Sales Agent

Written by Anushree Chandran | Updated: Jan 22 2013, 10:48am hrs
Portrayal of women in advertisements has been the subject of debate for long. And for a reason. While some ads are sexist, others can be downright objectionable. Things may have somewhat changed in the past few decades, but women continue to be the best bet in the battle to catch the consumers attention.

It's a beautiful relaxed evening in a well-lit hotel. A sharply dressed, smooth young man leans across the table and recounts a jungle adventure for his friends. Turns out, he was lost for miles and even worse, swarmed by a pack of half-naked, savage, jungle women. The women invade him in the most predatory fashion possible and he barely makes it by the skin of his teeth. His saviour is one from the pack who knows her way around a Mahindra vehicle. She tides him away to safety. The baseline goes: May your life be full of stories.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it India's leading ad men have frequently sacrificed women at the altar of creativity. They have fed raunchy, titillating images of women to catch consumers' attention for the sake of selling their goods and services. Gender stereotypes are also common in ads. So it is nice to have a girl around the house. A super mom in the kitchen. A dominatrix in office. And a seductress in bed. The themes change but the sub-text doesn't.

KV Sridhar, chief creative officer, India subcontinent, Leo Burnett admits that advertising has a big part to play in how women are perceived in society. "Advertising is reduced to a bad joke. A lot of brand managers seem to think that using a sexual plank increases sampling. Skimpily clad Russian models, for instance, are in great demand in India. Though the intent is to appear aspirational, most brands don't appear sexy or desirable." he said.

Social activists feel that using women as ponies in advertising goes a long way in promoting stereotypes and hardening of stances on their role in the society. This is an industry comprising men mainly and speaking mainly to men, they allege. The ad industry is still stuck in the glorious Don Draper era. For the record, Draper is the mercurial, sexy, yet sexist lead protagonist of the American drama series Mad Men. The show encapsulates the story of a New York agency called Sterling Cooper, in the '60s and chronicles brilliantly the gender strife during that period. Interestingly, we are also standing at a precipice in India. The brutal rape and murder of a young girl in the Indian capital has brought gender issues once again out of the freezer and forced the advertising industry to introspect on its role in reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and national creative director of Ogilvy & Mather India admits that ad makers do make mistakes, but there is also corrective action because of industry watchdog Advertising Standards Council Of India (ASCI). "Today, there are a lot of women working on brands and a lot of gender neutral advertising is coming in. But one odd brand may go to the edge of the cliff. If you ask me, the deodorant brands are too damn close," says Pandey.

Meanwhile, the sexist ads run unabated. An ad for vaginal tightening gel '18 Again' showed a gyrating Indian couple, and the wife mouths seductively "I feel like a virgin'. The ad caught the ire of national and international press who alleged that it was a product catering solely to men and did nothing for the empowerment of women. PepsiCo India's Slice capitalised on Katrina Kaif's sex appeal in order to sell a mango drink. There is no mistaking the sexual overtones of the Aamsutra commercial, where Kaif deep kisses the mango, before taking a bite. Fox Movies churned out a commercial where a nerdy male executive looks pointedly at the cleavage of his female superior while she reads out from a file. The voice-over goes: Too used to sub-titles Watch movies in the regional language.

Hindustan Unilever brand Axe in its latest ad shows a young boy in a towel, spraying himself with Axe. Skimpily dressed women from all parts of the globe wind up at his doorstep and bang into his living room. JK Cement shows a girl in a red bikini, emerging like a mermaid out of the swimming pool, and one is mystified about her link to the brand or the commercial. As for underwear brands, they have been courting controversy for many years. Who can forget Amul Macho's ad with the tagline Yeh Toh Bada Toing Hain where a young woman gets on her haunches and washes clothes in the most vulgar way possible While this ad was banned and taken off air, Amul Macho returned with a sequel this time featuring orangutans in the place of humans. A male orangutan steals Amul macho underwear, and all the female orangutans make a beeline for him. Similarly, Wildstone deodorant ad portrays a saree clad woman blindfolded and playing with kids. A man walks past and with one whiff of his perfume, she abandons the game. She then dashes to his room and suggestively closes the door behind her. The voice-over goes: New Wildstone heart. It happens. Zatak talcum brand portrays a local tailor who has just used the product.

He steps out to take measurements and a female customer is mysteriously drawn to him. No prizes for guessing why.

Population First, a Mumbai-based NGO that specialises in womens rights and social development, says that Indian advertising feeds on the insecurities of women. Buy this cream and you will land your dream job. Or buy that lotion and you will land a husband. Use a wrinkle free product and your husband will stay interested in you. Ad agencies have made a career out of preying on the insecurities of women, says AL Sharada, director at Population First. There is a formula for everything. To the men, they sell deodorants and perfumes assuring them that a whiff of the product will bring in the girls. Sharada adds that marketers have not even spared kids. In 2008, Population First did some research on kids (aged 0-6 years) in ads and found that ads frequently featured well groomed little girls - fair, with pink skin and lips.

There is a certain type of girl child featured in ads, said Sharada and this effects the self-esteem of kids, even before theyve touched the teenage years. She added that this was more pronounced for girls, than boys. Boys in ads... well, you would see a boy with glasses or a boy whos slightly overweight. But it is not the same with girls. Sharada says that shes frequently been in touch with ad agencies and brands that peddle fairness products. A big change that has come about is the fact that the female protagonist (in these ads) seems a lot more empowered. For instance, a girl who lands a job as a cricket commentator or an air hostess. A girl who financially supports her parents. But yes, the basic premise of advertising is the same. She needs to be fair in order to accomplish all those things.

