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Case Analysis: Tip Of The Iceberg
Education is supposed to make you think and question, ads to make you consume, buy, enrich the seller, or a faceless corporation, for whose actions of omission and commission no one can be held accountable
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What this case study reveals is that lingerie ads are only the presenting problem – the tip of the iceberg, or mind-berg! The underlying challenge seems to be the way women are perceived, and how they may interact with these perceptions. More than ever before, women are impacting every sphere of India’s development – they are vital to India’s workforce in every aspect of society today. How they are thought about affects how businesses grow, how the country evolves - and yet, as Arnawaz Desai so poignantly puts it, dowry issues haven’t decreased with girls’ education, and there is no difference between Playboy and a ‘lady’s’ mag when it comes to portraying gender expectations. Sad and telling truths…
How have times changed? What do lingerie advertisements reflect about the mindsets that form the society we live in? The conversations that Tara and Lata have with a wide cross-section of women reflect the need to reorient, to re-understand, to be re-understood. Some voices that might also be shaping an alternate future are conspicuous by their absence. There are no males in the multi-logue. There are no informal workers, male or female, no rural women, no women from dance bars. But injustice links them all. The male gaze often makes girls and women in public spaces in India feel insecure and unsafe. What legacy is one generation leaving behind helplessly for the next? It is an ancient palimpsest of female – and male - being and becoming, anchored in religion, tradition and custom – as Imrat says, ‘cultural biases that exist’. As Dhanya points out, educating the boys could make a difference, but the problem is not just about issues.
Surely we have all, sometime or the other, felt assaulted by ads, shocked, stunned and touched uncomfortably, just as we are supposed to be…. it is by design that the ad has to get into our psyche, our unconscious, and stir us in the regions that reason cannot not reach. Its purpose is to bypass the faculty of reason, and set up parallel access to the zones from where we make decisions.
And yet, unless severely threatened, we seem to be sworn to Omerta! The conspiracy of silence cannot be broken, except at great risk to one’s personal safety. However, individual answers to this question lead to changes in institutions, in policies, in companies, in families, in personal life and relationship. It is the Arundhatis and the Latas and Taras who lead change, because they take initiative.
Arundhati Dayal makes a strong decision. She boycotts Kora. It is assumed that she will boycott any product that outrages her understanding of what is right by her sense of dignity/self-worth.
Am I sure, if my reason and sensibilities are outraged, that I will not buy, that I too will boycott? Am I sure that I will not be a tame bystander, scared to make a stand? Am I sure that I will not buy products of a company that ruins the water resources of a neighbourhood? Will I avoid a product, however good and trendy, if I feel it is not good for the world, and it’s advertising is negatively hooking children? Will I stop buying a food product that has been proven injurious to health? And of course the big one, will I demand ethical conduct from the government and companies that serve me? And keep demanding till I have an answer that addresses my concern?
Also, while some part of the atrocity is the geography, as Naina points out, problems women face do not restrict themselves to India alone. Or for that matter, the marketing agencies and/or media who create what Dilshad calls the cult of ‘the perfect human body’. Perhaps the global north has bigger issues in this area than the majority of our women and children. It is the lure of the global market-place that is a bigger risk. Cell-phones project images everywhere! Fairness creams win over lingerie advertisements in the rural area where I work. Cultures across the world face the same challenges, the same opportunities for women to re-understand, and to be re-understood. What can each of us do to break the mould constructively, meaningfully for ourselves?
The real question is about daring and having the courage of one’s convictions. One often hides behind not wanting to say something that is truthful but difficult to accept: “What is the use? What can I say that no one has said before? Who listens anyway! And why antagonise people?”
The other major challenge to acting/speaking up is that unseen one – the risk of having to walk alone. It is a real risk, one not to be played with or carelessly attempted. With growing populations everywhere, there is a crisis of identity. I am one in a sea of faces…it becomes important to be noticed, to feature in a dance show, the earlier, the better. And the women and children in the advertisements tell me I can make it – if... But it is possible to realise that I am central to my life, and it is possible that I make my child trust me when I speak a value. It is possible that I make a meaningful difference in my world.
Advertisements long ago stopped informing the consumer about his needs and speaking to us as intelligent agents who can guide our destiny. For a provocative advertisement to work, Gandhi has to be neutralised. He showed how boycott could wreck the empire. And the empire has learnt…. it has learnt that resistance must be absorbed, and that saying something enough number of times with well researched subconscious messages, will yield market results. It is neither about ahimsa nor about truth! It is about the marketing conglomerate, the new empire, striking back!
These are the actions we mutely or helplessly watch, and endorse, much as Bhishma did, tied into knots with our own choice of metaphor, right, wrong, delicately walking between deep chasms. Monarchs are gone, but the others have taken their place, to tackle the elected democratic governments, to loosen access. What better way to handle Gandhi than customer care, give everyone the illusion they are being heard, so they do not rebel, revolt, boycott or worse retaliate … After all, if speaking is the only thing people want, “Let them speak! They don’t know that the die has been cast, a long time ago and their voices will change nothing. At least they will feel they have been heard…”
When assaulted by the kind of advertisements Kora puts out, will I as a teacher end up defending the ad agency and the company, and their legal right to sell a service and a product? They are after all merely doing what everyone is doing. How can that be wrong? If I object, how will I answer the charge of being behind-the-times? ‘Please be progressive. Children have to function in the world. Are you saying the whole world has got it wrong where ads are concerned?’ These advertisers are involved in visible CSR: helping children needing surgeries and donating to provide drinking water access in villages. How can they be faulted?
Now ads tell our children, that they know better. They tell us subtly and in your face, that to be modern, one must consume - ‘the more I buy, the more I have to buy, for both are infinite’ [with apologies to Shakespeare!]... And should we reject this, we will have to hide – we are not with it, we have lost the race, we are inadequate for the times, we may have to suffer social/political disapproval.
Real men and women do not smell of perspiration any more, it is a false chemical scent that assaults our nostrils. Real men and women will not have crumpled clothes or wear Indian attire - they are served up like dishes in a food ad with false-sprayed freshness. This mega conglomerate shows us our place… and that is what the fight is about. Do men and women make choices or do we just fit into the paradigm?
Education is supposed to make you think and question, ads to make you consume, buy, enrich the seller, or a faceless corporation, for whose actions of omission and commission no one can be held accountable.
In one sense, the ad world seems to work contrary to all sensible education. Most ads hammer away at our vulnerabilities, herding us into pens of different segments. Once we are there, anxious human beings, unsure if we are attractive, worthy, capable, the market has us where they need us, and tell us what we can be. Life today breeds many kinds of fragmentation, and this is one – that you can promote in your work and policy what you can cauterize from your personal life and family – the values of my life and my work do not need to connect at all.
Can we and our children, both together, learn the courage to walk alone, walk our talk, and speak our truth?
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.