• News
  • Columns
  • Interviews
  • BW Communities
  • BW TV
  • Subscribe to Print
BW Businessworld

Case Study: How We Think Of Women

“This is the voice of compromise. This is the voice of a woman's silence, of every inappropriate expectation from her. This is our voice. Now let her speak. Ab Samjhauta Nahin, Now no compromise…” — Amitabh Bachchan Unblushed

Photo Credit :

Tara baig heard as arundhati Dayal spoke to her on the phone. Arundhati, the customer who had complained intensely about Kora Online’s online advertising.

Arundhati spoke with clarity and confidence. Tara knew this was no cribber. She had called to ask about her complaint about the Kora lingerie ads online and Arundhati said, “Every day is a harsh reminder that we only give lip service, but lack the conviction to accord women respect.”

As Lata Vishesh sat in on the call too, Arundhati narrated, “So, when this ad kept popping up, I clicked on the X mark atop the ad, chose ‘Inappropriate’, and asked that the ad be deleted. The search engine’s survey asked me why I disliked the ad, and I said this (I have kept a copy): ‘It violates women; It makes them meat for the male gaze; Women who need lingerie seek ads that talk about the product; This is not an ad, this is voyeurism.’

“I believe, to consciously corrupt minds, is shameful. We have a common computer for everyone in the family — it bothers me that brands for all their big talk do not think about all this! So, you see, I have struck Kora from my list. I don’t know why you are calling me despite my request that I should not be contacted!”

Lata: Sorry, Arundhati. My intention is not to intrude or win your patronage back but to understand your views. We are a few at Kora who were stirred by your protest.

Arundhati: You are women. You needed me to protest before you began to think about your ads? You should have resigned by now! The lady models were not just about innerwear; they wore pouts and alluring makeup and an attitude that was selling far more than innerwear or to women. It is clear, the target audience is not women. You are senior managers. You needed to ask yourself if this is the image of the Indian woman you want projected!

Bollywood films are different. I can choose not to watch a film. But here, you are in my face! Against my wish and will, in complete disregard to my preferences!”

Other women Tara spoke to, protested about the social fairness of the ad. Lata’s mother herself said, “Why should anyone mind what you wear? Some women wear shoulderless clothes. But is all of India wearing that? No, na? So, when you advertise on a platform that every Indian sees, let it represent the majority. That is all. A mall is where everybody goes, not just men. Keep it wholesome?”

The responses of the 32 women she spoke to in the metro, was about more than lingerie. Like Shaina who worked in a call centre said, “If I decide to change my clothes in the train, you will arrest me for outraging public decency or not? To phir woh kya hai?” Another said, “When men see these ads, they start looking at us with X-ray eyes, wondering what we look like…! Sharam aata hai hum ko! We want to go to work in peace and return home in peace.”

One lady said, “Think of ‘dance bars’. Firstly, why dance bars? Why should liquor be accompanied by dancing gals? And did you hear they don’t want CCTVs inside the bars? Why please? It has been reported that ‘CCTVs have a chilling effect on the people coming to dance bars. People have some right to privacy.’ Wow! I demand the same right to privacy when I say no to explicit lingerie ads!

The stores, however, did not think there was any loss of privacy. Said a store manager, “We are not doing anything wrong. Those are pictures of our products. Why should anyone complain?...”

Lata and Tara then decided to talk to women in management positions, owners of businesses, teachers, doctors; in short, women who were redefining the Indian woman. What did they think?

Amaani Manto (owner of village cooperative initiative): Women like good lingerie. Now, when you put it out there with those pouts and thrusts… you are alluding to a reason for why we like pretty lingerie. See? Your research is shallow. Then again, this world has humans other than grown ups. They are called children, whose sensibilities we must respect and care about…. And which we always fail to.

But the other issue is, we have taken pains to call the bluff of the patriarchal system; now we need to ensure we stop presenting women as ‘for your pleasure’. And this is why the current advertising and POP of lingerie is making ‘thinking women’ angry. Why! Talk to the ladies in small towns; they too refuse to be mantelpiece acquisitions!

Tamara Dwight (expat IT resource): The difficulty I have is this emphasis on good looks. It is very male in its origins. Ha ha! That is why models are photoshopped, lips glossier, curves airbrushed… times have changed Lata. Women have to be re-understood. I would ask you to audit your customer care, selling, marketing and research for male gaze influences.

I agree, photoshopping is akin to digital makeup. But isn’t that cultural stereotyping that thinks women must be picture perfect? That held true once, when the world defined women thus. Now, that world is gone. Please do not think I am male-bashing. Not at all. I have sons and brothers and I enjoy them greatly. I do them service when I ask that the world set right its definition of women. Now that we have luckily come to ‘discover’ the intelligence in women, our adverts need rethinking. In fact, I will repeat, women need re-understanding.

Aditi (postgraduate student): Bra advertising is all right if it is just advertising bras. But the kind of image and more importantly the body type such advertisements portray make it difficult for regular women to feel comfortable. Those ads don’t talk to us. Sorry! They produce a kind of fantasy image of a woman that is air brushed, edited and photoshopped.

