“To See and Percieve”– Gender Representation in Advertisements
Disclaimer – the author is using a narrow definition of “gender” limiting within its ambit only men and women.
There is no denying that gender inequalities have a negative impact on both genders, but statistics show that girls are more disadvantaged. Gender discrimination is a social evil that continues to have harmful effects on girls and women of all ages, across the country. Discrimination begins before a child is born, in the form of female foeticide and sex selection, and continues till the very last breath the individual takes. Women face inequality in family relations, household setups, and workplaces. Regressive gender norms are visible through division of labour in the domestic sphere, and wage gaps in the professional field.
The grassroot of unequal treatment lies in the patriarchal setup of the society. Men are seen to be natural leaders, more qualified, and persons worthy of holding positions of authority. Lack of education and awareness, as well as long-prevailing customs, contribute towards keeping the patriarchy intact. Social norms are also shaped by media depictions. Advertising and marketing play a significant role in changing the societal perceptions, and influencing consumer’s purchasing behaviour.
In 2019, the UNICEF and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media analysed the top 1000 most viewed ads in India of that year. The purpose was to systematically assess gender representations in ads. The research shows that women have more speaking time than men in Indian advertisements, but they are stereotyped in potentially harmful ways. There continue to exist gender inequitable practices in society, that are displayed through stereotypical advertisements. To promote gender equality, such ads need to be critically analysed. The right advertising and marketing can inspire young minds to break away from patriarchy, and drive them to explore possibilities beyond the traditional gender roles.
The article will focus on two aspects of gender representation in media – firstly, the traditional gender roles; and secondly, ads targeting a set benchmark of beauty standards. Using references of ads by well-known brands, the author provides a legal insight into the inequitable and stereotypical representation of gender in Indian advertisements.
Ads Targeting Specific Gender Roles
In a traditional Indian society, domestic work is associated with women. They are seen as most suitable to perform daily household chores, though they may not be in the position of making decisions for the family. From a very young age, Indian women are taught to prioritise their families and domestic chores over their career choices. The society imposes cultural obligations on them and sees them as the primary caregivers. Social stigma prevents women from engaging in an activity outside their house. Despite spending up to six hours (approx. 352 minutes) each day on household chores, their contribution is not recognised as work. Unpaid work includes routine housework; shopping; care for household members; child care; adult care; and other unpaid activities.
The study by UNICEF showed that though female characters played a prominent role in advertisements, they were less likely to be shown in public spaces and more likely to be selling domestic products. Women continue to be portrayed in traditional gender roles, creating an impression on young minds that girls are less involved or present in society.
Ads limiting women to domestic sphere may impact the minds of young girls, indicating that like their mothers, they too are duty-bound to spend their time and energy only taking care of the family. Such advertisements may reinforce sexist notions that women do not belong in public spaces, paid employment, or do not hold decision-making authority as leaders. It also supports the idea that men are not responsible for household chores such as cleaning, cooking, and looking after the family.
Ads Targeting Looks
Female characters in advertisements are usually depicted partially nude or sexually objectified when compared to male characters. They are also portrayed as thin and fair, but men in advertisements can be of all shapes, sizes and colours. Representations conformed to a set standard of physical appearances reinforces the idea that women should “take up less space physically and figuratively”.
UNICEF’s study shows that colourism is a prominent aspect of Indian advertisements, affecting women more than men. Lighter skin is shown to be physically more attractive, reinforcing discriminatory social arrangements. The preference of fair skin as the epitome of beauty is often termed as “Colonial Hangover” by scholars. Companies have exploited this phenomenon to their advantage, and spread a wrong message that love, success and happiness in life can only be found if a woman has fair skin. Fair & Lovely, launched in 1975, has sold its products through advertisements that have received severe criticism. One such ad showed that a family wished they had a son who could improve their financial circumstances. The daughter had to step up and use fairness cream which helped her land the job of an airhostess. In another ad, Fair & Lovely called Aishwarya Rai and Mahima Chaudhary to play the role of two sisters, one advising the other to use a fairness cream to get a husband for marriage.
Olay ads starred Kajol to spread awareness of the seven signs of ageing – dark spots, dullness, uneven tone, pores, lines, dry & patchy skin, and roughness. The message sent to the audience is the unreasonable expectation on women to maintain a standard of beauty and flawless skin at all ages and stages of their life. Ponds White Beauty created an ad series titled “Kabhi Kabhi Pyaar Mein”, featuring Bollywood stars Priyanka Chopra, Saif Ali Khan and Neha Dhupia. The story depicted a man leaving a woman to find love elsewhere, but coming back when she applied fairness cream and becomes happier. The advertisement tried to sell the idea of confidence, but the message got lost in their portrayal of the importance of fair skin to be a confident person. In another advertisement, also starring Priyanka Chopra, Garnier through its products promised dark spot reduction, inadvertently shaming women for not looking after their skin, and sending a message that scars and spots are not beautiful.
