Panel discussions

Voice of Change: Gender Portrayal from 30 Secs to 3 Hrs

Read Time:12 Minute

Women are shown more in a living room or in the home space while the men are shown in office, outdoors and sporting events. A study on gender bias and inclusion in the Indian advertising industry.

The distinguished speakers who participated in the discussion were: Ms Megha Tata, CEO, Cosmos Maya & Co-chairperson, Women Empowerment Committee, India Chapter of IAA; Ms Geetanjali Master, Partnership Specialist, UNICEF; Ms Latha Menon, Producer and Director, Mindscreen Cinemas; Mr Kumarappan AL, Sr. AVP – Marketing, TAFE; Mr Chockalingam S, Co-Founder and Creative Director, OPN Advertising and Ms Navneet Virk, Senior Partner and Creative Director, R K Swamy. Mr Srinivasan K Swamy, Chairman, R K Swamy Hansa Group delivered the welcome address and set the context for the discussions, which were moderated by Ms Megha Tata.

Ms Geetanjali Master:  

We all understand that the whole gender socialisation, gender inequities or inequalities are created over a lifecycle. They start before our birth and there are different stages of the life cycle where we feel that influence and which often results in negative outcomes for girls and for women. At UNICEF, we understand that every dimension of life is impacted by gender equality or inequalities. 

We also understand that there are agents that aid stereotypical representation of and stereotypical behaviors towards girls and women. The families, communities, traditions, cultures and norms and how we’ve  grown up influence us in a big way. To study the representation of girls and women through media and in advertising, we partnered with the International Advertising Association-India Chapter. We started in 2019, with evidence, for UNICEF globally. We researched with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and got very interesting insights.  

The Findings:

One of the pieces that came through very clearly was that there is an equal representation of male and female characters. But women are typically seen in home care, fashion, corporates and airlines but underrepresented in banking, finance, media, tourism and sports. While girls and women have a strong presence in advertising, they’re usually seen selling or being associated with certain types of products. The female characters are more likely to be shown as attractive. A woman is shown as a subservient wife or pushy aunt.  

Men are seen to control the conversation and lead in paid occupations.  Leadership is more associated with men than intrepid women. Once in a while, we see ads showing a father with the child but they are always portrayed in a fun space. The woman always is shown as doing the core parenting. Women are shown more in a living room or in the home space while the men are shown in office, outdoors and sporting events. I’m not saying women are not shown in these spaces. But if you compare it, there is a difference.

Ms Megha Tata: What do you feel about the voice of change and the need for it today?

Mr Chockalingam: This study mirrors what we—as creators—think, consciously or unconsciously. When I see the mirror, I don’t like the image that was there. But knowingly and unknowingly, I have contributed to a lot of messaging in that bias and stereotypes. How do we change that image? First, you have to change yourself. I have to start changing my thinking before I can start influencing others.

I work for an ad agency. I’m a writer. The first thing in the morning, I am stuck with a lot of briefs that are pending, beyond deadlines. We are trying to crack a headline, an ad and stuff like that. Once that’s done, the creative director approves it. Then my client servicing team approves it. And finally, we take it to the client. If we get the ad approved, we release it. I have an agenda and  my agenda is to get the ad out. The client has got a different agenda. He wants sales. My boss or the branches will be judging how much billing I’m going to make out of it. All the agendas are different. So how do we fit this agenda of voice of change? With all the personal agendas that we have, it is a challenge.

Ms Megha Tata: I know it’s not an easy task, for sure. But that is where I think these dialogues will help us to consciously approach these conversations and maybe some change can happen.  

Ms Navneet Virk: I like the voice of change, because one voice is going to nudge a lot of other voices to speak up. In advertising, in the last few years, we have seen brands who have the courage to push the boundary, like Tanishq. We should put together a checklist of what we can do in our day to day lives.

As we go to design our next campaign, what are the things that we should be conscious of?  The first thing that comes to mind is the narrative itself. How well our narrative resonates with the consumer that we’re talking to is really important. We must dig deep to get insights and to truly understand all the layers because our lives are so complex. For women who step out into new roles, there’s a lot of complexity in what they want to do and in their relationships. What are their dreams and disappointments? We must get that in the story and the messaging. We must show women in an empowered way—whether it’s a personal care ad or a beauty ad or whatever.

Women now want to be themselves. They don’t want to be constantly shown as how they walk, how they talk, how they do their hair and how they dress. They just want to have the self-confidence to go out and be themselves. It’s important that when we tell our stories, we show our women in that way.

Casting for advertisements is always stressful. There are times I’m in a room with ten gentlemen, including the client and agency representatives. We need to think about the model much before the casting happens. Marketing is a very expensive affair. Companies want to reach out to maximum number of people and they want maximum number of consumers to relate to the ad. When you want relatability, you want to cast the woman in a traditional role, because that’s probably her real life. But when it comes to how she looks, you show a glamorised version of the person. In our conversation, the struggle is between being authentic and being glamorous. 

There are innumerable casting sessions that I’ve sat through where people have said that ‘her skin is too dark’ or ‘her hair is too curly’ or ‘her smile is too coming.’ Also, no research says that humour is a male domain. It is a marker of self-confidence and only if you have confidence, you can crack a joke and dare to laugh out loud. Women are inherently pretty funny. I just wish that all of us become mindful of this and make sure that we integrate humour into our storytelling because it is so disarming, it softens our message, it lightens everything and it shows that you are confident in your own skin. That’s something that we should bring in.

