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Posted at: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM; last updated: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM (IST)

Playing by the new roles

It’s no longer gender equality but gender neutrality that is increasingly emerging as a new societal trend. And the ad world is quick to catch on

Bhanu Pande

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Nothing could be far from the truth in contemporary brand marketing communication, once ruled by the mantra which this famous book suggested. Advertisers and marketers are increasingly realising the futility of ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ theme in their communication. 

Hindustan Unilever (HUL) recently launched a campaign titled Chota Step, Badi Baat for its fabric conditioner — Comfort. The campaign seeks to neutralise, in a nuanced way, the gender stereotypes that exist within Indian households. The concept continues in Ariel’s ‘Share The Load’ campaign that did the same with a finesse earlier.

In the Comfort ad, a mother realises that her children, especially the son, have been conditioned to think that laundry is a chore meant only for women/daughters. She subtly tries to correct this mindset, getting her son to join in the washing process, conveying that gender has got nothing to do with it and that it is equally important for both the son and daughter to learn this. The ad highlights a small instance that people can use to make impactful changes at the grassroots level. Working women, who have managed the domestic chores single-handedly so far, are trying to bring up their sons differently. This insight has been picked up by marketers and is finding appeal across generations. Welcome to the new world of ‘gender-free’ marketing across categories.

Scores of ad campaigns are using ‘neutralise gender stereotype’ platform to market their brands. Whisper’s ‘Like a Girl’ campaign, Biba’s ‘Change’ series, Tanishq’s ‘Best at Work’ ad for its Mia range of work-wear jewellery and many more across various categories are increasingly using this theme. Even products that were hitherto untouched by the trend are joining in such as banking, credit cards and insurance. The case in point, Deepika Padukone featuring in a campaign by Axis bank. Rarely have we seen a financial product brand using a woman as a protagonist. 

In the ad for Tanishq’s work-wear jewellery range, it captures moments from the work lives of six women from different professions and with different personalities. Yet, they all face similar situations at workplace every day, as many women in the actual world do. As these six women get ready to go to work, a voice-over says, ‘To those who live in their little bubble, that a girl can’t juggle between the office and the home, because they think it’ll be such a struggle. Well, it’s the last thing on my mind.’ The film highlights several such stereotypes — one woman gets promoted at work, there is the usual dig that this is due to her good looks; when she raises her voice, it raises many an eyebrows; she’s kept away from market visits to tier-3 towns; she’s not welcome to certain bars because it’s out of bounds (even if she has to be a part of the work discussion); it’s not acceptable for her to narrate dirty jokes; after a point, she’s seen as temporary, because she’ll be off on maternity leave. It ends with the stereotype that if a girl looks good, she’s probably not good at work. Speaking on behalf of all such protagonists, the voice-over says, “Well, it’s the last thing on my mind. The only thing on my mind is to bring my best to work.” 

“Brands are rapidly reflecting the changes which are happening in the society”, says Suparna Mitra, CMO,Watch division, Titan Industries. “Women are changing and as marketers our journey has been to keep pace with the Indian women.” Titan Raga, in its ‘Her life, her choices’ campaign has released a series of ads that scoff at the traditional way of looking at women. One such ad featuring Katrina Kaif, revolves around a woman under pressure to get married because her friends are getting married, younger sister is in the line, or she is tired of neighbours’ questions or she has to become a mother. The ad exhorts her not to succumb to such pressures. “It’s a matter of companies realising where their future customers are going to come from,” says Mitra. And women who are reflecting this attitudinal shift are emerging as a big segment.

According to Harish Bijoor, brand expert and founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, gender inequality and inequity is a glaring reality in India. This is reflected in salaries, career progression, discrimination, hurt, and sundry subliminal and at times, overt issues. The receiver of all this is the Indian woman. “Marketers in India have scented this to be an opportunity,” he says. “They appreciate the fact that the women are very big consumers. Decision making in most categories is woman-centric. A woman even decides which brand of underwear her husband and son will wear.” A recent research by his firm shows that women dictate 89 per cent all buys of undergarments by men! That is a big number for a male-centric product.

Many categories enjoy the women’s buying decision-making and use of products and services. “Then obviously, why must you not focus on the women? And as you do, you might as well set right the wrong of gender inequity in tone, tenor, decibel and language of advertising itself,” adds Bijoor. Gone, therefore, are the visuals of the woman of the house bringing  garm chai for her husband when he comes home. In comes “gender-corrected advertising” — case in point Prestige’s ‘Jo biwi se kare pyaar, woh Prestige se kaise kare inkaar’ campaign. In 2014, the brand re-introduced the line to connect with the new generation of young homemakers with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan as its brand ambassadors. The ad showed Abhishek cooking dinner as Aishwarya comes home after a late-night shoot. 

The change is palpable globally and is not just confined to India. According to a recent global research by The Innovation Group and JWT Intelligence, 38 per cent of Gen Z respondents and 27 per cent of Millennials ‘strongly agreed’ that gender no longer defines a person as much as it used to. The study found that while clothing and accessories can detail a person, there’s one thing many consumers increasingly don’t want them to make clear — their gender. So, the days of blue for a boy and pink for a girl are gone. Consumers want marketers to recognise them as individuals first, and men and women later. 

Globally, toy makers such as, Toys ‘R’ Us and Target, have acknowledged the imperatives of turning neutral in the way the retail their products. The companies will no longer separate toys by gender. So now, there will be no more pink aisles of toys for girls and blue “boy” toy aisles; instead, toys for children will exist in a gender-neutral environment. The same will be true for other ostensibly non-gender-specific departments, like housewares and entertainment. According to communications from Target’s headquarters, the company acknowledges that while there are some departments, like clothing, in which gendered signs make sense, the practice of dividing certain neutral items by gender is outdated, serving only to perpetuate stereotypes. 

However, the stirrings of change in communication are palpable. Earlier this year, the Indian Air Force released a powerful video challenging gender roles, calling on women that defending the motherland is not the job of men alone. A voice-over in Hindi says, “I am a girl, of course I am afraid of loud noise of crackers,” as it flashes images of women pilots walking along with their male colleagues. The film closes with, “A girl, who’s supposed to be a homemaker is the girl who will now defend our homes.” That’s a direct attack at existing stereotypes and aims to inspire young girls to a field which has long been a male bastion. The fact that this film went viral also describes its popularity with the masses.

Trisha Rai, a student of women studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and passionate about gender issues feels that marketers still have a lot of ground to cover. “If a product is advertised based on functionality or features, instead of creating relatable stereotypical gendered images, we may actually be able to achieve gender neutrality but as of now, we’re only reimagining gender roles with a special focus on it,” she says. ‘Progressive’ advertisements are seen less offensive and hence extremely important for a brand’s overall image. 

There’s a growing clamour to analyse what a brand already says about sex and gender. Scantily clad women selling products to men, weak portrayal of women largely in the domestic sphere and exaggerated displays of machismo are sure to alienate Gen Z and Millennials. And marketers have realised that there’s an urgent need to rethink brand messaging without perpetuating damaging stereotypes. A much-needed change is happening albeit slowly.

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