Published in Jan-Feb 2018
- As Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” As an advertiser, I say, “show society the way you want it to be.” Eventually, people will accept it. Great advertising is about so much more than pushing products. It is about opening minds and challenging paradigms and perceptions in a way that promotes new ideas and debates.
We have seen it all before. A ‘typical’ housewife arches over a grimy toilet bowl, scrubbing vigorously, when a man shows up at her doorstep, offering a superior toilet-cleaning solution. Of course, in true male fashion, he leaves the cleaning to her.
Switch the channel and what do you see? A ‘typical’ Stepford wife serving deliciously-stylised food to her family, fulfilling her only real purpose in life (in semi-slow motion with emotional music). The man of the house tastes the food and expresses his approval with a smile and a charitable gesture. She is overwhelmed by fulfilment.
Switch again and there is a perspiring man standing in a wheat field under the beating sun, wiping his brow, followed by gratuitous visuals of corporate men in flawlessly tailored suits walking across bank lobbies to shake hands.
Okay, you get the point. Pakistani advertising is not exactly supportive of gender equality. Not only is it clichéd; it is borderline offensive. So why do we – as educated and enlightened members of society living in 2018 – choose to reinforce such blatant stereotypes in our advertising? Why do we give in and support such norms when we know them to be unrealistic as well as harmful to society?
As Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” As an advertiser, I say, “show society the way you want it to be.” Eventually, people will accept it. Great advertising is about so much more than pushing products. It is about opening minds and challenging paradigms and perceptions in a way that promotes new ideas and debates.
Culture and society play a massive role in defining the line between what is and is not acceptable. Commercials and popular culture have proven that no matter how absurd or unusual something is, if it is repeated often enough, it will eventually gain a level of social acceptability and become part of the culture at some point. And if it becomes popular, it will pretty much spread like wildfire. The funny thing about popular culture, however, is that no one sees it coming. Before you can even notice or object to an approaching trend, it is usually already rampant (twerking and selfies). Unfortunately, to stay relevant, advertising tends to follow and reflect these trends.
I think we can safely agree that most Pakistani commercials do a horribly good job at painting a grossly disproportionate picture of gender in our society. Considering that brands and ad makers have the power to shape culture and trends, we tend to spend most of our time reinforcing the way it currently is. Women are portrayed as existing for no other purpose than to serve their husbands, care for their children and act as eye candy. They are fragile and obedient homemakers, but have the ‘strength’ to roll up their sleeves to keep the clothes extra white, the house sparkling clean and the food tasty. Men, on the other hand, are shown as strong enough to fix sinks and put the bread on the table, yet gentle enough to be loving husbands and attentive fathers. Unfortunately, this is no more than a lingering reflection of outdated patriarchal values that have been polished up just enough to look suitable for commercials.
What is worse – it sells. Audiences have become so attuned to seeing this sort of drivel day-in and day-out that they no longer notice or question it. It is ‘normal’ now. Even some of us within the industry are so jaded that we forget to perceive commercials as effective platforms to address important social issues. The way most brands and ad makers see it, if you are selling a laundry detergent, the last thing you want to do is distract people from how well your brand cleans by igniting a debate on why men should also do the laundry. Yet, if your ad gets people to talk about important issues, isn’t that a great discussion for your brand to be a part of?
Not only does supporting the status quo sell, it is also a whole lot easier. It is harder to sell toothpaste when you have to challenge societal norms at the same time. It requires more time, more strategic thinking and ultimately, more investment. It is exactly this sort of complacency that promotes gender inequality in our society.
Last year, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) decided to take a tougher line on gender stereotypes on the basis that they are harmful to society. It just goes to show how the media is waking up to the power of its own influence and making conscious decisions to advertise more responsibly. In this day and age, it should no longer be okay to promote stereotypical images of men and women in mass communication, just as it is not okay to do so when it comes to class or race. Instead of curbing this vicious cycle, we are guilty of perpetuating it and it’s no longer acceptable to pretend that it is not in our control. As brands and advertisers, we need to start using every piece of communication as a step towards making gender equality acceptable.
History will tell you that the best brands are those that consistently champion social change. Recently, Telenor 4G came up with a communication, ‘Mard Peda Hona Kaafi Nahi Hota’, which shows what it takes for a man to challenge society’s norms. Another great example is ‘#BeatMe’ from UN Women Pakistan.
Yes, these efforts are like drops in the ocean, but then, the ocean is made up of drops. It will be an uphill battle; however, I can almost guarantee that the pay off will be so much greater compared to the brands that make no effort at all.
As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. This could not be truer for advertising. As societal influencers, it is up to us to make a conscious effort to challenge societal norms and promote gender equality and other causes.
As Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” As an advertiser, I say, “show society the way you want it to be.” Eventually, people will accept it. Yes, it’s always easier to reflect trends than it is to shape them, but that has never been what great advertising is about. Great advertising is about so much more than pushing products. It is about opening minds and challenging paradigms and perceptions in a way that promotes new ideas and debates. It is about highlighting issues and empowering people to talk about things that normally would not be talked about.
Asrar Alam is Associate Creative Director, Manhattan International.