Women have been exploited first by advertising agencies, and then by the television channels who air these commercials before, between, and after every serial, feature, news, game, and discussion programme. A commercial is louder, more glamorous, and colourful than the serial or programme since it has to get its message across within the brief slices of time it has. Women are projected as a visual prop to enhance the appeal of an advertisement, which does not really need women models.
There is some light at the end of this dark tunnel. With the growing concept of women’s liberation and the recognition of individualism and identity, the advertising industry has finally come to terms with its social responsibility in portraying a more realistic and egalitarian image of the Indian woman. The number and frequency of demeaning and exploitative commercials in the television media is on the decline.
A commercial is louder, more glamorous, and colourful than the serial or programme since it has to get its message across within the brief slices of time it has. Women are projected as a visual prop to enhance the appeal of an advertisement, which does not really need women models.
The obsession to be fair has now been recognised as a gender-neutral obsession and not confined to girls and women. Taking a cue from men’s desire to be fair and handsome, Kolkata-based Emami introduced “Fair and Handsome,” a fairness cream for men. The fairness-cosmetics market has grown two-thirds in the past five years to an annual turnover of $250 million.
Hair creams, colouring creams, and gels are also widely advertised targeting the men. Commercials for male deodorants present men as sex symbols in the same way products present women. The same does extend to the presentation of men and women featuring as characters in daily soaps and serials.
Fashion house Satya Paul, piggybacking on Jassi’s popularity of the serial Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, launched a JJKN working women’s collection available across the country. Satya Paul’s Managing Director Sanjay Kapoor said, “Fashion is very inspirational nowadays and working women want to look good. The line is very affordable with complete ensembles starting at only Rs 1,595.” So Jassi—an earnest middle-class secretary—was enlisted to support various elite concerns, in real life as on the screen.
Sometimes, there is an interesting interface between a serial and a commercial. Some commercials for household products use actors from popular serials not in their personal capacity as ‘models’ but drawn directly from the serials in the same costume, hairstyle, and make-up. They are playing out the characters in their serials. The serial character extends into the larger area of media and society by plugging this product or that service to his/her massive fan following. It is an ingenuous extension of representation from the narrow framework of the serial to the larger periphery of social and commercial communication.
In one commercial, Tulsi and her mother-in-law used to appear together. It is an example of ad agencies cashing in on the popularity of serials and the characters therein. The opposite is also true. Like famous film stars plugging shampoo or toilet soap, television stars are often given modelling assignments independent of their serial characters. This opens up another channel for the viewers to watch them in a different format.
During some commercial breaks in any given serial, advertisements portray women more or less in keeping with the women characters in the serial, thereby reinforcing the ‘wife-mother-daughter-in-law’ stereotype that the serial is representing. These serials show the New Indian Woman within the context of the old family structure. She is the mother who can cook and drive. She is the daughter who works along with her brother in the family business. She is the daughter-in-law, the mainstay in the family, who will not take bullying from the males in the family. These multiple roles, however, have an underlying emphasis on her traditional femininity.
The advertisements follow the same cues. In an HDFC Standard Life commercial, a middle-aged woman rejects her husband’s helping hand to show how independent she is. In a Cholamandalam commercial for financial services, a young girl who cares for stray dogs, dreams of becoming a vet. In the same advertisement, one sees a housewife looking into the mirror dreaming about a vacation with the family. In a Tanishq commercial, one is introduced to a traditionally attired bahu applying sindoor in her hair, affectionately talking to her child, touching the feet of her parents-in-law, then driving a car, and waving at her husband to join her as they drive away.
During some commercial breaks in any given serial, advertisements portray women more or less in keeping with the women characters in the serial, thereby reinforcing the ‘wife-mother-daughter-in-law’ stereotype that the serial is representing. These serials show the New Indian Woman within the context of the old family structure.
A commercial that drew flak from some feminist groups showed a married woman brushing against a young man wearing AXE deodorant. She at once begins to fantasise being in bed with him. This ad shows that at last advertisers, corporate production houses, and television channels are acknowledging the sexual desires of women and are also articulating this reality.
A beautiful commercial from FEMINA, shown only a few times, says it all with a few brief shots. A slightly elderly woman, decked up as a bride, is seen in front of the mirror. A few seconds later, she is escorted to a wedding ritual by a young girl. Without dialogue, the message comes across—the daughter is giving her mother away in marriage! Many mother–daughter ads in recent times bear out female bonding, in effect, subtly marginalising the role of men by cutting them out completely from such ads. Extending the same logic, women do not appear in ads for ‘solid’ products such as steel and cement and, even if they do, they are sidetracked within the script.
Kishore Chakraborti, Associate Vice-President and Director, Consumer Insight, McCann Erickson India, says: “There is a shift in the status of the woman in the family—from the position of being ruled to that of ruler. Her expression has changed from a voice of protest to a tone of command. She has a critical job to manage those who, till yesterday, managed her in the family. This is a complex game being played at different layers. Things are not always what they seem. What she ‘projects’ is not necessarily what she ‘is’. In many ways, her actions and intentions are at cross purposes with each other. On the surface she is a busy housewife, a friendly mother, a charming woman casting her spell on her inexperienced husband. In reality, she is a hardcore diplomat, measuring her steps and carefully calculating her moves, trying to run the system on her own terms without disturbing and upsetting the traditional norms of the patriarchal society”.
This change is nowhere more pronounced than in the television serials with their ‘ideologically’ conformist commercial breaks. Portrayal of gender roles in television commercials is a reflection of the unequal relationship of dominance and subservience between the two sexes that sustains in the real world.