Popular culture – films, music, TV shows, magazines, literature and so on – both reflects and influences social behaviour. People draw their role models from what these media project, and then they tend to imitate what these role models do. Advertising is a part of popular culture — an omnipresent part that enters uninvited every day into millions of homes. Thus, it needs to be socially responsible with regard to what it depicts. In today’s age, when popular culture is under the microscope on the specific issue of its depiction of women, it is worthwhile to introspect and see how advertising is either positively or negatively feeding into social stereotypes.
The last two decades of liberalisation have seen a boom in advertising. Advertising is often seen as a mirror of social evolution beyond the products it sells. Characterisation and the rituals projected can be used to reflect how women have evolved over the decades.
Let’s consider some landmark commercials that hinged on women over the last 20 years. In the early 1990s, a talc advertisement unshackled the woman in a man’s society by showing an interview in which a “nervous” girl trumped male competitors in getting a job even as the men sat outside waiting their turn. Around the same time, a girl in a chocolate commercial made waves: she broke free spontaneously on a cricket field when her boyfriend scored a century. Both commercials were subliminally reflective of women breaking free in a male-dominated society. In the late 1990s, a detergent brand depicted the new-age woman without showing her: it showed a man do the laundry — a woman’s latent dream. This reflected the growing power of women in society. Towards the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s, the “mummy ka magic chalega kya” woman with her magnetic smile danced her way into the hearts of both consumers and boardrooms. Selling a range of white goods, this was the woman who balanced work and home most delicately, much to the admiration of her husband and family. In the mid-2000s, the woman donned a more assertive role in a life insurance commercial: she prodded her husband into signing policy papers. At the same time, a tea brand encouraged Indian women to unlock their “hunar” (skills) sitting at home and making money on the side. Finally, the talc brand of the mid-1990s came full circle: in a recent execution, it showed a woman giving a boy courage to elope — a case of traditional role reversal.
All these advertisements, which created strong connections with their audiences, were successful. And this sample reflects that advertising has retained the pulse of the changing woman and depicted her in salutary ways over the years. To my mind, this is reflective of the body of work from large agencies and advertisers.
Advertising creativity is different from creativity in other forms of popular culture. There is a strong commercial dimension to it. The core aim is to sell products and not exist for itself. Therefore, the final judge of creativity in advertising is the consumer. And in the case of many products, the consumer is often the woman — upsetting her by either objectifying her or denigrating her just doesn’t work. Even when a product is aimed at men, it is often consumed by them in the presence of women, and any association with something that demeans women makes it uncomfortable to consume. The aim of advertising creativity is to make the brand aspirational or relevant. Any attempt to go over the top creates a disconnect with the consumer.
This is unlike other creative forms, which are either about self-expression or about male titillation. Further, advertising is about creating consumption change, not social change. It can certainly be accused of creating materialistic demands; but its role in social behaviour change is rather limited. The best commercials ride on, rather than drive, emerging social change. Finally, much of advertising is created by middle-class mindsets and is approved by similar mindsets (and some of it is tested among similar strata of society), ensuring that creativity remains within limits.
However, this does not mean that creativity in advertising doesn’t cross boundaries. Beyond product claims and other social issues, there could be the occasional advertisement that does depict a woman as the object of desire. Sometimes, it could be connected with the product category; other times, unconnected. A bikini-clad woman in a cement advertisement is clearly unconnected; deploying the male gaze in a condom commercial or a deodorant advertisement could be relevant, but is provocative. And when it comes to glamour products, the lines between sexual, sensual and aesthetically beautiful could blur, and be less about absolutes and more about the eye of the beholder. Yet, first, the number of advertisements in such categories is rather limited when seen in the context of the overall number. And second, the industry does have a self-regulation mechanism that addresses these errant advertisements and enforces a strong code to keep such work in check.
The real challenge is, how to be progressive in this area and yet be gender-sensitive. The iconic Axe advertising campaigns are a good case in point. Do Axe commercials project women as bimbos, or are they a light-hearted take on the man-woman relationship? I would prefer to think it’s the latter. How easily society accepts such an execution is a reflection of how much we think we have moved or evolved in society. The judgement is subjective and qualitative, and so it cannot be cast in stone. A kiss was shown using feathers and a ghazal in the background in the 1950s; it was through flowers touching each other in the 1970s, as the couple hid behind the bush; and today, it’s shown quite explicitly, with complete mouth-to-mouth contact. Interestingly, advertising still hasn’t got there yet. Society has moved on — and so has acceptance of such rituals in popular culture. Clearly, popular culture is always a step ahead of advertising. This is not surprising; there is a larger goal for creativity in advertising, as already mentioned.
In sum, advertising has been largely restrained and respectful of society, including women and their depiction. It is perhaps a product of necessity and the mindsets of the creators. However, it’s always useful to do a bit of introspection, and this is a good time to do so. We need to recognise the growing presence of advertising — and presence itself could be the hidden power. Something worth thinking about.
The writer is vice-chairman of Ogilvy, India.
These views are his own.