Ads hardly encourage women to be satisfied with their appearance or body. Instead, they usually sell the idea of low weight and toned bodies as ideal standards of beauty. An ad by Lipton Green Tea, for example, shows Shraddha Kapoor encouraging her friend to drink green tea for the purpose of losing belly fat. In another ad, Kellogg’s marketed “Special K”, a cereal that women were encouraged to eat – two bowls, twice a day, for two weeks – to lost weight. Campaigns and ads glorifying toned, thin bodies have the potential to result in loss of self-acceptance and self-respect.
It would be wrong to say that all advertisements portray traditional gender roles. Some products have launched campaigns celebrating diversity among women, and encouraging gender-balanced division of labour.
Ariel started a #ShareTheLoad campaign to address the unequal expectations placed on men and women from a young age. Ariel’s campaign, launched in 2015, includes a series of advertisements ad that make the audience think, introspect, and act, with the aim of making a happier household where work is divided equally. One advertisement of the series, for example, brings to light disparities in attitudes that men have towards sharing housework with other men, versus that with their wives. In another they address the lack of sleep and rest that women get, because the sole burden of household responsibilities rests on their shoulders. Vim Liquid Soap through their campaign “Nazariya Badlo, Dekho Bartano se Aage” spread the message that a woman should not be responsible for household chores, alone. She too may have commitments at work, and a man should take equal charge when it comes to domestic tasks. Cadbury remade their “Kuch Khass Hai” ad promoting the campaign #GoodLuckGirls. The ad reversed gender roles and showed women playing sports while their male partners sat in the audience and cheered.
Dove’s #StopTheBeautyTest advertisement captures women’s anxiety and pressures conforming to a narrow ideal of beauty standards. Through its ad, Dove aims at sending the message that matrimonial platforms and processes should be free of beauty biases. It recognizes that all sizes, shapes, complexions, and colours, are shades of beautiful. The ad is a progressive step in driving up self-esteem and confidence of young girls and women across the country. Clothing brand Biba launched a digital campaign #ChangeTheQuestion, that addressed the issue of body shaming. The ad urges women to accept and love one’s own body, which is beautiful the way it is.
The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) framed eight guidelines on harmful gender stereotyping in ads. The main purpose of the guidelines is to provide a checklist against stereotypes, and safeguard rights of all individuals. Among other provisions, the guidelines state that “ads should not reinforce unrealistic and undesirable gender ideals and expectations.” ASCI also offers Advertising Advice to provide pre-publication advice on communications, campaigns, and advertisements. The panel, comprising of technical experts and experienced specialists, provide non-binding, confidential solutions to help advertisers so that their content may remain “honest, non-offensive, fair and devoid of harmful depictions.”
There are also legislations that prevent and punish obscene and indecent ads. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 punishes the sale etc of obscene depictions. There is the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 enacted to prohibit the indecent representation of women through advertisements. A more serious measure may be found in Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which punishes all forms of cyber pornography, thereby indirectly aiding in control of advertisements.
The Central Government has made the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994 that set out a Programme and Advertisement Code under Rule 6 and Rule 7. As per the Code, advertisements cannot denigrate women through derogatory or indecent depiction.
Advertising plays a powerful role in the process of gender sensitization. Positive gender norms in marketing have the potential to promote the ideas of gender parity and change in perspectives, thereby leading to better outcomes in society. Increased representation of women as leaders, decision-makers, and working professionals can inspire girls to seek and pursue education, which will further help them gain skills for employability. Advertisements should promote diversity among women, and avoid the use of regressive beauty norms as expectations of beauty standards. Reference may be drawn to a recent report by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority that announced a ban ocietal ads reinforcing gender stereotypes. Similar regulations can be found in countries such as Belgium, France, Finland and Norway.
To create inclusive and gender-neutral advertisements, governing bodies should establish guidelines for equitable representation of women in all spheres, and to promote diversity of colour and body types. Content creators should show men indulging in household tasks, and women taking up positions of leadership.
 Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and UNICEF, Gender Bias and Inclusion in Advertising in India 33 (2021).
 UNICEF, supra note 1.
 Madhusmita Das & Sangeeta Sharma, Fetishizing women: Advertising in Indian television and its effects on target audiences, 18 J. Int. Womens. Stud. 114–132 (2016).
 UNICEF, supra note 1.
Ms Chaitali Wadhwa is an Assistant Professor of Law at Manav Rachna University, Faridabad. This blog is a part of RSRR’s Excerpts from Experts Blog Series, initiated to bring forth discussion by experts on contemporary legal issues.