I grew up in a small, conservative town. Ours was the oldest girls’ school in South India. The uniforms had not been updated in a century, and half-saris were mandated for the senior school. Attempts by a small group of parents to provide an alternative dress code were shot down on the grounds that trousers or salwar-kameez would attack our fragile morals. When I went back to visit ten years ago, I was surprised to see the girls wearing salwar-kameez to school. Apparently when cable TV finally arrived there and parents saw the girls in cities wearing smart uniforms to school, the demand to provide a modern option was too much for the school management to withstand.

Does media reflect our society? Or does media shape society?

Media helps to spread stories that ought to be heard. And certainly anyone who is in a position to determine the ‘ought’ is shaping society. News stories – who tells it, what’s in it, and how it’s told is a critical leading indicator of change.

We consume a lot of media daily, but usually with a non-critical, non-analytical eye. Biases that would be a huge problem in the workplace, more so in global firms, are swallowed without a blink. Getting hard facts was a challenge – till I came across the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP). It is the world’s longest- running research on gender in the news media. It covered India in 2010 and here are some of the highlights:

News stories were twice as likely to reinforce gender stereotypes than challenging them

News stories on gender (in)equality were almost non-existent

78% news stories featured men as the main subject

82% of experts, commentators and 87% of spokespersons featured in news were male

Women featured in the news primarily (54%) as ‘persons on the street’ or as representatives of ‘popular opinion’

There are of course ground realities that contribute to this lop-sided representation, even when the journalist or media house is keen to provide a balanced view.

Explains Shereen Bhan, Delhi Bureau Chief and Executive Editor of CNBC-TV18, “If you look at politics, most political parties have at least one female spokesperson so they do get air time. Stories on banking and financial services have adequate female representation because that universe has a more diverse mix and a healthy pipeline of women in senior roles. Manufacturing is a problem area because there are not enough women in senior roles. Indian IT is dominated by men but the MNCs Cap Gemini, Intel etc are headed by women. So it differs from sector to sector but in general there is a paucity of women voices. Women don’t shy away from speaking if given a chance. In fact, they make more effort to be better prepared.”

According to GMMP, women made their presence felt, to a certain extent, as news subjects in stories on environment, nature and pollution (33%); poverty, housing and social welfare (34%); education (38%); violent crime (43%); and medicine, health and hygiene (5%).

Should gender diversity in reporting be mandated? In hiring, one of the key ways to ensure gender diversity is to mandate that an equal proportion of male and female resumes are sourced. In the same way, could we insist that invitations to participate in a news story are equally distributed?

“Gender balance in reporting has to be consciously encouraged. Most journalists are trained to be objective, research heavily and speak to multiple sources for a well-balanced story but there’s not enough emphasis given to achieve a gender balance in reporting. Sadly women are sought out only when the issue is a `women’s issue’. We still have a long way to go before we realize that women’s rights are human rights, and women’s issues should not just concern women,”
Says, Anupama Bijur, Bureau Chief, Magna Publishing Co Ltd, which publishes magazines such as Stardust and Savvy.

News has tremendous power in creating awareness because of the belief that it is factual, that it depicts reality. And perhaps because of that has greater cause to say that it only reflects society. But what about advertising? Advertising should be taken with a pinch of salt – after all it is designed to convince you to buy something. But given its pervasiveness and the data provided for credibility, it is often confused with independent messaging.

 Researching this topic a while ago, I came across Discovery Channel’s Science of Lust, which documents the following:

When provided with semi-erotic cues, men want to differentiate themselves. This makes them take, say, riskier fashion choices

After being in the presence of a pleasant woman, men become more expressive and creative

It’s almost reflexive for men to slow down to check out an attractive woman

There’s stuff about women’s reactions to these cues too, but it isn’t as direct or instantaneous. So basically, putting a hunk into an ad targeting women may not work. (Hence the babies?)

But dropping women into every ad also doesn’t work. Apart from the fact that it puts off women – who are a rising purchasing power – the context matters to men too.

Lust makes sense when you are trying to sell a product that will make the user stand out. Or will make him appear unique and macho. For example, fast cars, bold fashion, cutting edge technology. You should not do it to sell products that are not intended to make the user stick out – for example regular cars, clothes, software.

Please also note that the research indicates that even a subtle cue appears to be sufficient. As Anshu Bagai, Director – Marketing, Tupperware adds, “While it is true that most sexy visuals in popular media will also propagate regressive values one must note that eye catching visuals hinting towards sex can also be used without attaching regressive values to them. The Fastrack ads targeted towards both young men and women would be an example of an ad showing sexy imagery but not objectifying women.”

But often, it is human tendency to take an idea that works and go overboard. And hence the raft of crude ads rife with innuendo or worse. “Today, while each of us finds a racist or a communist comment, let alone an advertisement, instantly offensive, it is disturbing how ‘comfortable’ we are with visual media that objectifies women,” says independent brand consultant, Aarthi Srinath.

