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Not a fair portrayal

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SOMA BASU

An analysis of 200 advertisements shows that sexism and gender stereotyping are still prevalent in the advertising industry.

Privileging the Privileged: Gender in Indian Advertising; Sharada J.Schaffter; First published in 2006 by Promilla & Co., Publishers in association with Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi and Chicago; Printed and bound in India by Uthra Print Communications. SMART mom's independence and passion, super wife's assertion in choice, the modern woman's balancing act between domestic and professional life, her cute and smiling daughter who exhorts you to buy anything from pasta and noodles to spices and sauces, oils and shampoos... All on the great ad spots on television.Yet, ironically, conditioning of women through ads is seldom noticed. Few role models are depicted; women are mostly pushed to domestic roles and portrayed by beautiful models in eye-catching ads.

Distortion of reality

The reality is that women are not just homemakers or mothers. Millions are professionals engaged in productive activities but are selectively kept out of ads. This is innocuous distortion of reality by advertisers, as it predisposes women to unfair treatment by society.Not just stereotypical but unethical and offensive representations of women in advertisements work to their detriment and succeed in perpetuating gender hierarchy. Sharada Jotimuttu Schaffter tries to raise awareness of the issue by analysing 200 ads (60 in detail) over a 12-year period from 1994 to 2005. She unveils the ingenuity of advertisers in her book Privileging the Privileged: Gender in Indian Advertising.Conscious that the book was written over a period of time and has been long in the printing, Sharada feels that, of late, men are shown doing domestic chores and boys and girls are shown plugging for education and equal opportunities. But still, she asserts, there's a long way to go. "If media is sexist, advertising is undoubtedly regressive," she writes in her foreword.Sharada's choice of publications for her assessment have been popular women's magazines like Femina and Women's Era; those read by men such as Business World, Business India, Computers Today, Sportstar, PC Quest; news magazines like India Today; and two English dailies, The Hindu and Indian Express. At the end of it, Sharada is convinced about the lack of respect for the integrity and dignity of women, and how they are stereotyped and dehumanised, turned into commodities.In India, advertisers often treat women with disdain portraying them as if they have been created only to attend to man's creature comforts. They are shown to be exceedingly anxious about their looks, weak, foolish, incapable of looking after themselves and utterly dependent on man, she writes. Take the example of Amul ad where the refrigerator is stocked with cheese of different flavours. The punchline is `now you know why dad bought the fridge'. Everybody knows mum buys the cheese but the text implies women are incapable of making crucial decisions in the purchase of high value products.It is perhaps easy and convenient for advertisers to portray women as they are generally perceived by society, seldom questioning the fairness of it. Does a woman always have to be tall and slim, young and light-skinned with silken skin and a mop of gloriously shining hair? Is this all calculated to catch a man and then spend rest of her life preparing mouth-watering dishes and washing his clothes until they outshine the sun, of course with a man telling her what detergent to use. Sharada also analyses advertisements that use or target little girls to underline how they are conditioned to become passive, narcissistic, dependent, subservient homemakers eager to please men when they grow up. Sharada focuses primarily on the discriminatory treatment given to women by the advertising industry. How advertisers turn women into commodities and project their images as defined by males only. Qualities attributed to women are mostly negative while the intelligent, strong and assertive woman successfully undertaking responsibilities and contributing to productivity in society is rarely seen.

Task ahead

Much of the advertising portraying women perpetuates their secondary role in Indian society and also more invidiously invents fresh circumstances that characterise women as inferior to men. The Advertising Council of India encourages people to bring to its notice - through elaborate procedures - ads that contravene regulations so that action can be taken to redress the situation. But an ad can not be separated from its import and effect. Once the veil is lifted and contents are unmasked, neither the most regretful retraction nor the most penitent apology can undo the damage caused.The task ahead is to frame a moral outlook that challenges the patriarchal social order. Sharada, in her book, lists several guidelines for non-sexist language and advertising codes to ensure fair portrayal of women.


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