The Hyderabad rape incident once again triggered a nationwide debate on factors including role of media in shaping societal attitudes towards women. While the focus has been on cinema, TV and social media, it is pertinent to discuss a recent research study on the portrayal of women in advertising, funded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). The study states that subordination of women, treating them as inferior to men, low in intellect and social hierarchy comes across in over 80 per cent of advertisements in five brand categories across three decades (1990s to present).
Of late, one can see a few brands attempting to present the modern and independent women, but a deeper look reveals that in most such cases, same old stereotypes are reinforced or new ones created. The study, Portrayal of Women: An Empirical Study of Advertising Content—Issues and Concerns for Policy Intervention, was undertaken by academicians at Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, a public-funded policy research Institute under the ICSSR. It included content analysis of advertisements across five product categories that encompassed FMCG (fast-moving consumer products), Lifestyle, BFSI (Banks, Financial sector and Insurance), Automobile, Travel, and Leisure, across 30 sub categories, 164 brands, and more than 1,160 campaigns from 1991 until 2019.
The analysis found that with the exception of some lifestyle and FMCG brands that encompass beauty products, deodorants, apparel, condoms, alcohol, and tobacco—which are sexist and blatantly objectify the woman’s body—the bigger issue in the narrative across brands is the stereotyping and subordination of women in a patriarchal narrative. Often in the BFSI and automobile sector advertisements, women are shown as dependent on men with no decision-making power. For stock markets, they hardly matter.
It further says that personnel in most advertisement agencies’ campaign teams had little knowledge of the prevalence of any law or code of ethics on the indecent representation of women in advertising. Another surprising finding was that in more than 300 universities and institutes of higher learning that impart education and training in journalism and mass communication in India, just about five per cent syllabi has some content on gender.
While the proposed amendments in the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986, by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD), has expanded the definition of ‘Indecent’ and now includes “depiction of women as a sexual object, which appeals to the prurient interest”, the study recommends that the amendment also include ‘stereotyping’ of women in the advertisement narrative.
Inclusion of a compulsory paper on gender in mass communication syllabi, engagement with advertising industry and professional bodies to create a mechanism of self-regulation on gender sensitivity indicators, making top advertisers agree to make their brand campaigns gender-sensitive, orientation workshops on gender for the creative teams and rating of advertisements on gender sensitivity parameters by Advertising Standards Council of India are among other constructive suggestions. It’s indeed a wake-up call for all stakeholders.
(KG Suresh is a Senior Journalist and former Director-General, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)