Battling gender bias: Diageo, MG Motor rework ad norms to break stereotypes

Creative functions in agencies see a high percentage of women dropping out, to raise families or look after an ailing relative
Back in 2017 at the regular annual jamboree at Cannes, France, Julie Bramham, chief marketing officer of Diageo India, the British alcoholic beverages multinational found herself in a room full of marketers, all glued to a screen running the numbers on the deep and widespread misrepresentation of women in advertising. 

The numbers strewn across the slides that day were scary, Bramham says. Compiled by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, it showed that in 10,000 pieces of communication, 75 per cent had male characters in the lead and 65 per cent of the dialogue in a family setting was dominated by men. The full impact of the role played by marketers in furthering gender biases hit home that day, setting the stage for a brand restructuring exercise at Diageo. 

Three years later, the company has a three-point marketing framework that defines every piece of communication around the brand. Marketers across offices look at ads and other communication through three lenses: Representation (who is being portrayed), perspective (whose point of view) and characterisation (is it a real person). 

As a liquor brand and among the worlds largest advertisers, Diageo knew it could make an impact. “Our aim is to use our advertising money to drive change because for one, it is the right thing to do and two, the old narratives (around women) are old fashioned,” Bramham points out. She believes that brands that do not change will soon find themselves alienated from customers who want them to be gender-progressive.

Bramham says, “All our marketing spends are put through the gender framework.” This is evident in the advertising; for instance, in 2017, the campaign for whisky brand McDowells showed four friends celebrating their camaraderie (all men). Now, the campaign has a woman in a pivotal role with a say in the way the story unfolds. 

Another sector that has traditionally run afoul of gender norms is auto. It is among the most poorly represented when it comes to women, as employees and, in its advertising. As per industry estimates, only 15 per cent of auto sector employees are women and they are largely confined to desk jobs or peripheral roles on the shopfloor. 

At the SAIC-owned MG Motor, the challenge was to build a brand that did not carry the burden of its sector. One way to do that the company felt was to bring more women into the workplace. Rajeev Chaba, president and MD at MG Motor India says, “We decided to offer mission-critical roles to women, and have 32 per cent of the total workforce made of female employees, across all functions, from R&D to manufacturing.”

Hiring women has not just created a more equal workplace, but also one that is more quality conscious and sensitive with its advertising. In critical manufacturing areas such as paint quality testing and surface testing, MG Motor employs only women as they pay greater attention to detail, Chaba said.

Having women on board, the companies point out, has helped drive meaningful interventions. At Diageo, two gender-specific initiatives ‘The Creative Comeback’ and ‘Free the Work’ tackle issues that women have raised in the course of their engagement with the company. 

Creative functions in agencies see a high percentage of women dropping out, to raise families or look after an ailing relative. The Creative Comeback, kicked off in London last year and to be launched in India in 2020, aims to support 100 women to return to creative industries after a career break. Free the Work seeks a more equal playing field for ad film makers; the company consistently invites pitches from female directors and its recent India campaigns are directed by women. 

At MG Motor, the company is working with select panchayat committees to encourage more women graduates to join the auto industry and to ensure a better diversity mix at its showrooms, it stipulates that at least a third of its sales and service point executives are women. More women within the company mean a more gender sensitive brand, or so hopes MG Motor.  

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