A yawning gap between women's lives and in ads, says ASCI study

What do Indian women think of mainstream advertising? The answer may well be one big yawn. Advertising has a big gap to fill between how it portrays women and how women themselves view ads vis-à-vis their largely unacknowledged and changing realities, shows a study titled GenderNext carried out by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) in partnership with consulting and management firm Futurebrands. The report also aims to guide brands, marketers and creative agencies with detailed actionable insights and proposes a category-agnostic framework to steer advertisers.....
What do Indian women think of mainstream advertising? The answer may well be one big yawn.

Advertising has a big gap to fill between how it portrays women and how women themselves view ads vis-à-vis their largely unacknowledged and changing realities, shows a study titled GenderNext carried out by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) in partnership with consulting and management firm Futurebrands.

The report also aims to guide brands, marketers and creative agencies with detailed actionable insights and proposes a category-agnostic framework to steer advertisers towards a more sensitive and progressive depiction of women.

Women from across metros, tier-I and tier-II towns are rapidly redefining themselves, demanding more and seeing representations with a new lens, the study says. It lists several “self-imaginations” of the consumers that the study covered.

Among these are women pointing out that “it is not themselves but others in their sphere who lag behind”. A woman sees herself as naturally ahead of the curve than her family, husband, elders and society in general, it elaborates. For young unmarried women, common stereotypes appear unpalatable, while homemakers and mothers strongly desire that their value be recognised. Women also want to banish any misconceptions around the “helplessness” of women like themselves, the insights reveal. The reactions to advertising included a sense of depictions of collective big gains being more rewarding than smaller individual wins, and a welcome stance by women for ads that challenge conventions on behalf of them.

The “SEA (Self-esteemed - Empowered - Allied) Framework” that the GenderNext study proposes aims to guide stakeholders in imagining as well as evaluating portrayals of women through key points of the advertising development journey — from target consumer definition to casting briefs. SEA stands for “self-esteemed (how the woman being depicted sees herself), empowered (how she relates to the situation she is placed in, her power in it) and allied (how those around her support her desires/needs)”.

The study includes this as part of a “SEA change model” that also has a “3S Screener” to use as a self-check of scripts/storyboards or to evaluate advertising. The 3S screener relates to stereotypes of subordination (where the woman is placed lower in the hierarchy of decision-making, awareness), service (where the woman is seen at the service of others), and standardisation (where the woman’s appearance or demeanour is styled/directed into mandated projections that blur individuality).

“The reactions to advertising may not be that strong, and it’s not that women are objecting to it. There are so many references from cinema and popular culture, how women relate to themselves and how they imagine they have changed. They are very strongly communicative of that,” says Lipika Kumaran, lead author of GenderNext.

She adds that there are examples of ads where there is discomfort, especially among younger women who are more vocal, but the crux is that “women see themselves in more powerful and many shaded ways than the smaller group of depictions seen in advertising”.

Santosh Desai, MD of Futurebrands Consulting, points out that there is a shift in how the industry responds to issues like gender. “Earlier, at times any intervention would be seen as something you have to manage as it can impede what you really wanted to do. Today, there is recognition that advertising, marketing and brands live in a society and have to interact in a way that is positive,” he says, adding that social media keeps up pressure, and many brands are consciously moving towards addressing social issues in a more earnest manner.

However, a lot of unconscious stereotyping persists in embedded and almost invisible ways in which women are assigned roles and which recur as a pattern, he says.

Manisha Kapoor, secretary general of ASCI, observes that there is recognition of progressive ads being made, and there are brands that have done it well, but sometimes they end up reinforcing stereotypes. “Women say that while it’s supposed to be empowering they don’t find it to be so. The emphasis seems to be more on a problem that women face rather than her ability to come out of it.”

For ASCI, the initiative comes at the back of its effort to move beyond its role as an advertising watchdog that addresses complaints to add value and guide the industry. There are obvious, conscious ads that show women as achievers, but ASCI hopes to raise consciousness about the little things and nuances which can drive real change, says its chairman Subhash Kamath. 




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