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Guest Times: Marketing and social responsibility

LK Gupta takes a look at the role of marketers vis-à-vis how women are projected in campaigns

January 4, 2013

LK Gupta

The Delhi gang rape case and the ensuing debate have raised a hue and cry about how Indian movies are responsible for creating and corrupting a generation of testosterone-powered beasts. I think it is foolish to think that movies alone are responsible for a societal debacle. For, a lot more goes into such collective failure of the system. For me though, this does raise an important question: How much social responsibility is shared by marketers in their day-to-day work? Should they shoulder part of the responsibility at all?

Yes, a million times yes!

Brand positioning is all about the battle for the minds of consumers. As marketers create value propositions for their products, they cater to latent or felt needs, and even create new needs in their target consumers. They play on and magnify the consumers’ wants and desires. In this respect they are also responsible for the mindsets they shape – willingly or unknowingly – among the public about the product, the context of product usage and the social fabric around them. In a society where brands have become a symbol of who we are, where personalities and lifestyles are judged by the conspicuousness of our brands, marketers bear some part of this responsibility.

It’s all the more relevant when you consider that advertising and promotion don’t happen in any isolated venue like a stadium or a mall. It works its effect right in our living rooms, where parents, children, adolescents and young adults alike watch the action unfold. It is intimately woven into our daily lives; it is constant and continuous. Now think about some of the advertising you see.

  • A cricketing hero talks about how to use a phone to “pataao” girls
  • Women wrap themselves around men just because they wear a certain brand of deo
  • Witty young men flaunt their bikes and succeed in getting girls to ride with them
  • Smart but uni-dimensional mothers who exist only to serve food to their husbands and kids
  • Young women aspiring to become glamour dolls by enlisting to be Formula One Grid Girls
  • A college graduate gets a better shot at career success when she’s fair-skinned

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against creation of a brand proposition that underlines the desirability of a man for a woman. Or vice versa. Nor am I advocating brands to become strident feminists opposing anything and everything. The sexual equation is a natural phenomenon, and many a life has been improved by products catering to it. The role of the housewife is a strong and nourishing tradition, one not to be undermined. The marketer’s true acumen will be in reflecting the times (s)he lives in; it will show in the way they strengthen the hands of modern women in fulfilling all of their roles, not just what we’re used to seeing. How we depict the environment and their roles in it is under question.

There is a thin line dividing our right to express our creativity and being offensive and irresponsible. Let’s recognise that. We create advertising scripts all the time with women in central roles. To make even a small difference, marketers and creative writers have to ask the questions:

  • Does my script reinforce unwanted stereotypes, or am I challenging old paradigms positively?
  • Would an Indian woman feel proud upon seeing my ad? Will I turn her off or will she be indifferent?
  • Am I associating my brand with something that objectifies women?

Besides TV advertising, I want to point out that the recent trend of embedding a brand into item songs may be smart in the short term, but potentially subversive in giving our youth the wrong anthems in a seemingly innocuous brand application. Is that what you want your brand to be?

When a young girl gifts a car to her parents who doubt if she has enough money, more power to her. When a housewife awakens the conscience of her husband to be wise in investing for their future, let’s applaud her. When a girl cocks a snook at nosy auntyji and zips off on her scooter, exclaiming, “Why should boys have all the fun?” I say atta girl. When a woman tells her man which flavoured condom she likes without sounding sleazy, she’s the woman of today; respect her.

There are many more examples of campaigns that depict women as they should be. Our responsibility is to be that marketer whose campaigns neither exploit women nor patronise them. In our campaigns, present them as they are – proud, modern citizens of this country who play a valuable role, an equal role in our society.

Marketers owe this to the community they operate in.

(The views expressed here are the author’s personal. The article is sourced from his blog. The writer can be reached @Lk_gupta)

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