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India 2016 | Thought Leadership | Beyond Stereotypes

As Indian culture evolves, brands  can help shape positive change
Empower and enable growth rather than exploit anxieties
By Divya Khanna
VP, Strategic Planning Director
J. Walter Thompson
Unilever, the world’s second-largest advertiser in annual spending, recently announced its move to “unstereotype” its portrayals of people in advertising. It’s a recognition of the fact that advertising has influence. We know that we have some impact on culture through what we choose to celebrate or denigrate.
In the US, the DeBeers “Raise Your Right Hand” campaign cheered on empowered women and encouraged them to wear diamonds to symbolize their growing independence and power. Today in India, Tide ads celebrate hands-on dads who do the laundry.
As morally conscious professionals, we find ourselves often asking a pertinent question: Are we simply capitalizing on our consumers’ anxieties and insecurities to sell our products, or doing our bit to empower and enable them? I would like to frame this question differently: Are we presenting our brands/products as real solutions to real problems, or are we trying to ride on a “cause” via tangential associations?
Gender issues often get overlooked or misrepresented in advertising – not because we don’t have our consumers’ interests at heart, but because we misread consumers when guiding our brands to their lives. A few reminders of the big picture can ensure that when we choose to woo a man or a woman, we can get the right nuancing to make a sincere appeal.
The greatest obstacles are socioeconomic
Gender inequality remains. However, a quick survey of 33 respondents across JWT India offices showed that financial and social pressures are similar for both men and women in the same strata of society. In contrast, the average rural poor man today faces greater economic challenges than an urban affluent woman.
Consumers respond to individuals, not ideologies
Many men were able to relate to the theme in the movie Queen, about the tension between conforming to society’s expectations and following one’s own desires. The movie had this impact because it portrayed the protagonist Rani as believable, rather than larger than life and completely self-assured. An individual struggle is more relatable than an ideological stance that forces people to choose sides.
Brands solve public issues in personal situations
Ariel’s “Share the Load” and BharatMatrimony.com’s “Happy Marriages” ads are examples of brands illustrating how tensions surrounding large social issues can be resolved in private life. “Share the Load” addresses a very personal and relevant gender issue by showing men doing household laundry. The Bharat Matrimony ads show how it is possible for individuals to choose the right life partner in a culture where partners traditionally are chosen for them.
Men need empathy too, so stop retro-pushing
Does the man who buys sanitary pads for his wife and bathes his kids every day need a beard or an SUV to prove that he’s a man? Vogue’s “Boys Don’t Cry” campaign powerfully shows how boys who are taught not to show emotion sometimes grow up to be men who express their emotions violently against women. The campaign reminds us that showing sensitivity towards men helps them develop sensitivity towards others.
Banish both superwoman and superman
The JWT survey revealed that in urban affluent India, just like in the West, both men and women are feeling pressed to “do it all” and “have it all.” Can we relieve this pressure instead of intensifying it?
Personify, don’t objectify
How many women want to date or marry a man who is not pursuing a financially-rewarding career? The movie Ki and Ka shows how traditional gender roles can change. But matrimonial ads in newspapers still tend to skew toward beauty for women and salary for men. When we are reduced to an object of someone’s desire, we feel diminished as people. It’s people, not objects, that make the purchasing decisions.