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Sensitivity And Self-regulation

Women have to arrive at the fine balance between the form of garment that works for them and also doesn’t disturb others

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It is all about keeping the balance — be it in the portrayal of women and women’s products in advertising, be it how women actually want to dress, be it their expectations of conduct from men and society and of course, men’s attitudes on the subject. The confusion arises in complex societies such as ours, where we have people of multiple cultures, living in multiple eras, with multiple levels of education and exposure to alternative forms of thinking.

When looking at lingerie advertising it is important to understand the tried and tested approach to communication. This is about depicting a customer using the product that is being advertised and then expressing satisfaction. In this instance, the matter gets prickly because it happens to be women’s lingerie.

At one level, innerwear is functional — it is about comfort and leaving the wearer ‘free’ to go about her life. There are big brands built on this platform and their advertising is not overtly sexual. At another level, it is about appearance and whether the innerwear makes the woman feel confident and good about herself. Here is where the rub comes in. Women themselves have varying points of view on what constitutes ‘good/smart appearance,’ after all they constitute half of humanity! This is across a spectrum of thought on the concept of ‘attractiveness’ from ‘fitting right,’ ‘looking smart,’ ‘to being modern,’ to ‘if you have it, flaunt it!’

Increasingly, for the opinion leaders among women, usually in the educated upper income groups, being smart and modern is getting defined by what the West wears. Even Indian wear is getting styled along those lines. A lot of this style is around ‘sexual attraction’, which is perfectly acceptable to many men and women thus leading to advertising along these lines.

But the fact is that there is a vast majority that disagrees with their point of view and is agitated by it. After all it is a patriarchal society that it only just beginning to break free of its shackles.

Opinion leaders dismiss these views as being “regressive” and carry on as they deem right. The situation is a recipe for disaster!

Thus we have an advertiser like Kora’s Varun Kshatriya who tends to believe that his product will sell only if it is in the zone of ‘If you have it, flaunt it!’ whereas he would not like his daughter to wear ‘revealing’ clothes. What he needs to do is to bring balance into his actions. He needs to consciously take a call not to do advertisements for lingerie, which he would not want his daughter to pose for even if it means less profit in the short term!

His wife needs to reflect on why she feels supportive of her daughter. Is it because of the dichotomy in her husband’s approach to life — with advertising for his business being overtly sexual on one hand, and his daughter’s garments being objectionable to him on the other?

Is the blatant manner of lingerie advertising upsetting or not? Is her daughter influenced by such advertising and hence choosing to wear the kind of garments she is wearing? Perhaps it is time she steps in to bring a balance in her husband’s conduct and advise her daughter on how best to balance what she would like to wear with what can ‘go’! After all, it is about behaviour at a certain point in time, in a certain society under certain circumstances!

Then, there is their daughter, Isha, who believes that the kind of clothing she wears is a matter of personal choice and ‘honesty’ for her as a woman. On the other hand, she is appalled at the advertising being so in your face! She needs to bring balance into her thinking — is honesty about wearing ‘revealing’ clothes? Or could it be that honesty is about accepting that sexual attractiveness is important to her but she is a part of a society that is complex and so, she needs to be balanced in her approach to what she wears? Is education about following all things Western? Or is it about understanding that different cultures have different mores and therefore there is need for us to pick up only those things that can bring about change that is material to our society? She needs to take some hard decisions some of which will not sit well with her in the short run but will result in positive change in the long run!

Then, there are men like Abhishek Dara from Customer Care who are insensitive to the matter altogether. They do not even notice that the portrayal of the woman’s body in clichéd and contorted postures makes a lot of women uncomfortable. They are just doing their jobs. Balance needs to be brought into their working style by giving them in-depth gender sensitivity training.

In India, as in other countries, there is an advertising standards council that has guidelines for advertising of any products which portrays women — broadly speaking communication should not be misleading, it should not be degrading for women or offensive to them. There even have been instances where an advertisement has been pulled up for portraying men staring at a woman in inner wear.

However, most of these ‘stays’ pertain to TV and print advertisements only. There have not been any cases raised on offensive advertising on hoardings and other OOH (Out of Home advertisement), which is rampant. Perhaps this aspect needs a watchdog!

Having said this, in this digital era it is the advertisements on the Internet which get carried through the most. Monitoring them is a monumental task. This takes on a sinister twist when the scale of ‘adult’ content is taken into consideration. The facts here are staggering. An analysis of more than one million Google hits demonstrated that more than one in five searches related to pornography. This is further corroborated by statistics shared by the world’s second largest porn site (YouPorn), which shows that more than 30 per cent of total data transferred across the Internet pertains to pornography. Against such a background depicting women in titillating postures in lingerie will obviously not even raise an eyebrow!

The fact is that in a society such as ours, the bulk of the population is below 35 years in age and hence sexual activity will be at its highest. Therefore to prevent all kinds of misdemeanour and violent behaviour there is urgent need for tough legislation on access to pornographic sites, which is only increasing with the proliferation of mobile Internet. This needs to be taken up strongly by women’s groups, companies that deal in women’s products and just about any kind of decent member of society.

India already has a gender ratio which is imbalanced — 940 females to every 1,000 males. Our police force is already running thin with one policeman for every 720 citizens. Therefore it will be quite impossible to provide security to women-kind which accounts for nearly half the population.

Hence it is imperative that all of the steps described above are taken quickly. Only then is there a likelihood of better portrayal of women in any form of communication and consequently better attitudes towards women in general.

On a more personal note, I have had opportunity to be present at focus groups of many middle-class and upper-middle class women across three cities. Almost all of them unanimously expressed the view that they found lingerie advertising bordering on pornography and very demeaning to women. . They felt that advertising should portray women doing well in whatever vocation they choose be it a job in an office, factory or at home as a housewife. The product need not be shown in use except on mannequins. Some of them expressed the wish to purchase innerwear that makes them more attractive but felt that advertising for the same has to be only at retail level in shops managed by women.

However, when we produced work along these lines — it was not appreciated at the client end, both male and female. They showed us studies of upper income women who feel that portraying women in inner wear as they are done by international brands is not offensive and quite appealing. When the point was made about the titillating postures, it was felt that there was too much moral policing!

Therefore it is finally all about self-regulation. Women have to arrive at the fine balance between the form of garment that works for them and also doesn’t disturb others. Mothers have to teach their sons to respect their sisters so that boys will treat all women outside their home with respect. Fathers have to treat their wives and daughters with respect and set fine examples to their sons. Where this is not happening, it has to be fought both at the domestic level and in courts by individual women, their families and various watchdogs. And advertisers and media have to be responsible in their depiction of women.

Continuing as we are is no longer an option for this society at least!

The writer is President (West) and National Creative Director at RK Swamy BBDO

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.

Sangeetha N.

The writer is President (West) and National Creative Director at RK Swamy BBDO

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