Does advertising have a moral role to play? Should it adhere to some self-defined code or should it just go with whatever sells? And who defines what is a ‘good’ value?

When I put this to a senior ad-man, he says ads reflect our society, and that it’s very hard to define ‘good’ values. Fair enough. But if each advertiser made ads that reflect their own family values we’d see a plurality of views on our channels. Yes, some may advocate that men shouldn’t eat noodles, or women use cellphones, (both leading to a collapse of morals) but we would also see the kind of values that results in marches defending the right of women to live life on their terms without accusations of attracting rapists. What we mostly see, though, is what agencies and their clients are guessing is “middle- of-the-road India”. Or perhaps a nostalgic view of what they would like it to be – a 70s world that reminds them of their childhood. It disallows the possibility that people don’t know what they want till they see it.

“I believe advertisers and marketers should work on driving social change and that this is actually good business. In a world that is changing so rapidly, given that our consumers have access to brands and messages through social media, not showing progressive advertising and role models can actually hurt the brand name and risk it being seen as dated. Also, you can get called out quite easily these days with regressive advertising because of the way consumers, especially women are
blogging and sharing their reactions on sites such as Facebook”,
Neela Saldanha, Ph.D,Director, Innovation Insight & Strategy, Global Snacks Group,

This is a complex issue because it involves not just the advertisers but also the marketers, those who endorse these products, and of course, those who support these as consumers. For example, one of the internationally identified areas of concern is not just the objectification of women, but the disembodying of them into their component body parts. In India, let’s take one of my personal bugbears – fairness creams. Ok, ok, let’s say they address an existing consumer need to be ‘whiter’. This is an age-old bias in some parts of India, but, till recently, it was limited to being ‘fair of face’ and solutions offering this. Then came the body part ads which have started pushing ‘full skin fairness’, ‘fairer underarms’, and other areas that can’t be named in this magazine. But by doing this they are pushing women to worry not just about their pretty face, but about body parts that were earlier not emphasized outside the overall concept of beauty. And so the argument of just ‘reflecting’ society is not true.

Then there are the ads that push existing stereotypes, and ads that create newer areas of worry – is your house/water/pots/clothes/hand clean enough? Is your food/milk/cereal good enough?

Don’t get me wrong – I am a big user of new stuff, provided they add convenience to my life. What does bother me are the products that seem not to answer a latent need but a latent neurosis!

Should advertisers become advocates for social change? Or is that beyond their brief? According to Anurag Dahiya, SVP, ESPN Star Sports, “It cannot and should not be the focus of advertisers and agencies – let’s face it, their focus is to sell their products and services. What would help though, is a sensitivity to the issue, so as creative ideas originate and get vetted, there is always a filter applied to ensure nothing that furthers stereotypes goes through gratuitously.”

Hamsini Shivakumar, Co-founder, Leapfrog Consulting, has a different view. She says, “All successful marketers are socio-cultural change agents. They use all the instruments of marketing and campaigning to grow needs and wants, influence and shape consumption ideas in favor of their commercial agenda, viz the company/industry/sector that they represent. Dairy producers want people to drink more milk, egg producers want people to eat more eggs, hair colorant makers want more women and men to color their hair, the jewelry industry wants people to buy more jewelry. They would like to influence the ‘evolution’ of their sector in their favor and this involves changing socio-cultural codes over time.”

“Hair fashion is a very good example of this social change. The traditional view of respectable Indian womanhood was that ‘good women’ kept their hair tied back neatly and did not leave their hair open – drawing from the Draupadi story. In contemporary India though, this traditional cultural code has been completely overturned with girls and older women styling and coloring their hair and leaving it open,” adds Shivakumar.

Clearly this is a complicated issue with room for lots of opinions. Should the government step in and impose its views?

Post the rape and death of the New Delhi student in December 2012, there is a greater interest in all areas pertaining to women, and the government – perhaps realizing that this is a latent election issue – has started increasing oversight and regulation in various areas. One is the move to amend the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act of 1986. Among other provisions, it allows for a police officer (not below the rank of inspector) to seize material that they consider to wrongly portray women.

This of course has scope to go to the other extreme with the values of the individual over-riding group values of existing self-regulatory bodies such as ASCI. Says Thomas Varghese, CEO, Textiles Business, Aditya Birla Group, “It should be consumers and bodies like ASCI. If government or police is to decide the same then it would lead to harassment and varied interpretations.”

This bill was put up for consultation though it is not yet law. Moreover it only covers ads, not selective depiction in news, or ‘item numbers’ that sneak into family entertainment.

In conclusion, what can marketers do?

David Ogilvy famously said, “The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Do not insult her intelligence.” As marketers it is worth revisiting this thought. Consumers are family. Let’s not push values that we would not be comfortable espousing to our uncles and aunts, sons and daughters. 

For simplicity one can’t go beyond the tagline of McCann from 1912 “Truth Well Told”. And whether it be news or advertising that’s the highest form of our craft.

This article first appeared in the March issue of Marketing Booster magazine


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