Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Inching beyond the stereotype

Published in Sep-Oct 2012

Pakistani brands need to summon the courage to talk to women as people and not just 'housewives'.

I am a woman, and I work in advertising.

And no, this isn’t one of those AA-type introductions (although it could well be, given some of the more sordid associations with the industry).

What I mean is that advertising is generally regarded as a ‘woman-friendly’ profession. I would even go a step further and say that people often perceive advertising to be an appropriate ‘fit’ for women. See, advertising isn’t ‘real work’, according to them. It’s a grander version of playing dress-up. Agencies are filled with young, good looking female employees who wear bright colours and funky outfits, flitting about charming clients with their pretty faces and glowing smiles and basically getting their way on a daily basis.

And now it’s time for a reality check.

Certainly, women are employed in every ad agency – and not just as secretaries either. They are in client service, an area known for its endless working hours, constant coordination and 24/7 communication (read: conflict) with the omnipotent client. They are in creative, furiously churning out concepts, copy and art. They are in planning, composing papers and strategies and ideas. And they work harder and longer than many of their male counterparts too.

I won’t even try and claim to know the reasons why women have made a prominent place for themselves in this profession (as they have in many others). I will just say that yes, there are many well known women who have won well deserved respect and admiration from their peers and their clients. And it’s a great feeling, knowing you are in a field where women have the opportunity to thrive.

What if we take this a step further and examine the ‘kind’ of advertising we do here – and specifically, the way we portray our gender? I’m not implying that women are solely responsible for this, nor that we have a clear-cut obligation to depict women in the most favourable light possible because we owe it to ourselves. But does this mean we continue to blithely project the same tired stereotype of Pakistani women forever perpetuated by our society and our media? What is the current state of FMCG advertising (such brands famously target women as their primary buyers and/or consumers)? How do brands talk to women? How do these capable, accomplished women, who design and create ads for products ranging from shampoo to detergent to masalas to milk, address their own gender?

Let’s see if I can rustle up a few staples:

1) A woman has no personal needs, wishes or desires (because that would be wrong, immoral or even evil).

Her sole source of gratification, happiness or reward stems from the family she belongs to; she is responsible for everything from their robust health, to their genial disposition, to their success in life. As long as they are happy, she’s happy.

2) She is a sacrificial lamb (and this isn’t one of my patent exaggerations either).

She will be up at dawn, she will slave all day to put a hot, delicious meal on the table and mend clothes and clean up after others and suffer their moods. She will wake first and eat last, and here is the clincher: she will be extremely, utterly happy to do this (because after all, it is the sole purpose of her life and the reason for her existence).

3) She won’t have any personality or flaws.

She will be a smiling, serene, silent caricature, perfectly coiffed and dressed, with nary a frown or a sharp word (unless she is coaxing her kids to new heights of achievement because it is for their own good and her duty and the only time she is allowed to exert any will over another person). She will keep an immaculate house, she will always look gorgeous (in a wholesome, not a threatening, way), she will shove MasterChef worthy plates of food under her family’s noses the second they walk through the door and she won’t break a sweat doing any of it.

Yes, that came off a tad sarcastic. Yet I defy anyone to deny the indelible truth of these words.

Our society has fostered these typical clichés with glee for decades and thorny issues like women’s rights (and the blasphemous notion of gender equality) have been ignored or even condemned. Is it any wonder advertising reflects these prejudices?

This is worth mulling over when one considers the fact that women are entrenched in this profession. Shouldn’t we at least try and infuse our ideas with some respect for women and their individuality, needs, rights and wishes? But as ever, excuses such as ‘the client doesn’t get it/allow it/approve it’ are common answers. Besides, at the end of the day we are here to work and collect our pay cheques, not change the world. And since when did anyone expect a shallow profession like advertising to yield anything meaningful anyway?

But it can, and it has. This is why some recent efforts have literally blown a gust of vital freshness into an otherwise stale, shallow arena. Rather than dwelling on the strategic/creative/executional merits of these campaigns, I will look at the direction they are aiming for.

There’s Al Karam’s recent lawn campaign which speaks about a woman’s right to feel beautiful. I won’t focus on the credibility (has the brand reached a stage where it can make such a statement?), nor the creativity (is simply putting such a caption on a nice visual sufficient to convey such a crucial message?). What I will comment on is this simple, yet revolutionary thought: every woman has the right to look good/feel good about herself, for herself, pure and simple; not for her husband or her fiancé or her children. It sounds so basic and obvious, yet in a society rife with victim-blaming, discrimination and bullying, this message is bold, fresh and positive. More of the same would be welcome and I for one would appreciate the brand even more if it stuck to this sort of positioning.

Then there’s Olper’s (a campaign I worked on, so I will do my utmost to be neutral!). Again, the thought seems simple enough to be mundane and yet the idea of choice is everything. A woman’s right to make her own choices as a cognisant human being, her appreciation of her own individuality and her affirmation of her gender. For once, the campaign focuses on a woman as a person bigger than the sum of her various roles (wife, mother, daughter), on her needs and desires and decisions. Is it perfect? Nothing ever is, but at least the brand is attempting to make a genuine connect with its audience beyond the tired, disempowering ‘let us make you a better housewife and hence a better woman!’ spiel.

Zong’s Flutter campaign also talks to women – if not in a completely revolutionary way, then at least with single-mindedness, projecting fantasy and glamour and other things women are thought to crave. I’m itching to criticise the ‘let a man lead you and show you what’s what’ aspect of it all but I shall restrain myself (see what I did there!?).

So what does this mean? Are these campaigns the harbinger of a brave new era in Pakistani advertising? Will we witness a plethora of brilliant, cutting edge communication addressing women in a frank, real, hitherto unimaginable tone?

I haven’t a clue. But I do feel that things are changing; that our frenzied media with all its negative baggage and constant blathering is still helping us see more, do more, and realise more. And that hopefully, more brands will eventually summon the courage to talk to women as people, not just ‘housewives’.

A woman can dream.

Sara Amjad Qureshi is Senior Planner, JWT Pakistan.