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Changing portrayal of women in advertising

If today women are scaling new heights and have a voice, then women in advertisements can’t be relegated to just washing clothes, cooking or pleasing husbands. But in recent times many advertisements have gone beyond the white picket fence when it comes to portrayal of women

Roshni Nair | Mumbai | July 5, 2016


The beaming wife with a spatula, the obedient daughter, the loving mother, the seductress – these are some social conventions on women that advertising has reinforced since time immemorial. Women have done it all: washing, cleaning, cooking and, most importantly, pleasing the men in their lives. While men have conquered mountains, closed business deals and succeeded in every walk of life, women in advertising are relegated to the confines of her house.

It is said advertising is a reflection of the life around. Showing women as homemakers obsessed with getting the ‘ziddi’ stain out of clothes must have made sense a few decades ago but today’s women have come a long way. In recent times many advertisements have gone beyond the white picket fence when it comes to portrayal of women.

Ariel’s Dads #ShareTheLoad campaign went viral when people around the world supported the ad for bringing to fore the problems of stereotypes. When Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook, shared the video and called it one of the most powerful she had ever seen, the ad racked up massive viewership on the internet. When Dads #ShareTheLoad won five Lions at Cannes this year, we knew change had arrived and arrived in style, roaring to get noticed.

Moving with societal change

So what has changed since the days of the Hemas, Rekhas, Jayas and Sushmas of the advertising world?

Divya Radhakrishnan Divya Radhakrishnan

According to Divya Radhakrishnan, MD, Helios Media, “Advertisements are based on two counts. One, reflection of society and, two, aspirational ambience. Therefore, it can’t stray far from its surrounding, if it has to stay relevant to the audience.”

Santosh Padhi Santosh Padhi

Talking about why women in advertising have been portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures for the most part of history, Santosh Padhi aka Paddy, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Taproot Dentsu India, said, “Advertising always is what is happening in society. Thirty years back the trend was that a woman has to take care of the house, the kids and the daily chores. Many detergents, including Nirma, showed women enjoying washing clothes and they probably did enjoy it because of how they were raised and what they were taught growing up. But in the last 30 years, the role of the same Hema, Rekha, Jaya and Sushma, who were the voices of Nirma, has changed. They are still running the houses but they have a different hold in our society.”


This change was evident when Taproot Dentsu used the same four characters Hema, Rekha, Jaya and Sushma for the ambulance ad. This time around, instead of trying to get the perfectly white shirt whiter, the women were seen trying to help a stuck ambulance. Breaking out of the confines of the house, the ad rather focused on women getting the job done, no matter how dirty.

Moving with the tide

Harish Bijoor Harish Bijoor

“The advertising industry had changed dramatically in the last three years. It has become more real, urban and politically correct,” said Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.

If it is a reflection of how the society functions, then it becomes imperative for advertisements to get on with the changing times.

MG Parameswaran MG Parameswaran

“The changing role of women in Indian society is getting accelerated due to a few key reasons. I have explored these in my book ‘Nawabs Nudes Noodles – India Through 50Years of Advertising’. The first is the growing education of Indian women. The second is the migration and moving out of home towns, leading to nuclear families where the woman has a stronger voice. The other reason is the growing voice of the girl child. These are just three,” said MG Parameswaran, Brand Strategist, Founder,

If women in the country were scaling new heights, then the women in advertisements couldn’t be relegated to the background any longer. Questions like why household chores should be only a woman’s responsibility were raised and brands and advertisers had to pay heed.

Nisha Singhania Nisha Singhania

“Today you would find far more women out there working, far more women carrying the load of running the family. And therefore, what you see in ads now-a-days is a reflection of what is actually taking place in society,” said Nisha Singhania, Co-founder and Director, Infectious.

Women find a voice in social media

With newer avenues and platforms available to women, it is getting more difficult to stifle their voices. Earlier, if someone had a problem with an advertisement or a piece of communication, there was no public platform to give vent to that frustration but today with the social media playing an integral part in ad campaign the reaction is instant and brands aren’t taking any chances.

Josy-Paul-250-top Josy Paul

“Social media is the correction liquid of the world. It is nudging brands to align with the public's need and want for a better balanced world,” said Josy Paul, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, BBDO India, the man behind the Dads#ShareTheLoad campaign.

Kiran Khalap Kiran Khalap

“Traditionally, it was believed that the advertising industry lagged behind the feature film industry in reflecting societal trends but with the advent of social media, I believe the advertising industry is catching up. Myntra’s ads online about a single mother, about a lesbian marriage; the Fastrack ad about lesbians; the Red Label sponsored video about the eunuchs…these are brave reflections of the advertising industry attempting to rip the 'Pink Curtain’,” said Kiran Khalap, Co-founder and Managing Director, Chlorophyll.

Speaking about why more and more brands are choosing to break the norm and look at women in advertising differently Padhi said, “The society has changed and the minute women in the society changed and their voice in the society changed, brands had to be with them. That is why more and more brands are echoing her emotions and I think it is high time we did it because in the past 20-30 years we haven’t been doing them justice and now we should make up for it.”

While Bijoor feels that this changing representation is slightly urban biased, Singhania defends the portrayal, “Surely, the ads are urban biased but that is what is aspirational. They are leading the way forward and it depends on what the category the ad is for. For example, the Dads #ShareTheLoad ad – Ariel is a product used in urban India. So, fairly, it is a reflection of urban India. But equally you will find in small towns women who have a strong voice and stand for something. They may or may not be working but that doesn’t mean they are not doing something productive in their lives.”

Role of advertising as social agent


But can advertising really bring about a positive change? Yes, feels Paul.

“Ariel’s Dads #ShareTheLoad was a response to an Indian condition. But it had universal resonance. It went viral globally at the speed of feeling. We received lakhs of comments, stories and confessions from people who wept after seeing our work. It seems to have embraced the world with pure empathy and hope. Everybody connected with it. I was fortunate to be on the Glass Lion Jury at Cannes with so many brilliant people from different countries and various parts of the world. When the #ShareTheLoad film played, many of them broke down and had tears streaming down their face. We were bonded by empathy. Advertising is more powerful than we think. It can change the world,” Paul said.

So is this the new trend in advertising?

“Trend is something that is shortlived. This is definitely not a trend and it is something that is hopefully here to stay for long and it will probably become more progressive as society becomes more progressive,” said Singhania.

We hope so too!

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