Advertisers retune the gender pitch, show women as decision makers

The Brooke Bond Red Label ad shows a woman protagonist breaking prevalent prejudices against coronavirus, Lizol has had several ads around women being superheroes of the day and Surf Excel has a slew of do-it-yourself activities for ch
When in a crisis, consult the woman seems to be the prevalent mantra. Be it ads that talk about how to keep children gainfully occupied, or those that show men cleaning homes and doing dishes, the woman and her role in the household is taking centre-stage. This is because marketers across the world are looking at women as primary decision makers in a crisis but, experts warn, one must be careful or the ads may end up deepening age-old stereotypes around gender roles. 

Consider the ads for cleaning agents that are among the most seen on television and on social media, the pitch for hygiene and care is delivered with a gendered lens. The roles are shared, but the responsibility and approval is usually delivered through a female protagonist or voice. 

Ashish Mishra, managing director for Interbrand India sees a pattern in the unusually high visibility of women in ads currently. When everyone is staying at home, brands are keen to be a part of the regular consumption routines and this is where women are seen to play a more significant role than the rest. “The deeper reason for the trend may be emanating from a growth in values of collectivism and compassion, sensitivity and care, values more closely aligned to women and likely to find natural ambassadorship in the gender,” he added. 

This is the narrative adopted by Hindustan Unilever’s Brooke Bond Red Label tea. In a recent commercial, the woman breaks her husband’s prejudice against Coronavirus and despite his hesitation, offers a cup of tea (in a contactless fashion of course) to a neighbour infected with the virus. 


Ambi M G Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder for said that it is well known that during a crisis, consumers look for a security blanket. “Brands will have to see how they can dial up their own ‘emotional’ quotient. However you cannot just make sentimental communication if that does not sit with the long term brand strategy and positioning. The ad by Brooke Bond weaves a socially relevant message around woman power and the potential of a hot cup of tea.” 

Advertisers have been reviewing gender roles for a while now, looking at a more equal sharing of household chores (#ShareTheLoad for Ariel by Procter & Gamble) and adjusting the gaze towards women in categories that were openly chauvinistic before (deodorant ads that talked about their brands ‘getting’ women have changed tack to project confidence-building and other such values). But in the present crisis, it is not about a more equal portrayal of gender roles but about how women are best equipped to deal with the problems at hand. This can make the messaging problematic.

Consider for instance, recent ads by Amul that applaud women for being multitasking heroes and managing work and home, while at home. This turns the clock back on gender profiling and as Mishra warns, “Brands need to be careful of two things, one becoming a caricature of care and losing themselves in the sea of sameness. Second, they need to be prepared to resolve the dilemmas of humanity, welfare and equality against the on-hold greed for aggressive growth and profiteering.”

Advertisers have been reviewing gender roles for a while now, looking at a more equal sharing of household chore

Parameswaran believes brands are mending their ways as many big companies have signed up for the UN directed initiative ‘UnStereoType’. “So we can expect them to avoid what is often very gender stereotypical depiction of women,” he said. 

However, getting the pitch right is more than having men do the dishes, or wash clothes. And as a recent KANTAR report on gender portrayal suggests, marketers may think they are getting it right, but consumers have a different view altogether. In a global survey reported last year, the research agency found that 76 per cent of female consumers and 71 per cent of male consumers believe the way they are portrayed in advertising is completely out of touch. 

The report said, “Consumer concerns are further validated by research from JWT/ Geena Davis Institute. In an analysis of 2,000 Cannes Lions films from 2006 to 2016, researchers found that men speak seven times the amount women do in ads. Men get four times more screen time than women. And men are 62 per cent more likely to be shown as ‘smart’.” Advertisers have to walk carefully around some of these prejudices and biases, pandemic or no pandemic.

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