Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gender Sensitivity & Indian Advertising

Amartya Singh, Jagadeesh R, Ram Sevak | IIM B
Gender Sensitivity & Indian Advertising: A Reality Check

Ethics is a relativistic term and most often is influenced by perceptions of the people involved. In the present age of rapid information dissemination and integrated business environment, the pace of change in societal mores and ethical values has only accelerated. The focus of this article is to discuss gender sensitivity in Indian advertising industry. It deals with the increasing infringement on the sensibilities of the society in the name of creativity in product promotion by the advertisers, laws and regulatory bodies governing the advertising industry and measures through which companies can wade through the complexities in such scenarios.

Business environment cannot be immune to the changes in the society in which it operates. Some of the changes in ethical norms in the society that have happened over a few decades are substantial. It is interesting to note that advertising industry has broadly recognized and aligned with these changes.

Difference between Old and New Ethics

The old ethic favors…

The new ethic favors…






Quality of Life

Sex roles


Table 1

The change towards Unisexism is now well recognized in formal business writing in particular and English language in general. Even in the developed economies, where Institutional mechanisms are well-defined, codified and enforced; it is difficult to segregate right of employer to freely conduct his business in a free-market environment and fully complying with broadly agreed societal norms. For example, recently Citibank was in controversy regarding their justification of the dismissal of a female employee in New York

The Indian Perspective

The Indian marketing industry has been found wanting in the area of gender sensitivity in many instances due to its inappropriate and sometimes patronizing portrayal of women in advertisements. It would be careless on executives’ part to turn a blind eye to the damage that inappropriate brand communication can cause to the company and potentially to the society itself.

The Indian advertising industry’s gender insensitivity is proliferated through the gender stereotyping and the objectification of women. Gender stereotyping is subtle in advertising activities due to the lack of awareness, fatalism towards women’s condition in the society, lack of easily accessible redressal mechanisms and sometimes plain indifference on the society’s part.

Going by its track record, Indian advertising industry has rarely shied away from straight-jacketing gender roles. Numerous advertisements have portrayed women as hollow beings who measure their worth through their skin tone, body weight, beauty quotient and the likes. Scores of advertisements of brands including Axe, Close up, Fair and Lovely, Tuffs shoes, Lux Innerwear have blatantly resorted to showing women in poor light - pushing the image of women to the brink. Advertising visuals have objectified women to the extent of portraying women as a mere sum of their body parts, denigrating their intelligence and individuality. The advertisements make girls and women feel inadequate if they do not conform to the image projected in the advertisements. Stereotyping of women is a widespread phenomenon in the Indian media extending beyond the realm of marketing. The typical stereotypes include the naive/dependant housewife whose sole purpose is to keep her husband/kids/in-laws happy, the unmarried girl whose existence can only be validated by a suitable marriage and the village belle who has no means of livelihood and is a burden on her family.

There are a few product categories which frequently use taboo subjects as an advertising strategy e.g. perfumes, chocolates, cars and trendy clothing. In most of these cases, oblique references to eroticism and sex are perhaps one of the most common strategies used. Here lies the danger of crossing the fine line between utilizing artistic freedom of the advertiser for making an impact over the audience and honouring sensibilities of the society. Importantly the correlation between the use of sexual innuendos in the advertising and its impact on the sales isn’t clearly established. Most often, audience buys the ad not the product! If we are asked to name one advertisement in India which has created controversy, Amul Macho’s is one of the most easily recalled but how many of the customers have consequently bought the product and the impact of the advertisement on the buying decision is ambiguous. Executives must keep in mind the fact that advertisements with veiled suggestions, sexual innuendos and stereotyping fit the fantasy of a wide target audience with divergent interpretations. This might lead to interpretations of the advertisement which the advertiser might not have intended! Any consequent litigation in such matters can be very distracting, long-drawn and might fetch bad publicity for the company at the least.

Regulatory Framework and Industry Norms

Government of India has enacted the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 to prohibit indecent representation of women through advertisements. The National Commission of Women (NCW) has suggested amendments to the 24 year old act, to tackle cases where the act has not been able to guarantee justice. One of them is the imposition of penalty under the Prohibition of Indecent Representation of Women and Children Act, 2008. The NCW has suggested imposing fines of Rs. 10,000 for first conviction and Rs. 50,000 to Rs.10,00,000 for second conviction.

The sole Industry body responsible for imposing regulations in advertising is the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). It is concerned with safeguarding the interests of the customers through monitoring and guiding the advertisements; and by disallowing advertisements which are deemed as indecent, vulgar and repulsive based on the accepted standards of decency. However, the intended self-regulation has been ineffective due to the lack of enthusiasm amongst advertisers towards regulation. More than 100 major advertisers are still not a part of ASCI, a careful measure to escape censorship.

In spite of the apparent lack of teeth, ASCI, has been able to uphold the notion of gender sensitivity in certain cases. For instance, in August 2009, ASCI considered an advertisement for The Times of India’s “Best Bottom Pincher Award” as derogatory and offensive to womanhood. The advertisement was subsequently withdrawn by The Times of India.

Though steps have been taken to uphold the rights of gender equality in the advertising context; the laws and the regulatory bodies have not been able to enforce the rights in an effective and concerted manner. Major reason for the failure is the lack of initiatives from the authorities, the industry regulatory bodies and the corporate at large.

The way forward for Organizations

Companies have responsibilities in performing social contracts in the markets they serve. So they must try to avoid stereotyping not only in the gender context but also any other demographic factor including race, colour, religion and language. Any digression in this regard ultimately damages the brand along with the risk of potential criminal and civil liabilities for the executives. Companies should also be quick in accurately sensing their market, failing to do so not only results in discomforting communication but can also result in recalling of the product.

Given the lack of clarity in regulatory guidelines, Indian companies can take a cue from the developments in the Nordic and North American countries. MNC subsidiaries in India which are headquartered in such countries have clear regulations and boundaries mandated by their head offices and hence are better suited for developing codes for rest of their industry peers.

An important role in raising awareness can be played by feminist organizations, industry bodies and the media. Nordic countries - Norway and Denmark have strict limits over the use of sexist images for commercial gains. In such cases an ombudsman similar to Denmark's to oversee advertisements might be an effective checkpoint.

Another alternative is to soften the degree of offence of the message itself. There are many ways of accomplishing it. For example visual advertisements can be softened by either developing pictorial metaphors or using animals or animated characters to lessen the offence. Visual, audio and music elements can be combined in a way which gives the advertisement a different meaning from the one in static isolated form of these elements.

An advertisement can also be softened through the use of textual form in the place of visual/audio element. This would be effective since customers can interpret a piece of text in different ways based on their predispositions, leading to a more dispersed impact of the transgression. A rather extreme example is the advertisement strategy adopted by apparel brand FCUK (abbreviation for French Connection UK).

As a conscious corporate citizen, companies should recognise the equitable role of women in society. They should avoid stereotyping which might perpetuate the gender biases in our society. Instead, the companies can positively contribute to women empowerment by emphasizing and catalysing positive developments of women. In the near future, this might become a necessity as companies would be hard-pressed to connect and understand their significant and rapidly increasing women employee base.


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