 of this article, we look at such examples and discuss the ambient strategy around female characters in brand initiatives.