By Parul Ohri
A recent deodorant advertisement with innuendos about gang rape may have shocked you, but it had clearly failed to impact the various decision makers reviewing it at numerous stages of ideation, creative development, pre-production, production, post-production and everything in between. If an offensive ad passed the creator’s and brand’s approval at every stage, isn’t it time we take a brutal look at the process itself? Should we not be checking to see who is writing the scripts and producing the content? Is there adequate gender representation for a true reality check at every stage of the campaign development?
Perhaps not. We seem to be far removed from authentic portrayals of women, as is detailed in ‘GenderNext’, an in-depth study into the depiction of women in advertising by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) and Futurebrands. The study brings out some progressive trends in gender depiction in advertising but it also highlights the many stereotypes that still dominate the advertising landscape. It also looked at the aspirations and expectations of women in the real world, a world with which the advertising world has yet to catch up.
As a follow-up to the GenderNext study, ASCI has released a set of guidelines that guard against harmful gender stereotypes. The guidelines aim at creating a culture of sensitivity whereby creators and advertisers can self-regulate portrayals of gender in their advertising. These also lay down the ground rules for portraying idealised physical features and warns against mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes, their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Gender stereotypes have lived well beyond their time because of the vicious circle of a society that normalised them and a media culture that perpetuated them. But today, thanks in large part to social media, it doesn’t take long to raise red flags about offensive content. Controversies have rarely worked in a brand’s favour and brands need to carefully weigh the risk of damaging their brand integrity and customers’ trust over any short-term gains from a questionable ad. In a digital world, the damage will not just go away but will live forever on the internet.
No legislation or self-regulatory guidelines can comprehensively define what constitutes ‘stereotypes’ and it is hard to police what is ‘harmful’ or ‘offensive’, especially when humour is used to disguise the problematic content. The subliminal messaging forms as critical a part of the campaign as what is said. This is where advertisers need to take the onus of understanding the true spirit of the guidelines.
The author is a member of ASCI’s Consumer Complaints Council. Views expressed are personal