Tara: Will you be comfortable walking into a store like that to buy?

Aditi: Obviously not, if there are a bunch of men standing around watching women walking in and out of those stores which is usually the case. I will go in when I am sure no men are lurking around. And I will not be seen with the store’s shopping bag. No, it’s not about embarrassment. It’s about how I draw my boundaries and look after myself.

Dipika Lath (professor of sociology): When did it happen that India blurred the lines between family spaces and private spaces? In India, the number of young families that go to malls in the evenings and weekends, is huge. For many people, malls are the only source of recreation and entertainment for their families. There are no parks, no play centres, no affordable places to go with little kids who want to run. How can families feel comfortable with skimpy lingerie staring at them? How do you respond to a 4-year-old who says, ‘Aww woh nangi hai?’ I don’t have a script! [Or should I be discoursing on ‘being comfortable with your body?’]
Tara: Would you say these ads are under-defining women?

Tamara: You have khaps who want girls to not wear jeans and ministers who blame skirts for unsafe environment. Let us extrapolate. I should not wear skirts. But you can put up pictures of ladies in innerwear, you promote the use of bar girls and fight tooth and nail for their sustenance, so what is the real issue: is it that women are unsafe or that men are licentious?

You need to seriously redefine women. She seems to have contradictory definitions.

Not too far back I was in UB City Mall in Bangalore. There, right as you enter was a life sized poster for an international brand of casual wear. It showed a lady pulling up her T-shirt to reveal the beginnings of her breasts. Seriously? Is it commensurate with India’s social context? Does your State machinery have an audit of who is putting up what poster where? I would seriously worry about that. Like you have caveats behind vehicles that say if this driver is rash call us here… malls should have telephone numbers where you can call if any visual is offensive.

Yamini Vasudev (co-founder of a food brand): I have always wondered who the bra ads are targeting: the shopper, the gazer, the Playboy reader? Are those marquee billboards for Victoria's Secret in Times Square meant to drive more men into the girlie bars or to sell more bras?

I agree that it is time to target me the real shopper but where am I in that ad? My need is not to turn into a seductress but to be provided innerwear support and comfort. My need to feel feminine and pretty is also a real one but that is not a thumb-tucked-in-panty state!

As Tara and Lata stopped at a sandwich kiosk for a bite, Tara said, “The core protest is the manner and location of the posters, OOH and POP. As someone said, we have given it no thought, and that is true. We just ran with marketing.”

Keya Chinoy
(HR head at an IT company): The fact is, nude women are being used to sell anything from paan to roadrollers. But things have changed. The woman has ceased to be an object. You need to stand up and redefine the woman for the ad world whose ‘Brand Woman’ has been designed by men. Till there is a movement to express this emphatically, woman-bursting-out-of-lingerie will be the way of marketing. It’s sad that one Olympic silver and we want beti padhao, khelao, bachao and what not, but it never strikes anyone to not treat her like an eye candy!

I am not sure if women CEOs/ marketing heads/ ad agency folks would make a difference, if their paradigms don’t change. Till then, all perfume ads will show women in identical submissive, swooning poses. Because woman has been used as a visual prop. Now her voice needs to be heard.

Tara: She is right! Is that what we want our daughters to aspire to? This is a thought for the women of this country. How do they want the women of India to be projected?

Dhanya (Music teacher): Leave the women. Let’s look at the men. We were in Kenya recently and came across this Your Moment of Truth programme. Schools are now aggressively teaching their boys why it is wrong to rape. The study found that boys who go through training were more likely to intervene when a girl is being assaulted, and they were less likely to verbally harass or evetease. Educating them young is the starting point of social change. This is where we need to begin. If we get our boys right, you can advertise anything and the world will look presentable.

Lata: Some women could trash you for taking the moral high ground…

Susheela (head of healthcare vertical): What is wrong with morals? Here, let me prove my point. (She opens a link about a man’s first work week at Target) and projected it on the screen that they were all looking at. Take a look: He has spent five days at Target and wants to blog about his first few days. What do his first three observations say: 1. Sold lingerie to an 80-year-old woman; 2. Got a free salted caramel from the suspectedly gay barista XX; 3. Sold a bra to the mom of a 16-year-old girl who was cringing the entire time.

You can see how his mind is built. As for morals: Morals help lay down for each of us a boundary that we say we will not cross. In India, it is called lajja. Think!

Keya: Morality is for the individual. For the collective, there is ethical, decent conduct that does not hurt anyone, such as: NOT littering public places with provocative posters, explicit content, innuendos...

Naina Barrister (in an e-mail): I understand you are asking about corporate attitude, not individual choices. I feel we need to think for women and honestly. No kidding anymore. I work with a coffee parlour. Our ad agency once wrote a copy for one of our brews: ‘Twice the sexy, half the price’ and there was this girl with an hour-glass figure, sipping the brew. I told them to remove the word. Reason: the suggested sleaze. They needed to search a thesaurus for real adjectives. Ours is perceived as an intellectual place for coffee, guitar, scrabble. Then, why the sleaze?