The Liril girl and liberation

Advertising guru Alyque Padamsee put the Liril girl under the waterfall and created history for Hindustan Unilevers green soap brand. She was dressed in a two-piece bikini and splish-splashed in the water with gay abandon. I dont have a problem with the human body, says Padamsee, The Liril commercial was more about liberation, than about anything else. He, however, has a problem with ads that inflict a sense of shame.

I am against any kind of advertising that treats the male or the female body with contempt and inflicts a sense of shame. So I am against some of the things that the underwear brands do. I am against exploiting the female body, or for that matter. the male body. Both genders are exploited these days. A lot of the underwear brands have models, barely dressed even in these garments. There is no sense of dignity in these ads neither for the models nor for the viewers, says Padamsee.

Padamsee notes that eve-teasing is not seen as harassment in India. In Bollywood films, the hero teases the girl and whats more, she falls in love with him. No wonder many of the Indian men dont see eve-teasing as sexual harassment. Eve-teasing is seen as fun and is accepted as part of the dating game. Padamsee points out that he has a huge problem with ads that propagate eve-teasing. His NGO Izzat ki Fauj fights against eve-teasing, by launching sting operations. Padamsee believes that the 70s and the 80s had a lot of bold cinema and ads, but these did not increase crime rates.

The human body is a beautiful thing. Indian poetry has various references to the human body. Film maker Raj Kapoor featured a virtually topless Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram and there was nothing lewd about it. He did the same with Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili which talked about the atrocities that society inflicts on women. I see nothing wrong with those things. But in todays day, if I were to try and put the Liril girl under the waterfall , I am sure there will be a hell of a fuss about it. says Padamsee.

Ad film maker Prahlad Kakar of Genesis Films says that women activists and social groups were increasingly becoming unreasonable. There is no way you can win with them. I cannot understand people who have a problem with the Axe commercials. Kakar defends the use of women in ads, across categories. Men like to watch women. And women like to watch women. We dont have much of a choice do we Kakar quips.

Is advertising a soft target

Prasoon Joshi, president of McCann WorldGroup, South Asia points out that ads mirror society. Its easy to blame advertising or Bollywood because they are soft targets. The fact is that there is a certain kind of mindset that prevails in the country and certain preferences. It is society that needs to introspect. You cant change a social mindset by targeting an industry that brings out a certain kind of product. Joshi believes that brands are also a lot more sensitive today. A film has its run and moves out of the box office. Brands on the other hand need longevity. It is in the marketers interest to ensure that his campaigns are free of objectionable material.

Joshi, however, accepts that no industry is completely foolproof. I am all for filters in advertising, said Joshi.

Filters in advertising and ASCIs role

For long, its been accepted that the ASCI has not had much of a success rate in weeding out objectionable ads. The trouble for ASCI is that the definition of whats acceptable keeps changing. The forum is also largely dependent on consumers writing in. Anjolie Ela Menon, a contemporary artist, says that perversion cannot be the voice for creative expression. It is obvious that the laws need to be changed, and the controls need to be tightened.

In Menons view, the deo ads are particularly offensive. Television is a widespread medium, which reaches every social tier. Quite unlike print, which can only be accessed by the literate. You have images of beautiful skimpily clad women being beamed through television. These images are used to sell products and men want to possess these women. When they cannot, they resort to rape,

Arvind Sharma, chairman of India subcontinent at Leo Burnett and chairman at ASCI, said that emotions were running high and it was only natural for people to claim that ASCI wasnt doing a good enough job. As per him, the definition of responsible advertising is always in a flux, between extreme liberalism and extreme conservatism. Some of these questions are complicated, and getting members of civil society involved is the best way to navigate it. The ASCIs Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) has a number of civil society members, and a lot of them are women, said Sharma.

The ASCI has recently banned the 18Again commercial. Sharma defends the decision on the grounds that ads have to go by certain cultural trends. Certain ads call for subtle judgment. You dont talk about your sexuality in front of your grand parents. But in the larger context, even Sharma agrees that India has to move to becoming a more open society. Putting something in the closet is just not feasible anymore, especially in an environment where you have the internet. It is getting increasingly difficult to deny sexuality.

Madhukar Sabnavis, country head, discovery and planning, and regional director, O&M India feels that Indian advertising has been progressive, yet restrained in its portrayal of women. The final judgement of advertising lies with consumers and anything that objectifies or reflects things that consumers dont accept, gets rejected in the market place. The purpose of advertising is neither to just entertain consumers, nor to drive social change but to sell products and consumers sensitivities are core to it. Sabnavis adds that the ASCI has done a great job in weeding out sexist ads. There could still be some errant advertisers who are not part of ASCI and could continue to air them, but in my experience, such ads dont work. he said.

Marico Ltd which owns the Zatak brand was contacted for this story but did not participate. An HUL spokesperson said that Axe is the number one fragrance for males and that its campaigns are usually tongue in cheek. While Axe empathises with the anxiety young men face when it comes to the opposite sex, the brand and the teams working for the brand never mean to offend the sentiments of any person or group. We constantly monitor the response to all our campaigns to ensure that no parties are offended, the spokesperson said.