If you've been paying attention to advertisements that flit by on your TV screen over the past few years, you may have noticed a change. Increasingly, advertisers and brands are looking to associate themselves with "women's empowerment", especially ones that target high-end consumers.
Women-centric campaigns are the flavour of the day, with brands like Airtel, Ariel, Amazon, Tanishq, and Havell among others pooh-poohing stereotypes in an attempt to stand out in the crowd. It doesn't always sell, but well…it is the thought that counts.
We also live in times when a sexist ad like the Jack & Jones campaign with Ranveer Singh drew so much flak that the advertiser was forced to withdraw the commercial.
Preeti Machat, Executive Producer of Still Waters Films - a company that makes TV commercials - says, "This is the age of social media and you see people mercilessly trolling ads and films that take on even a slightly chauvinistic tone. The client ends up getting a lot of negative publicity. The client starts with all good intentions to talk to their target audience - could be middle-class Indian homemakers who are happy to be homemakers. A misstep….and they end up being trolled very badly. People I work with now are very careful about what they want to say in an ad, because they can do without the negative publicity."
Sreekumar, Creative Director with Saatchi & Saatchi -a global communications and advertising agency network- comments on the slew of women-centric campaigns: "It's a narrative that's relevant to the times. Things happen in a cycle. What we're seeing in India now probably happened with advertisements in the West a while ago. Advertising is about riding the wave."
Archana, who has worked as a copywriter for over nine years, believes that things could be changing also because there are more women in ad agencies, managerial roles and marketing teams who can influence decisions:"I think this brings in an insight. There's also some realisation that women have been sidelined so much in this country and that's moving towards changing things."
Preeti cites the example of an MNC client she's worked with for several years now. Their target audience is typically the middle-class homemaker segment. Preeti says: "Earlier they were very particular that the women in their ads looked and dressed a certain way –the traditional kind. That's changing. They now want the female models to look contemporary, right from their outfit to how they carry themselves. They want to showcase working women more often than not. They want to be seen as a progressive brand."
Even if their target audience might still be conservative, companies are becoming conscious about the larger picture. "A small-time tea brand I worked with didn't want a stereotypical older woman for their commercial. They wanted someone like a retired professor for the mother-in-law's role, and a girl who worked in an IT firm for the daughter-in-law's! But keeping their audience in mind, they didn't want the women to be dressed in clothes that were too modern," says Preeti, calling it a "one foot here, one foot there" approach.
Sreekumar points out that almost every brand today tries to be inclusive. "Even if we make an ad for an SUV, we consider putting a woman in the driver's seat. It's no longer only a man's car. This has to do with the market also. There are now more women with disposable incomes. It's not like men are the decision-makers all the time, especially for products like these which are for high-end consumers.”
The creative team, Sreekumar says, consciously thinks about inclusive advertising even when not specified in the client's brief, because they do not want to alienate women consumers: "It's there in the back of our minds. We're not doing it because….hey…. feminism is a cool thing….but because it reflects market reality."
Preeti believes that an advertising agency's role is to hand-hold the client. Companies are sometimes very specific about what they want in an ad, and they may not be very aware of public sentiments and moods in the advertising industry. Although the client has the final say in the matter, Preeti says that the collaborative process is very important in achieving a balance between what the client wants, and ensuring that the ad is well-received.
Archana feels that if a brand is to grow, it is has to move with changing times: "Women are coming out of their shells and are excelling in so many spheres. It's not something brands can ignore any more."
However, Sreekumar and Archana acknowledge that women-centric campaigns like Ariel's "Share the load" ads are still a "city story". More local, cheaper products are less likely to follow this trend - which is why an Ariel ad co-exists in the same space with commercials that still show women shrieking about a stain on their husband's white shirt!
"The trickle-down is bound to happen sooner or later. Look what happened with movies. It's more common now to see films like 'Dil Chahta Hai' which used to do well only in multiplexes and metro cities, but not on single screens or outside city limits. Now, even bigger, mainstream filmmakers are game to experiment with varying genres. Right now, the bigger brands are onto it, and it's only a matter of time before others catch up," Sreekumar says.