Is this a rant? Well, sort of, although I usually restrict my rants to social media forums. But lately I have been a bigger ‘consumer’ of the media than ever before. Working from home, I usually have the television on, and what is beamed by way of advertising is, well, not very palatable.
The debate on the commodification of women has been done to death. We are seeing a lesser number of women pushing ‘men only’ products.
As for the issue of culturally inappropriate imagery, it may resurface along with the swirls of lawn now that summer is here. This is not what this rant is about.
Neither is it about the offensive ‘skin whitening’ creams promising a happily ever after. Or wedded bliss and acceptance by the in-laws by conjuring up the right kind of fragrance in cooked rice (Maggie Umda) and laundered clothes (Sunlight). I live in hope that these will eventually fade, or at least become reflective of another breed of women, who march ahead, notching up successes in fields as diverse as mountain climbing, flying planes, performing complicated surgery or teaching difficult subjects in remote parts of Pakistan; every one of them completely unmindful of the effect these activities may have on their complexion. Or culinary skills!
But I digress. This is about the gender bias in the advertising of products which lay claim to improving health, growth, well being and which reinforce dangerous stereotypes that have far reaching effects on society. And please don’t anyone fling the line at me that “it is just advertising; it has no effect.” Everyone associated with this industry knows the purpose of advertising is to have an effect on those it is targeted at – en route to the bottom line.
The problem I have with the advertising by some leading brands is their extreme gender imbalance, nay exclusion. Be it a brand of milk, (Nestlé Milk, Nido)… better still, of a fortified kind, or a food supplement (Horlicks), the talent shown in the commercial is that of a boy – never a girl! Boys are shown guzzling glasses of milk and adding IQ points, smearing butter and margarine on parathas and grabbing cups in sporting meets, adding nutrition supplements to their food and inches to their height.
As I mentioned earlier, I usually rant on social media. I did on this issue too, and while there was some support for my point of view, it was the justification given for the gender exclusive trend that had me stumped! ‘Mothers prefer boys’.
Yes, a cultural truth, but not one that needs to be perpetuated. Advertising is target market oriented, so since there is a tilt in favour of the male child, it has to cater to that niche… true again. But isn’t advertising about creating a demand to lead to a sale?
How will the addition of a girl in products not meet any marketing and advertising goals? The kind of products I have mentioned and the market they target has a profile of mothers who are usually without such biases. And if these biases are inherent, they can be nudged away with the right kind of messaging. Sometimes all it needs is for someone to realise that their biases are baseless.
The segment of children depicted in these commercials is not one where girls would be made to wait until their male sibling has eaten so that they can be given the leftovers. These too are the harsh realities of our patriarchal landscape, but the households shown in these ads are not from there.
Also, judging by the monumental failure of our family planning programme, this single male child family may be a latent aspiration, but is far removed from reality. Wouldn’t a mother (or father) pouring two glasses of milk or stirring in spoonfuls of food supplements or ‘buttering up’ toast and parathas and then handing them over to a son and a daughter be more believable?
Surely brands with millions to spend on promotion in order to gain billions can afford the addition of a girl in the same concept? Even the film directors will not be too hard pressed to fit them in the same frame as their male sibling.
The social costs of the visual exclusion are far greater, especially in Pakistan, which ranks abysmally low on the nutrition index – 97 out of 125! It also scores a shameful 19.3 out of 100 on the Global Hunger Index. Scratch the surface, and you will see a clear tilt in this imbalance, negatively impacting women in general, and girls in particular.
When existing cultural biases are entrenched deep into the psyche, positive messaging, which need not even be a hard sell, can play a role in chipping away the stereotypes. It has been done elsewhere with success and the advertising industry across the world in general and in Pakistan in particular, has been putting forth some brilliant public service messages. There is no dearth of creativity here. Some of the current advertising, slice of life as well as fantasy, have engaging concepts, humour and great execution.
Advertising is usually taken to be an extended arm of marketing and the sales department of a brand. Try rocking the boat a bit; go beyond the market surveys and insights and rely on gut feel. Even if keeping an eye on the numbers is the objective, there is no harm in suggesting that the client attempt to broaden the customer base.
I still remember a brand of children’s biscuits – Choco Chum – which had no competitor in the market and enjoyed healthy growth. The agency urged, cajoled, and finally convinced the brand into doing an ad campaign and sales skyrocketed. They pushed the market envelope and the brand reaped the benefits.
So advertising does make a difference. Gender insensitive brand messaging neither makes good business sense, nor is it socially responsible. Maybe the advertising industry, which has the money and the clout could launch an affirmative action plan and weed out such practices.
How about kick-starting the brainstorming process by putting on a proxy and watching (on YouTube) the excellent advocacy animation developed by UNICEF called ‘Meena kee kahani’ addressing just this issue.
After all, we too have many Meenas in our midst. Let us not allow them to slip off the radar!
Afia Salam is a freelance journalist and has worked as a creative head at three agencies. firstname.lastname@example.org