Has the tide turned for India's gender sensitivity?

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Anisha Motwani, Shavon Barua.
Anisha Motwani, Shavon Barua.

More ads than ever seemed to espouse women's empowerment and equality. But has the industry turned the page?

MUMBAI — In India, more ads than ever seemed to espouse women’s empowerment and gender equality in 2014. But has the ad industry turned the page when it comes to being gender sensitive?

Anisha Motwani, head marketing, direct sales and e-commerce, Max Life Insurance (AM): I think the ad industry does not operate independent of its clients. While some efforts have been made, the page turning is going to be jointly steered by both client and agency.

Shavon Barua, president (West and South), Havas Worldwide (SB): While 2014 has seen some brands talking a rather different approach in the portrayal of women advertising from the usual clichéd and predictable slots, I think it’s very stretched to say we in advertising have taken a conscious call to keep the filter of women empowerment as a larger cause while creating communications. Yes, the attempt has been there and it has triggered off enough chatter but it has hardly seemed like a thought through strategic move. Seems to be a more topical and flavor-of-the-season approach.

If there has been a positive change, what have been the influences for such a change?

AM: Lots of big and small factors, I think. More educated women in the workforce and specifically more women in corporate careers. They are therefore in a position to influence and control communication and thus champion this change. Second, more educated women in general, who as consumers, demand/prefer that they be thought of as individuals first, instead of being defined by roles and age old stereotypes. Third, media — for every now and then sharing stories of women who fought resistance and succeeded. The women who took up male dominated jobs and sports or women who moved out of their villages and towns and had the support of their family, to progress on their career, or women who have risen high and today stand tall among the top corporates of the country. Media - also for presenting the other side of the story - depicting men who are fond of cooking, men who are partnering in babysitting, and so on.

SB: The positive change has been if at all the attempt to take a fresh approach. But we in the industry are the first ones to belittle / shred each other’s work. For if a brand does a one-off campaign to showcase the women protagonist in a ‘more than’ role (either as a glamourous pouting doll or simpering mother), we start to believe that advertising has evolved? Not really. Just a brand or two have been brave enough to have the conviction to make this their strategy. Respect to them, but to do a one-off does not really make the brand seem evolved.

Is stereotyping the biggest issue? Can advertising afford not to show the reality - like domestic chores being handled by women?

AM: I do not think there is a complete escape. While some advertisers and agencies can be forward looking, most will choose to stick to the traditional way, rationalizing that they would like to mirror the existing mass behavior, instead of latching onto a trend. Take for example, a cooking oil brand or a detergent brand - if the purchase of these categories continues to be done by the women, the advertiser will justify showcasing her in this role only.

SB: Of course, stereotyping is an issue. It’s boring and reeks of lazy creativity and clients who are incapable of both imagination and courage. Showing reality does not mean slotting in the usual boxes. It is okay to show that women work at home, because they do. It’s also okay to show that there are changes in the society. I do not think working at home, being a mother, a wife or for that matter a prop is the issue. It is how interesting the portrayal is. Why should we think it’s a big deal if a woman who is doing better than her man professionally is happy putting a meal for him? It’s a fresh perspective, makes an interesting watch and is central to the product offering. Why make a lot of song and dance? At least some brands are trying to be different and tell a story well.

Are some agencies and brands being more responsible than others? Is it a function of category needs?

AM: It is definitely a function of category. A mobile phone ad can choose to be more gender sensitive, however a masala and spices brand may not be able to, that easily. A car brand has never shown a woman in the driver’s seat, enjoying an adventurous terrain, so there’s the potential to, if some advertiser so chooses. Secondly, the reality is most advertisers take being responsible to mean, delivering quality products and to providing value in their offerings. The depiction of the user of their product in communication, comes much below, if at all, in their hierarchy of being responsible.

SB: Really? Responsible? With the rare exception of one or two brands, not at all. While it would be great to see more of real mothers, competitive girlfriends, successful colleagues cast in advertising we are fairly far from there right now. To do so we will need to resist the urge to do the safe ones that have always worked.

Are there too many brands taking up the gender cause? Does this take away the novelty of speaking for the cause?

AM: Yes, one can almost witness a wave of such advertising, spanning everything from jewelry to apparel, electrical appliances to beverage brands working around this subject. However this doesn’t in any way, take away from the cause. I think there’s ample room for more. Gender biases are so deep rooted in our culture that any amount of communication that seeks to change that, is heartily welcome.

SB: As I said, it’s this season’s favorite route. The sooner we realize that it has to move beyond being novel the more connect we will find with the consumers, at least with the woman consumer.

This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Campaign India.

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