That said, in lingerie advertising, you cannot quite avoid the subject, social responsibility is key and so are cultural sensitivities.... this is not sports socks or hair colour. So, let me put it differently: Any product that concerns those parts of your body that you socially keep covered, those products demand careful handling. It cannot become opportunity for voyeurism and innuendos. And on top of that, if it is a geography where the women-to-men ratio is low (suggesting sex-determination and abortions or infanticide), dowry deaths high (suggesting oppression of women), acid attacks higher than ever (suggesting continued social affirmation of male supremacy and entitlement), eve teasing (suggesting lack of social education/ civil values), record rapes and molestations (suggesting absence of respect for women and a dependable law and order)… isn’t the writing on the wall? You would be an idiot to not notice the wrong in these ads. Launch Woman version 2.0! It takes thinking and courage to be elegant with copy lines and marketing.

Dilshad Mistry (counsellor): Owing to various pressures or lack of assertive women in their companies, ad agencies, film producers, etc., have systematically defined what is a perfect feminine body. They have objectified it, sexualised it. And in some cases, even dismembered it, so that the quest is for every part to be picture perfect. Not just cosmetics, but surgery too to enhance lips, busts… why? Because visual media has defined what is ‘perfect woman’. I am saying, this has resulted in a psychosis whereby the plastic surgeon is as common place as a beauty parlour! Think, please think. The ladies in films enhance their bodies to develop an appearance that will render them ‘desirable’. But that has resulted in some very sad outcomes.

Eating disorders, constant body examination, use of body shaping products that hide fat... why? Because it has been shamed enough times in films, in ads, in TV programmes. Fat is funny; fat woman funnier and she must be made fun of. Why then would you add to that by portraying your lingerie thus? Tara, tame socho.

Dr Kungumam: (surgeon): This objectifying of women in civil societies makes it tough to gain respect or be seen for who you are. Times changed some years ago, but our profiling of women continues to be around vital statistics and sexuality. If you care about the world your kids will inherit, then stand up and demand that your (and others’) ads change.

The damage caused by widespread objectification of girls (younger and younger these days) in popular culture is not just theoretical. Research shows that it is highly toxic for girls/ women.... Have you seen some of our kids dance shows? Their gyrations and thrusts? The songs they dance to?

Arnawaz Desai (food technologist): Girls and their pics are not the same as cars, things, bags, watches — ornamental value. No wonder, the dowry has not decreased and education isn’t helping: women’s magazines treat them just as badly as the Playboys or Esquires of the world. Gender expectations are all over these magazines. The way we think of women must be seen, heard and visible in our ideas.

Dilshad: And what of the sexually aggressive ads seen by young impressionable minds and minors and kids? It is easy to say, we have advertising codes. Then, what does the POP in malls come under? When I see my 9-year-old son’s discomfort, I am torn inside over how to help him deal with it. Those people need to be punished for traumatising children.

Lata: (to Tara): So, who is more liberated - the woman in the bra ad, or the one behind a dupatta? And who is more exploited?

Tara: I got the operative question from Arnawaz: Who is going to change the way we think of women?

Maneka (group HR head of an oil company): We have to be agents of change. We need to. Those shopkeepers have always put up pictures like that. Except it has now crept out of your Gandhi markets to your high society malls. What has changed? Nothing. Who has to bring about change? Organisations, advertising authorities, brothers, husbands, fathers.

The Singapore Media Development Authority’s codes are clearly family and society driven:

— Advertisements that feature or make references to condoms and other forms of contraception are not allowed for broadcast as TV reaches all audiences, including children;

— Advertisements should not undermine the importance of the family as the basic unit of society. ….references to lifestyles […], such as cohabitation, should not be condoned or presented in a positive light;

— Advertisements should not feature skimpily clad men and women….

We need to go back and rewrite our codes. If today you are proud of your Olympian Sindhus and Sakshis, then remove the swooning simpering, submissive, seductive perfume ad lady. Let us see women as they like to be seen.

Imrat (communications consultant): I think generally most of our ads perpetuate our cultural perceptions and add to the already strong biases that exist. Add to that global ad campaigns, where the product message is pushed down to all countries without thinking of local social context. I do think we have become very casual, flippant, callous and mindless in the name of modernity (whatever the hell that means!). When you are fighting rapes, should you be putting out ads of skimpily clad women? I am surprised it does not seem natural to not do so. It’s about communication. You are not showing that you are serious about being taken seriously. You whimper here and you go there and simper in those ads! Who is going to take you seriously?

Tara: This is it, Lata: ….the product message is being pushed down to all countries without thinking of local social context and impact. This really is at the heart of it. In our blind devotion to all things global we have allowed for indiscriminate socially damaging advertising templates.
Lata: We must zero base our thinking. Redefine woman. We need to change the way we think about women.

Two weeks later, at Kora Online’s strategy meeting, Varun asked, “So how do we serve Arundhati Dayal?

Tara: By listening to her!

Read analysis: Gautama G. & Sumitra M. Gautama | Mala Sinha | Anu Parthasarathy