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Many Lenses, Many Senses

Political economy theory suggests that commercial incentives behind content creation, in this case the display of women’s innerwear in media, shape the content itself

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Indian society is in flux — tradition and modernity meet in places, clash in others. Several belief systems co-exist. The views expressed by Varun, Isha, Dara, Tara, Arundhati and others in this case on feminine values, expectations and portrayal of women in media, are strongly felt, and valid from their different perspectives. Equally valid are other views of openness and personal choice, not expressed in the case. Hence the depiction of women in innerwear ads in India remains a dilemma. Marketers could address it by looking through multiple lenses as individually discussed below.

Cultural Theory: The role of Indian women and their perception is changing, although differently for different segments.

At the core of the modern urban youth-centric belief is the notion of equal access to education, experience and opportunity. This reflects in independence and control exhibited by women in ads showing them as opinion-makers and risk-takers. In this mindset, innerwear is a matter of choice and ads are simply a means to create awareness and aid decision-making.

While this may be an emerging view, there are residual and dominant codes around propriety and body display. The incident of the hostel watchman commenting on the length of leggings appears objectionable to CEO Varun, but it is a manifestation of other deeply embedded beliefs — many communities frown upon fitting or revealing clothes.

Beliefs around what is ‘proper’ differ across cultures. Clothes worn by some tribal women in India would appear risqué to conservative middle class of the same region. In Korea, it is acceptable to show local models in short skirts, while fully displayed innerwear ads typically feature Western models.

Portrayal of innerwear finds easy acceptance within one emerging segment in India, while other segments are appalled, annoyed, embarrassed, or even perturbed by it.

Political economy and objectification: Political economy theory suggests that commercial incentives behind content creation, in this case the display of women’s innerwear in media, shape the content itself.

At one level, this is linked to objectification — both male and female. Innerwear ads for both men’s and women’s innerwear depict good-looking models, thus creating ‘ideals’ of physical appearance which are much above normal. Equally, as male models are not shown with beer bellies or flabby chests, female models are not shown with love handles or cellulite skin.

While certain egalitarianism emerges in the same urban youth-centric segment mentioned earlier, where the ‘female gaze’ is asserting its presence alongside the ‘male gaze’, in most other segments of society both can be scandalising. In fact, the ‘female gaze’ more so by its unexpected audacity!

Depiction of men and women in ads creates tropes around values desired by both groups. Men are shown to value independence, success, friendship, attraction, or adventure. Women are shown to value beauty, family, friendships, and increasingly independence and control.

At the core of both depictions, however, is the economic incentive — of selling more — whether it is cars, deodorants, washing machines or innerwear.

By defining physical perfection and provocative attitude, inner wear ads shape societal attitude towards body display. When there is consonance of values between brand marketing and consumer beliefs, innerwear ads enable adventure, personal delight and acceptability. When there is dissonance of values, it can cause fear. This fear can exhibit itself as discomfort, or even disdain.

Objectification of women is often debated. It creates poor role models for women’s perceptions of themselves and men’s perceptions of women. As a jury member of this year’s Laadli Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity, I see a trend of sensitive portrayal of women in media.

Marketers are starting to showcase women as workers, entrepreneurs, breadwinners, rule breakers, trendsetters, and more. The girl who drives a scooter and refuses to be eve teased, or rebels against ‘being shown’ in an arranged marriage setting, or declares her own gender-bending sexuality are emerging instances of shifting societal norms; many viewers could be uncomfortable with these depictions. Traditional and dominant codes of conduct still demand obedience, submissiveness, coyness, and acceptance of community/ family rules. Isha in the case does obey her father, though she continues to differ in her views.

We will find young mothers, like Tara, who are embarrassed to see innerwear displays with their young sons. Yet, other parents and children are comfortable watching more suggestive Bollywood and Hollywood cinema and Western sitcoms together.

How should an innerwear brand marketer react? It depends on his specific target audience. If a brand is targeting modern, upwardly mobile women, showing women in innerwear in marketing should be fine. If a brand is targeting more traditional women, it could be displayed in other ways — or not at all. After all, plain white innerwear continues to sell based on functionality, without advertising.

Feminism: Pop-media’s favourite! Anything from the swish of shampooed hair to a late night at work gets coopted by marketers as mark of feminism. But control through choosing a particular brand of soap or shampoo is hardly reflective of a woman’s stance on important issues like gender equality, economic opportunity, autonomy, or political agency.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that a brand that celebrates wholesome natural beauty or frees women from demands of unwashed laundry is actually aiming to sell them a beauty product or a washing machine.

While innerwear displays in this case focus on traditional codes of physical beauty, there are other innerwear brands that speak to women directly yet subtly about issues that concern them.

Marketers need to decide whether strong womanhood is an angle upon which they will peg their brands, and how deeply they would commit.

Gender violence: Violence — both domestic and public — are issues throughout the world. Girls and women across cultures have to learn to adopt safe practices against predators. There is fear even in the US, as shown in documentary Misrepresentation, that depiction of women as sex objects in media, computer games and music videos makes men more disrespectful of them.

A recent Quartz article compared total and per 100,000 of population rape and sexual assault attacks across Hong Kong and Delhi. Even on a percentage basis, Hong Kong is much safer, despite Delhi women being more clothed.

In contrast, creating dialogues around taboo topics raises awareness, makes men and women realise risks, increases vigilance and improves safety. For example, US colleges are openly discussing campus rapes, leading to more reporting and more support on campuses for safety initiatives.

This case shows women being squeamish about innerwear displays in malls, and young men and shop assistants making furtive suggestive gestures with innerwear clad mannequins. In fact, creating more displays and more conversations on innerwear and relationships might help social transition.

Putting the lens of customer centricity, brand managers could understand what makes a woman buyer’s experience more comfortable. If that involves removing the trailing male attendant inside an innerwear store, they could implement it.

Digital commerce and online advertising: Privacy is a huge concern in the age of big data and consumer analytics driven marketing. Bots monitor people’s online behaviour and consumption patterns to send targeted display ads. At the same time, today’s digital Indian resident is very comfortable in his or her skin. Social media platforms show youth sharing candid photo moments.

India has a large fraction of shared computers and it is highly likely that if a consumer has visited an innerwear site, she will be shown display ads featuring similar products. Internet penetration in India is nearly 150 million users, many of whom access the net through personal mobile devices. Online shoppers are lesser, and many browse but not purchase.

While the current online shopper of innerwear is more aspirational, marketers could sharpen ad content and target desktop ads only for buyers, rather than the wider swathe of browsers and voyeurs. At the same time, as emerging social mores spread, innerwear ads would find acceptability within more homes. After all, Bollywood movies and music videos are more sexually suggestive than the best innerwear ad!

In the end, marketers must respond to a changing society in different ways, while realising that marketing content itself can create role models, enhance dialogue and shift societal attitudes.

The writer is President of DY Works. An MBA from Carnegie Mellon - Tepper Business School, she served as Country Head for Harlequin, as Associate Director, Education, for Harvard Business School for India and with AT Kearney in the US

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Amrita Chowdhury

Amrita Chowdhury is co-founder and Director of Gaia, a tech firm providing AI-IOT enterprise SaaS solutions for Connected Sites and Smart Cities. She serves on the Boards of Mahindra Lifespaces, Nesco, and Simmonds Marshall, and social sector startup Drishtant. She is the author of two bestselling books of fiction and holds 7 US patents for semiconductor manufacturing. She holds an MBA from Carnegie Mellon, MS from UC Berkeley, and B.Tech. from IIT Kanpur.

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