In an era of reinvigorated feminism, the advertising industry parades the female body to sell products as unrelated as cement
By Swati Madan
An Indian television commercial for a cement brand shows a bikini-clad woman sashaying out of the sea. The camera zooms in on her face and a background voice affirms: “JK cement, vishwas hai isme kuch khaas hai (trust JK cement, there is something special about it).” Overtones of commodification of women in Indian advertising have gone explicit by the day. Women are being used to titillate the viewers into buying a product as unrelated as cement. Yes, cement can be sexy as well.
Dr Sanjeev K. Sharma writes in Samaj Vigyan Shodh Patrika (Social Science Research Magazine): “As the tentacles of globalisation have trespassed into the electronic media, advertising industry has been swept by the market forces with the result that sexist display depicting women in demeaning manner has become the norm.”
Women are the favoured low-hanging fruits for advertisers in globalised media. They are used to sell products as varied as deodorants, chocolates, cars, men’s apparel, bags, soft drinks, alcohol and bathroom fittings.
Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Research, New Delhi, says, “Either advertisements tastelessly commodify women to sell products or target them as consumers by representing them in a stereotypical fashion. For example, men are not shown in advertisements that sell soaps or detergents. One wonders why.”
A banned surrogate advertisement for a brand of Indian whisky shows a man eyeing a woman in a bar. With each drink he knocks back, the woman’s neckline is shown to plunge deeper.
The tagline says ‘kuch bhi ho sakta hai (anything can happen).’ An attempt at association between a product and women implies interchangeability between the two.
In the world of Indian advertising, promoting women as pleasure objects without any regard for subjectivity and their feelings has become the order of the day. Not that the trend in the rest of the world is any different.
Academic Meenu Anand, who has been studying the subject, writes in Women in Television: Depictions and Distortions, “The process of commodification in advertising brings out the paradoxical nature of the woman’s role as a consumer; she is the subject of a transaction in which her own commodification is ultimately the object. Thus, in the exchange between commodity and ‘woman’ in advertisements, a woman becomes a commodity too.”
An Amul innerware advertisement (not to be confused with Amul, the milk brand) shows a woman brandishing a pair of men’s briefs and making overt sexually suggestive gestures, short of showing an orgasm while she scrub-cleans it. The tag line being “yeh toh bada toing hai (this is so awesome).” The advertisement not only exploits sexuality, it does so rather obscenely. Having stirred a controversy, the advertisement was banned by India’s Information & Broadcasting Ministry.
Advertisements also reinforce sexist notions of what is purportedly ‘ideal’ beauty. The advertising world knows only of waif-like women with porcelain skin, perfect coifs and no visible fault lines. Never mind the proliferation of advertisements for fairness creams that suggest that citizens of the world’s biggest democracy are ashamed of their skin colour.
In showing women swooning over men wearing a particular brand of deodorant, women are portrayed as means for sexual gratification with no control over their sexuality. Axe, Wildstone, Cobra have all employed women to sell their deodorants by tapping into latent libidos. Advertisements for Zatak deodorants, with tagline ‘zatak her’, show women turning into borderline nymphomaniacs at the whiff of its erogenous odour. So a deodorant decides if a woman wants to have sex.
Also, advertising furthers patriarchal notions that reduce women to liabilities. An advertisement for PC Jewellers shows a father worrying over his financial constraints that might keep him from saving up for his daughter’s wedding. His wife reassures him by informing him about a scheme that suits the situation. The advertisement derives its theme from the regressive dowry system and, in effect, perpetuates it.
Kavita Krishnan, prominent political and women’s rights activist, says, “It’s not only that women are used to sell products. Advertisements are not gender-neutral. For instance, in a Tata Sky advertisement, a guy is shown to ask his friend if he could take his sister out. The friend hesitantly accedes and demands that she be brought back home before 10 pm. So a brother is shown to decide whom his sister can date. Modern market forces reinforce regressive patriarchal values.”
But in a country, where a prime ministerial nominee can make statements like “if a daughter is born, plant five trees along your farm and when she’s grown up you can sell the timber to fund her wedding” and still manages to climb the summits of popularity, advertisers can’t be the only ones to blame.