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How ready is Indian advertising to celebrate another edition of IWD?

Google’s Sapna Chadha says marketers need to “step back and examine our brand communications through a few different lenses”

The Drum brings together women from across different fields of marketing, advertising and content in India to discuss just how much the world of advertising has managed to contextualize and recalibrate gender dynamics, and what more needs to be done.

Another edition of International Women’s Day is here and there will be many brand campaigns trying desperately to make the most of this moment-marketing opportunity in India and most other consumer-driven markets. A select few will be doing a good job of bringing alive the evolution of the narrative, while many fall by the wayside in their sub-par depiction of the evolving gender dynamics and a large number play it safe and go unnoticed.

So, are brands still taking the safe route and following the tropes of the categories? Is the gender-portrayal still stuck around ‘who cooks the meal and who does the dishes’ etc? Or, as celebrated actress and model in many ads Tisca Chopra has said she would love to see a depiction of, are we likely to get “a young girl asking her dad to get her sanitary pads on his way back home from work”?

The core theme to be addressed here is just how much has the depiction of the gender equation evolved in context to the changing gender realities? Has advertising kept pace with the evolving consumer and her needs and her wants? What needs to change in the way this is being done currently to solve one of the biggest nightmares of the modern-day marketer: ‘the appropriate gender portrayal for an evolving consumer’?

The Drum brings together five women from different walks, including cinema, advertising and marketing, to share their diverse and often bold points of view around this key issue and what they feel can be the workaround towards an appropriate gender depiction in advertising.

Zenobia Pithawalla, senior executive creative director, Ogilvy India

More and more brands and agency partners are consciously working towards making sure that their work reflects gender equality. In the digital era, where everybody is watching you, brands want to be seen as progressive. However, the challenge is most brands have a gender-specific target audience. Take foods category wherein stereotypically nutritional food is always targeted to women and inevitably you will always have a woman protagonist in the communication. Also, owing to years of conditioning, certain foods are associated with men and certain foods with women. And that reflects in the advertising, owing to the fear of alienating the target audience.

It is the same when it comes to the depiction of roles of men and women in ads. Despite the best intentions, marketeers at times prefer to stick to what the consumer identifies with. However, a pleasant shift has happened in the lockdown. As work from home became a norm for women and men, a lot of advertising played back into what was happening in people’s lives. Men were taking on household and kitchen duties and some brands made the best of that. Ads showing men doing dishes and stepping up to household duties became the new trend. Suddenly it was not alienating, as it was happening in people’s homes.

The best advertisements are those that can speak to both women and men without using gender cliches.

Sapna Chadha, senior country marketing director, Google India and Southeast Asia

Marketers need to keep in mind that the end goal of inclusive marketing is not PR. Our jobs as marketers are to understand and connect to our customers by ensuring we positively and credibly contribute to existing cultural conversations, including gender. It is here that we have a role to step back and examine our brand communications through a few different lenses. Central to this is utilizing data to inform the insights our briefs are built on. A lot of advertising communications is still an outcome of emotional appeals, and that has the danger of reaffirming stereotypes.

It is critical to go deep enough, beneath the data to next level insights and the next, and keep unpeeling, to be able to tell stories that have authenticity and relatability with diverse audiences. Even so, sometimes the data will not point to the problem because there’s a bias in the data. Another thing we must keep doing is to ensure that we are avoiding stereotypes by working only with internal partners and agencies who bring diverse perspectives to the work. This will move us into authentic, multi-dimensional portrayals. We at Google are currently conducting agency audits to ensure the partners we work with meet our purpose-driven expectations. Finally, but most importantly, relying on marketing to showcase values means that they first need to be evident throughout the entire business. It is therefore also our responsibility to ask tough questions around inclusion.

Jasleen Kaur Gumber, head of marketing, public relations and CSR, Benetton Group

Brands led pledges, hosted panels, supported activists and wrapped all these in advertising campaigns that were fueled with millions of dollars – this surely led to an impact. But we need to understand the societal machinery. If they fell short, it is a lot because recalibrating is a factor of a variety of variables like government schemes, state policies, economic health in the country. Ultimately, brands only have a small sphere of influence, they can only go to an extend of normalizing practices, but they can’t change age-old rituals and traditions until there are efforts from the state which work in the same direction.

Who knows, the next wave of revolutionary advertising might mean a government level collaboration for a sustainable duration that works at grass-root causes?

Gender inequality is an overly complex issue. Most brands just choose to talk about the urban disparity which is relatively linear. But a rural disparity that might involve casteism, sexuality as an added layer on the gender gap, is often overlooked. A problem is only considered solved when it’s addressed at the bottom of the pyramid and with gender, the bottom is in rural India.

Brands need to widen the horizon of gender inequality in advertising. The gender gap is no more just confined to who cooks the meal, who does the dishes and whether a home-husband is acceptable or not.

Debosmita Majumder, head of marketing, PR and CRM, Porsche India, Skoda Volkswagen Group

Even though advertising has come a long way in changing the narrative with brands, not shying away from sharing a point of view the part that gets missed out is presenting the broader picture outside of the urban milieu! Holding the true picture of the society and then calibrating if there has been a change of consequence.

Gender equality is a very deep-rooted problem and there are no simple answers to address this question. However, what is definite is that advertising has the power to hold a mirror to society to reflect both the obvious and the most nuanced issues that have crippled us.

What one needs to explore is if advertising can have a larger impact, where it fosters a change in socio-economic behaviour in the aspect of gender equality, drive a purpose and establish mechanisms to measure its success, not just in terms of impressions and engagement but real tangible change.

Tisca Chopra, Indian actress, author and film producer

Advertising is moving from soap time to social media and that is bringing new influencers to the mix. The endorsers are real and credible people as opposed to bland, generic, pastel-clad models. So the needle is moving in the direction of more honest communication from brands to their consumers. But what needs a rethink perhaps is how they are still showing women in the kitchen and husbands at work. And if a brand shows a husband and wife sharing home responsibilities, it is seen as radical and new. It is time to normalize this, and advertising can help shift the zeitgeist quite fast.

Advertising can cause insidious change. Bold brand heads can choose to use their marketing dollars to make the gender skew far less. Ideas like smart, working mothers and solid liberated fathers can become the norm. For example, I would love to see a young girl shouting out to her dad who is on his way to work, “don’t forget to get my pads on your way back home”. So a dad who is chilled out with menstruation and with doing his girl’s errands. We have spoken about this in my soon-to-release book, What’s Up With Me, in the context of the pre-teen issues.

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