Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Empowered – not stereotyped

Published in Jul-Aug 2016
Why we desperately need advertising that empowers women, and not stereotypes them.
Photo: Online
Photo: Online

But is the role of women really changing? Nah. There’s no revolution in the making here.

Take a step back and look at the programming schedule that commercials are slotted in. Let’s watch the news. Religious political parties rallying against the Women’s Protection Bill or the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII) benevolently allowing women to be lightly beaten by their husbands. Let’s watch the dramas. The heroine is always submissive, emotionally (and in some cases physically) battered, a martyr. The confident career woman is always the villain; immoral and lacking in integrity. A far cry from Shehnaz Sheikh’s heroic business executive in Tanhaiyan or Marina Khan’s fearless doctor in Dhoop Kinarey. Who were bold, but not badchalan.

That is what our consumers register. Not the three seconds in a cooking oil TVC where a girl is handing an airline ticket to her father. Not the father in the home appliance TVC proudly extolling his daughter’s career success. The two commercials mentioned are a step in the right direction, but they are not enough. There is no revolution in the making here. And we are fooling ourselves if we think there is.

The truth is that the educated middle-class women we are talking to are discouraged from pursuing a career even if they want to do so by their parents, in-laws, etc. Unless they are doctors or teachers – that is acceptable. After all, log kya kehengay? This perception is only further affirmed by what they see on TV and hear on the streets.

In a research of 20 consumers – women who regularly watch TV – not one remembered the girl buying a plane ticket for her father. Many of them did remember and appreciate the ad though, the jingle, the mnemonic gesture by the actors, the variety of food, and the brand name. No one remembered the ad with the father proudly talking about the money he invested in sending his daughter abroad for an education instead of a grand wedding and her subsequent career success. On being shown the ad they loved the idea, but couldn’t remember the brand or the product.

The palpable frisson of excitement at the sight of an emancipated woman in a television commercial that we feel on viewing these small steps towards social progress is deceptive. We sit at our desks and monitor every new ad online. That’s why we noticed those three seconds. But the people watching it on TV, the ones who really mattered, didn’t.

Talk to women, not at them. Start a real conversation. Find a connection to your products and then watch your brands grow. Be insightful. Be direct. Be brave.

We work in a funny old business. We are constantly unhappy with what we produce, but don’t make any effort to change it. We crib about the target not being educated enough – the ‘target’ in question being middle-class housewives, educated, urban, stay-at-home mothers. And we deride them because they are not like us. But we don’t make any effort to get to know them. We view the commercials we make as trite and contrived, wholly untrue to ground realities, citing the statistics showing the increasing numbers of women in the workplace.

And when we are not blaming the consumer, the target, as we refer to her, we blame the client. Snort. They want to talk about the product. Who does that? We want to be artists and talk about feelings, not functionality. We want to win awards.

Here’s another reality check. The aforementioned appliance brand has certainly made some brave, but misguided forays into inventive advertising – with no dents in the market share of the four big brands in the category. Brave because any brand that dares give women a voice that is very much their own deserves to be commended (even if that voice is being channeled through their fathers). Misguided because they did not keep the product at the centre. At the end of the day, we are in the business of selling.

The market leader in the category, on the other hand, keeps the product at the centre, with the product benefits clearly defined. Also at the centre is the smart, independent career woman deftly balancing work and home who confidently endorses her choice of appliance. The brand in turns applauds her for ‘Making Pakistan Proud.’ All in 20 seconds.

Since we are so enamoured by our colleagues across the border, let’s look at what they are up to in the same category. Remember the ad where the girl sweetly tells her prospective in-laws that if the purpose of a daughter-in-law was to provide their son with a cup of coffee, they would be better off getting him a coffee machine? Yes, it was an ad about a coffee machine. The entire campaign cleverly draws focus to their products under the self-explanatory campaign idea ‘Respect for Women’, lightly reminding us that women are not appliances. The objective behind this campaign was not social change, but pure business: achieve 20% growth. Six months after the new campaign, sales were up by 150%. The brand was viewed as contemporary, its products innovative.

How about a detergent ad where a young woman is worried about making a bad impression at work as opposed to her brother? Or an insurance company that sells education plans to fathers for their daughters?

The last reality check is that there is a difference between a television commercial and a digital video. Huge. When Fawad Khan makes a cup of tea for his wife not because she is unwell or harassed with household chores, but because she is tired after a long day at work, women swoon. But there is no compromise in communicating the superior aroma, taste and hue of the tea. And there is a different digital campaign urging men to follow Fawad’s example. Digital gives us freedom. But conventional TV pays the bills.

That is where advertising needs to go. Why are men cooking or washing dishes only when their wives or mothers are not around to do it? How about a detergent ad where a young woman is worried about making a bad impression at work as opposed to her brother? Or an insurance company that sells education plans to fathers for their daughters?

Talk to women, not at them. Start a real conversation. Find a connection to your products and then watch your brands grow.

Be insightful. Be direct. Be brave.

Rashna Abdi is Executive Creative Director, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi.


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Comments (7) Closed

blahblah Aug 04, 2016 07:52am

Have cheabo teach them all how to talk to the ladies, he has a sweet talkin way with words ;)

Anita Rajan Aug 04, 2016 03:33pm

Cheers to you!! Rashna you beautifully put the Pakistani TV mentality into words. Similar mindsets are also visible on all our channels that has hugely impacted our masses.

Mayank Aug 07, 2016 11:54am

Obviously it helps, although half of the population are women, HALF i mean HALF

Rashna Aug 08, 2016 04:55pm

@Anita Rajan Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. It's time we had a meaningful debate and moved in a better direction.

Rashna Aug 08, 2016 04:56pm


Yes. Half the population. Hard to believe sometimes.

Sumit Mazumdar Aug 11, 2016 08:36am

Talking to non-mahram women is not allowed. Please ask the woman to be hidden by a burkha or abaya and come with a male relative for the conversation..

Babar Khan Javed Aug 30, 2016 11:27pm

How many sexist ads does it take for women to boycott a company? How many women have to go on maternity leave and return to find their job gone in order for female consumers to take note & only support brands @ companies that empower women?