Progressively Patronizing? Indian Advertising and Sexism
With regards to our responsibility as advertising people, Bill Bernbach once said: “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” So when campaigns are hailed for doing so we must examine them closely, lest we lull ourselves into a false sense of achievement.
Using the media’s focus on the plight of women in our cities (the obviously upper caste and class slant to the conversation notwithstanding), we’ve seen a spate of advertising campaigns dealing with the subject. Look at us fighting the good fight firmly in the corner of women’s rights, they yell. We’re oh-so-progressive.
Not enough critical attention has been paid to how sexism really plays out in advertising. It is easy to spot when the work blatantly objectifies women. This is frighteningly common in advertising for products targeted at men. She is a thing to be had. Her affections are easy enough to win. The man must see it as his right.
The more insidious ones are those that presume to speak on behalf of women in categories that sell to them or those that ride on the subject by telling us stories featuring apparently progressive women and themes. They often stumble all over their own preachy self-righteous selves but they do get people talking.
Should work that lectures or presumes to give women permission find a place in the pantheon? For that is what advertising does when it orders us to respect women or expects to be lauded for the conceit that the tigress boss who orders a man to work late into the evening is actually the doting wife who still cooks for him and coaxes him back as she waits at home. What about this story should surprise us? That she's a boss? Or that she cooks for her husband? It is impossible to answer that question without feeling a little shame about the starting point of such thinking or underlying assumptions that drive the plot. So if it doesn't work as storytelling, maybe it attempts to win us over by showing us a different ‘progressive’ view of the world. What does this say about the way we see the world? That we think it’s our job to give women permission to be bosses and housewives at the same time. Really, we're that progressive?
We're in the business of making our brands relevant. We make our way into hearts by entertaining or moving people. Perhaps, we do more service to society and lift it to a higher level when our stories create a moment of magic from the mundane. When we choose the chastising whisper over the theatrical scolding, by telling stories that move us with their observation of how sexism plays out unwittingly in our lives everyday – the sexism underlying a man's expectation that a woman give up her career to be with him or that she dress down because it distracts from what she’s saying – over those that lecture by putting a seal of approval on second marriages or dark-skinned brides.
Maybe it's the heavy-handed way in which some of these stories are told. Maybe it’s the seduction of the epic statement over the subtler charms of the everyday. Maybe it’s the execution. Maybe it stems from a misunderstanding of how advertising works or what people seek from brands. Whatever the reason, these grand and lofty overstatements are a different type of sexism. They self-consciously reference the very institutions that repress women, treating them as props. They indulge in an exaggerated sense of their own importance while ignoring the principles of what effective advertising must do. This is not progressive advertising. It's just another type of brutality.
Aditya Kanthy is National Strategic Planning Head at DDB Mudra Group