Advertising has typically endorsed the idea of the ‘ideal woman’, but that’s slowly changing as women reclaim their sexuality and agency in society today.
Advertising and marketing have frequently engaged women to sell products, not only in terms of models but also as a means to reach more households. But have brands and communication in India, specifically targeted women as individuals? Have marketers specifically designed products keeping women in mind?
Barring a few clichéd exceptions in obvious categories, like that of feminine hygiene, one can contend that this has not been the case. And the reason cannot be just the lack of economic empowerment, for that could be the case for kids as well, who, despite this, are a direct and overt target audience for many products, and there is marketing communication targeted directly at the eleven to fourteen age group.
Is the Indian woman recognized as a serious consumer and decision-maker at all? Yes—if we view her in her designated roles, and perhaps, not when the question is that of acknowledging her as an individual entity. But before we start blaming marketers and advertisers, we need to understand the socio-traditional circumstances of women.
An Indian woman and her institutionalized, societal situation—to my mind, at least—are intriguingly complex. In my view, unfortunately, a woman has still not been recognized as a complete individual. Traditionally, society has been in a hurry to push her into roles: The ideal daughter, the perfect wife, the dutiful daughter-in-law and the loving mother.
The transition from daughter to wife is acknowledged and encouraged because she typifies roles, but the phase between the two—where she is a lover—or a person who has decided to buck the trend of marriage and carve out a career for herself, are far from celebrated. At the one stage where she is being herself—just a woman, an individual person— she is allowed little space. Her awareness as an individual, her potential and self-expression in all dimensions—sexual or otherwise—is left unnurtured, buried under norms.
So, even in advertising, it is the ‘role-playing’ woman— wife, loving mother, dutiful daughter-in-law—who is acknowledged. Her ‘sacrificial’ role is venerated in society and advertising pays obeisance, so much so that, as marketers and communication experts, we cannot even sell to her the products or services on the convenience platform.
All the things that make her life easier—be it a washing machine or ready-made food—have to be sold not as products that will free her from the mundane, but couched in various benefits for her family.
The ‘sacrifice’ of self by a woman has been glorified. If asked to be honest and respond without the apprehension of being judged as a mother or wife, she’d probably admit that she would like to take advantage of products and appliances that make her chores easier. But meetings after meetings I have sat in, where research findings present that women don’t want the ‘pain’ that they take for their families, they themselves are taken away from the equation, possibly because of a fear of losing relevance in a patriarchal setup.
Hypocritical? Of course! She is trapped in a societal framework that perpetuates these double standards. Society has pushed her to believe that making round chappatis is the best thing she could do and the communication machinery excels in propagating a fake sense of fulfilment for the inconsequential.
‘Oh, you washer of the whitest shirts; the vanquisher of the cockroach; the one who can make a toilet seat sparkle; the mighty warrior who has defeated stubborn stains… we bow to you.’
Isn’t this simply ridiculous?
As a society, these things have got credence because, somewhere, there is a traditional, subversive machinery at play, which works overtime to stop women from getting involved in the meaningful battles of life, the real decisive matters.
SHE, LEADING THE CHANGE
Society has pushed and manipulated women into thinking that ultimate fulfilment lies in the mundane tasks of life, and worse, not acknowledged her as an individual entity and pushed her into typified roles.
It is not to say that a woman doesn’t enjoy or take pride in cooking, maintaining a spotless home or being appreciated if her children look and perform to the best of their abilities. However, to glorify these as the only things that signify her worth, is patronizing. There is more that defines her.
Fortunately, it is increasingly evident that she is learning to decipher between real achievements and manufactured ones, and knows that her identity is dependent on the independence of her thoughts, intellect and compassion as an individual entity.
It is a no-brainer that it is education and economic freedom which have led to this growing awareness about her individuality and identity. In turn, she has started to expect more than just the basics from her partner and the social system around her; not in a materialistic sense of the word but on the parameters of empathy, respect, support, partnership—and sexuality.
There is an overall shift. Sexuality, from being owned by society, is being reclaimed through individuality. This is, perhaps, more visible in the metros today and hopefully, will have a trickle-down effect.
Interestingly, it is the Indian woman who is driving this change. Partly driven by need and partly by opportunity, the woman’s world is changing, and in turn, she is changing the world. There are talks about men changing and becoming more accommodative as well as sensitive. To my mind, this is but a reaction. There is no option. Faced with the power of the woman, men have to change.
Sure, we are in a transition phase and things are not going to settle down into one standard identifiable entity soon enough. But change there is. In these circumstances, we could do more than pay lip service to women—not just from a larger ethical point of view, but also that as a target audience. This is because there is a huge section of society waiting to be tapped—that of the individual female consumer. The marketing gaze will need to shift. This shift will gain momentum as more and more female marketers, brand managers, creative directors, scriptwriters and technicians make their way into the bastions that were dominated by a single gender with a singular lens.
As a society and industry, we will expand, excel and stand more enriched.
This extract was taken from the book ‘Thinking Aloud’ by Prasoon Joshi. It was published by Rupa Publications.
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