Mr Kumarappan AL:  We cannot see the ad in isolation. It is a piece of the society and it is a mirror of what the reality is out there. It can either be a reality or an aspiration. Majority of the ads, I think, will be reality (say 80%) and the rest will be based on aspiration. The ad has to connect with the society and it has to be relevant. That is the baseline. Our Bharath culture has got a lot of good things. We never talk of  Shiva alone or Shakthi alone but we always choose Shiva Shakti and Ardhanarishwara. That is the way we see life. It is always 50:50. Shiva is the body and Shakti is the soul. If we are able to leverage that, we will be able to do a better job as professionals and make better advertisements. 

Ms Latha Menon:  We came into the field of advertising where not many women were there. We’ve seen the role of women changing as we have grown in the field and gone up to higher positions. We are trying to create changes. We’re all talking about advertisement. But I’d like to talk about the world in general. The way men and women were exposed to while they grew up is constantly reflected in advertising.  In 1995, there was the UN World Conference for Women in Beijing in which they said that the status of a nation is very closely tied to the status of its female citizens. If you do not treat your female citizens well, it reflects in the kind of work you do or the kind of economy that develops.

We have seen great progress. Maternal mortality is reduced. We see parity in primary school enrollment between boys and girls. But we also have many perennial evils. We have sexual harassment, sex trafficking and domestic violence. In America, we now have a ban on abortions. The man, woman ratio is getting skewed. These have to be corrected. If we want to create change in a larger level, in a smaller level too, it has to be changed. I’m talking about the household. In the house, how is a woman treated? As a subordinate or is she really given equal status? They say that charity begins at home. So, change should begin at home. People who look at women as inferiors tend to engage in political violence.

There are commercials, where women who are older are seen. We would also like to see underrepresented voices, which is what is becoming interesting now in advertising. As more women are coming into the workforce, we’re able to make changes and we’re able to see through a new lens. Social media, for all its faults, has been a great channel for women to express what they don’t like about a particular product. They’re able to come out and say why they don’t like it and why they find it objectionable. How many ads keep hitting at you to be thinner, slimmer, fairer, whiter and be more feminine!  

Mr Srinivasan K Swamy: It is no longer possible to get away with inequal treatment to women in our communication. There’s more and more of advertiser awareness. Most large companies are very conscious, thankfully. There are a few small entrepreneurs, monotone companies who want to be sexist and want to portray different women in a demeaning manner. But hopefully, those small tribes, will vanish in the next few years.  

Ms Megha Tata: How has the creative changed over the years? 

Mr Chokalingam: A lot of unlearning has to happen first. Let me give a simple example. In a movie today, when there is a hero entry, there is a song that happens. Just imagine any song in your mind when a heroine enters.  We need to start thinking differently. This is happening now but a lot more can be done. In the advertising agencies, I had a lot of women bosses. Still, knowingly or unknowingly, we had biases and serotypes. Change needs a collective effort. 

Ms Megha Tata: Yes. We need to be gender agnostic to do the conversation. When we are casting, we must see who’s right for that role, rather than identifying how that individual should be.  Latha. You have been a content creator and you play a big role in how the narrative can be shifted. How can we make our content creators of our country to be more inclusive and how can we shift their mindset from mere instruction to inclusion? 

Ms Latha Menon: I work with Hatsun Agro products. From 2010, we’ve done an amazing campaign for Arokya milk, which is ‘goodness of love from the villages.’ When we started the campaign, they wanted me to do real life stories of dairy farmers. We were moving into a different space called docummercials. I was given about 50 farms. I had to go searching and travelling and moving around with farmers. I have to make them perform. They’re not actors. Our farming has become a very family driven occupation and the family must be together to do the farming.  It was interesting because I’m looking across different people. They’re not conventionally good looking. I’m just looking at how harmonious the family is.

I was moving around with a camera and I asked my client, “Are you serious? It’s not going to look like a commercial, it is going to look very ordinary.” He said, “Okay, I’m ready to release it.” The client was willing to make the change. He doesn’t mind any story I tell.

Ms Megha Tata: The change happened because the client was open to that change. I hear quite often from many stakeholders in the industry saying that, sometimes they go with a creative idea, which takes away the biases, but the client says, ‘No, I need to hit my sales targets. Stick to the brief and give me what I want them to know. Don’t be too intellectual about it.’ In that context, how can we bring in some bit of accountability in the clients’ minds?

Mr Kumarappan AL: I come from TAFE which is led by a woman business leader. 40% of our workforce are women. Whether it is dairy farming or agriculture, women play a lead role. That they don’t get the recognition is sad. Whether it is rice or fruits or cereals, 80% contribution is from the women. They are the actual farmers. Majority of the men do little bit of supervising task. But landholding ownership is mostly with the men. Hardly 13 to 15% are owned by women. Earlier it was only 3% to 4%. I think by the next decade, we expect that to come to a level of 50:50. 

Ms Megha Tata: Can the social medium be used in a better way to bring about the change? 

Ms Navneet Virk: Yes, absolutely. More women are on social media than men. There are differences between platforms. YouTube was more male. There are more women on Instagram and Facebook. We did a campaign a few months ago on women’s day for one of our client’s audience segments. It was based on a very simple idea that outside the house, you only see the man’s name. We made a film on that theme, which ran only digitally. On Instagram, we had 21 million views in 10 days. There was a lot of sharing and there were many comments as we left it open for comments. Then men started trolling. They said that we are ruining the culture. The fact is, it created lots conversations and a great impact.