Has Marketing Truly Become Gender Neutral?

There is a very strong unconscious bias that exists in advertising. And it is often the small cues that are overlooked. More in detail about it in the article.
Has Marketing Truly Become Gender Neutral?   

Twenty-seven years after its iconic ‘asli swad zindagi ka’ campaign featuring model Shimona Rashi waltzing into a cricket field where her boyfriend hit a sixer, Mondelez’s Cadbury won millions of hearts (purple and otherwise), with an encore of the ad. Only this time, the gender roles were reversed. The man was in the gallery watching his lady love face the bowler in the ground, hoping for a sixer.  
 
Same agency (Ogilvy), same brand. A different gaze. In circa 2021.  
 
Some would call it femvertizing, a term coined in 2014 to describe advertising that subverted the male gaze and empowered women. Others would simply call it a reflection of the changing times. After all, we are very close to having a women’s IPL (Indian Premier League) next year.   
 
In December 2021, Columbia Pacific Communities launched a campaign called #MsSanta. The campaign presented Santa as a woman, attempting to redefine gender roles and re-establish role models for children in their most impressionable years. The campaign had senior citizens impart the message of gender neutrality to the next generation, sensitizing generation alpha that the future is genderless. The initiative witnessed enthusiastic participation from senior residents of Columbia Pacific Communities who were excited to impart transformative, paradigm-shifting learning to future generations.   
 
In March 2017, United Colors of Benetton launched their #UnitedByHalf campaign on International Women’s Day, challenging gender stereotypes through various depictions – a woman picking up the tab at a restaurant, a woman butcher, a little girl winning a round of arm wrestling or a group of middle-aged women living it up at a bowling alley.  
 
However, often these narratives end up being one-off campaigns, mostly done around International Women’s Day, while a majority of ads continue to reinforce gender stereotypes.  
 
A study by J. Walter Thompson’s Female Tribes initiative revealed that 85 percent of women think that the advertising world must align with reality when it comes to gender roles. 
 
The fact is that there is a very strong unconscious bias that exists in advertising. And it is often the small cues that are overlooked.  
 
For example, Oyo’s recent ‘assi reach gaye’ ad, featuring actor Gul Panag, shows a family of three in a car, with the man of the house driving the car when it could have very well been the woman. This is where the unconscious bias of ‘women can’t drive’ kicks in. We have internalized these biases to such a degree that we don’t even notice or question these portrayals.   
 
Part of the problem lies in the advertising and marketing industry itself. Look around you. You will find that over 90 percent of creative directors in the Indian advertising industry are men. Are we really so short of female creative talent? Or are they not able to break through the notorious glass ceiling? How many female CMOs does India Inc have? Yes, the percentage is healthier than what it was a decade ago. But it’s not good enough.  
 
So, when the key decision-makers on advertising on both the brand and the agency side are mostly men, the male gaze in advertising is bound to continue.  
 
In March last year, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) and Future Brands released the findings of the Gender Next study, which was conducted to determine if advertising is able to keep pace with the changing gender roles in society and do justice to the massive strides women have taken. The report included in-depth conversations with 140+ women and 100+ men and studied more than 600 TV films, prints ads, still, images released in the last five years. The study, conducted across diverse categories such as FMCG, FMCD, automobile, BFSI, real estate, personal care, fashion, beauty, home, and education, revealed that while a lot has changed in the last 5 to 7 years, women’s empowerment is depicted very superficially – mostly through clothes and styling, while the depiction of gender roles in daily lives remain largely unchanged.  
 
With exceptions like the Saffola Gold Stress ad, where a woman is shown as a busy corporate professional, and the man caring for her heart health, and a few other exceptions, most ads continue to show women taking care of the house, looking after the children, doing the grocery and shouldering a majority of household responsibilities.   
 
More importantly, communication created to market categories such as automobile, BFSI, real estate doesn’t even speak to women most of the time, targeting primarily men on the assumption that men continue to be the key decision-makers when it comes to big-ticket purchases. That is far from the truth with women in India driving 70 to 80 percent of purchase decisions, even for traditionally male-dominated categories like the above.  
 
UNICEF and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media analyzed the top 1,000 most viewed ads in India in 2019 across television and YouTube and found that while women are represented in Indian advertisement with 49 percent of characters in ads being female, Indian advertisement continues to stereotype women.  
 
Ten years ago, a diaper ad would mandatorily show a woman as the primary caregiver of an infant. Today, with ads such as Pampers’ #ItTakes2, it is heartening to see that narrative change. And yet, that change is not seismic. Because for every Pampers, Cadbury, Saffola, and Titan ad, there are hundreds of ads that either show the woman as the weaker sex or commodify her by reinforcing standard notions of beauty such as long hair, fair skin, etc. or then pander to stereotypes. In many cases, it’s easy to miss these stereotypes, because they are not explicit. For example, an ad may show a man changing the bulb, a woman shopping, or a man not being expressive enough with his love for his son (Health Ok advertisement) because he is expected to maintain a tough exterior.   

The portrayal of gender dynamics within the home remains largely unchanged. For example, the urban Indian phenomenon of stay-at-home dads is never reflected in advertisements. Nor do you ever see a male cook or house help in any Indian ads, although that is very much the reality.   
 
 A brand is what the brand says. Brands are creators of cultures, ideas, notions, and dialogues. They are not just companies selling products. And that is a role that every brand owner, marketer, and advertising professional must play responsibly.  
 
Advertisement, being an integral part of pop culture, also influences young minds, indirectly shaping the world of tomorrow. And we need to tell future young people that they can be whoever they wish to be, and their gender should not come in the way of what they choose to do with their lives.  
 
In the 1920s, legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel put women in trousers in order to free themselves from constricting Victorian corsetry. It was symbolic of letting women be owners of their own destiny.  
 
The advertisement needs to play the same role. Brand owners need to ask themselves whether an ad would make both men and women feel good about themselves. If the answer is no, it’s probably best to return to the drawing board. 

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