Feminism: Advertising’s New Mantra?

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Feminist ads have become the new rage - bashing the tropes of fair skin and objectified women. What made advertising change?

2016. Comedian Vir Das is poised on a traditional swing, his head turned upwards with a look of ecstasy. Tenderly, he squeezes a drop from mango on to his pouting lips – and then the camera zooms out as the director shouts “CUT!”.

“Vir, yaar. It needs to look sexier.”

He agrees, and starts to coo with the music.

The rest of the ad deals with the many tropes of Indian advertising – where women are made to dress skimpily to sell cement, to pose erotically to sell motorcycles or to make the act of consuming mango juice somehow sexual. Ultimately, Vir Das is still selling deodorant, but it’s a marked change from the usual trope of deodorant commercials, such as the one below.

It’s left unclear whether the women depicted do anything other than spin towards the man with the advertised deodorant. But this isn’t a one-off case.

According to a study released by a major multinational conglomerate, half of all ads surveyed worldwide depicted some form of gender stereotyping, with only 2% of advertisements showing women in a role that could be considered ‘intelligent’ (however that is measured).

Feminism in Indian advertisements (globally known as femvertising) went from being unheard of in the 1990s to the hot trope of consumerism today. A sportswear commercial from 1995 called ‘Let Me Play’ laid the ground for ads that tried a message of empowerment rather than of denigration – showing how allowing girls to play sports will lead to them growing into strong adults capable of tackling various women’s issues.

Companies have pledged to get rid of gender stereotyping in their ads. Beauty products have taken to ads that attempt social messages about beauty and women’s roles alongside the marketing one. More often than not, they depict women practising and performing at sports to an inspiring soundtrack – as a form of indirect brand messaging.

It’s certainly effective. Sales of a personal care company grew by $1.5 billion since the release of its ‘Real Beauty’ campaign worldwide. However, for an industry that has a long history of sexualizing women to sell products, are these ads a form of damage control for stereotypes long in the making?

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A 2016 study by Madhusmita Das and Sangeeta Sharma, suggests that the ideal body image for a woman was created even during ancient times, through idealized goddesses and sculptures, and that ads will reflect the desired image of their times. Curvy women were popular in films and advertisement until the 1980s, but the advent of globalization brought tall, fair and skinny to the Indian television. The study, conducted among students in a major Pune university, found that most respondents internalized the ideal image as seen in advertisements, to the point where more than 40% changed their eating habits as a result.

Femvertising might be growing, but it continues to exist alongside ‘traditional’ sexist advertising.

Actor Ranveer Singh got in trouble recently for a billboard campaign he did for a clothing company. In it, he slings a lady in office attire against his shoulder, with the tagline “Don’t hold back. Take your work home.” That the ad went up in the first place has shocked many, but its takedown points to signs of a changing ad culture.

For Tanya Onkar, a creative working with an advertising agency, the phenomenon is more than just cashing in on a trend. “I don’t think brands should do feminist advertising just because it’s a hot topic. When a jewellery company made their ‘Best at Work‘ film, it made sense with the product and brand personality. I think feminism in advertising is not about making a feminist ad but making sure that no matter what piece of work you create; your sensibilities are right.”

She adds that if sexism is pointed out in an ad during its formulation, the idea is subsequently dropped.

As companies gradually shift from ads that stereotype women, the dilemma arises – how do they sell products without convincing the buyer that they are not somehow insufficient without them?

For a start, you imply that the brand somehow spreads empowerment through its support. One shares the ad and gives it wings – but ultimately it is the same product that, ten years ago, would have been marketed to make you fee ugly without it.

For Sushma Mahabala, who works on women empowerment projects, few of these ads hit the real issues of women in India today. “Our generation has lost the point of feminist values.” She points out that ads focus on body shapes and body shaping, but that they are not effective in helping women who have given up on hope – leading to suicide.

Ultimately, advertisements and the media act as a mirror for society (or parts of it). They will occasionally reflect change, but are not the ones equipped to enact it.

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