8 Foolish Things Ads Taught Me About My Gender (And Yours Too)

A child runs in from the outside, clothes stained with mud or blue ink or ketchup, and stares gingerly up at the only adult in the room. The adult examines the soiled shirt with a smile, walks over to a washing-machine, and we cut to the jingle.

Feels familiar? Of course it does, you’ve seen it a hundred times. And even though the above description left out any mention of gender, chances are you filled that in yourself.

You can always count on mother to be hanging around with instant noodles, detergent, or cough syrup. Cooking, cleaning and care-work – the trifecta of women’s unpaid domestic labour – have been exalted in advertisements for as long as we’ve had TVs in our homes. And men? Well they drive and buy insurance and cause explosions and stuff.

Companies like Ariel are becoming more self-aware about the role they’ve played in perpetuating those ideas, and are now trying a different approach. Largely though, as a round-up by the Economic Times, the top ads of 2016 (between 24.6 million and 35.8 million impressions) show that not much has changed. What is marketed to men and women (and how) still shows up the gender binary for what it is – rigid. And this is what we wind up learning from it.

1: Only Guys Take Initiative

The boy who gives his cleats away so someone else can play football; the boy who beats up a puddle for his little sister; the boy who dirties his sherwani helping a street vendor – what do all these young do-gooders have in common?

Well, they’re not girls. Boys are always the stars of these heart-warming Surf-Excel ads (which included low-key mocking of Dravidians, but hey one issue at a time). The brand’s choice of not casting girls speaks volumes about the behaviours we associate with girls – and the ability to make independent decisions is not among them.

2: Taste The Testosterone, ‘Coz Girls Don’t Do Stunts

Many of us had childhoods filled with Salman Khan or Akshay Kumar taking a swig of Thums Up and then perfectly executing a difficult (and pretty much unnecessary) action sequence. My dudes, you are drinking an aerated drink, not being bitten by a radioactive spider. Calm down.

And even if this was about juicing up on adrenaline, it’s funny how wild antics and stunts only become “unrealistic” the minute you think about women doing them. “Defying Gravity” may have been sung by two women, but it’s only men who actually get to do it.

3: Girls Bathe For Your Viewing Pleasure, Instead

Lux, Liril and a couple others were The Big Bad of getting women actors to roll around in flower petals for you.

In these ads, femininity looks like a wired performance for the male-gaze. We’d love it as much as the next person to also see a guy in a bathtub with candles, gently blowing soap bubbles into the air, but apparently that’s not good enough for admakers or audiences.

Also, has there even ever been a non-sexualised bathing scene (starring a woman) since Jeanne Dielman in 1975?!

4: Beauty Is Kind Of A ‘No-Boys-Allowed’ Thing

In the last few years, Dove has been killing it with these feel-good campaigns, pulling a real Bruno Mars and telling women they’re beautiful just the way they are.

But even the most empowering ad campaign feminises beauty. The target audience is always cisgender women. If you’re male, you can look edgy, and rugged, and broody, but never pretty or beautiful, and you can never ever wear makeup. Newsflash, men, trans and non-binary people also like wearing makeup!

5: Cars Are, Like, The Combustion-Engine Of Masculinity

Ah automobiles. The 20th century breakthrough that brought many British and American women out of the house is today a ‘male’ preoccupation. Car ads typically cast men in ‘macho’ roles, adventuring, or rescuing people, or speeding (because, whatever, laws are for girls, right?).

And when there are women in the ads, it tends to look like this:

Five years since this was made, we’re still asking why.

6: Women Should Never Be Comfortable In Their Skin

A relatively new ad from Lipton is selling some very innocuous looking green tea with out and out body shaming. It’s not enough that the women in the ad are fair-skinned, upper-class, able-bodied and conventionally feminine, but they have to be punished for belly-fat. Instead of easing their minds, Shraddha Kapoor “advises” them to drop the weight. Oh, and Kapoor’s reign of terror doesn’t end here, because she’s also shaming women for their body hair!

7: Only Men Are Good With Money And Stuff

Society has cast men as earners and providers, and there’s also that pesky gender pay gap that means women don’t make as much. Which is why dads and husbands are still so central to insurance ads. All our lives, we’ve seen this in ads by SBI, HDFC, ICICI, and HDFC again with a retired husband who wants to save money by making his wife do unpaid housework so he can take her to Singapore – what even?

8: Deodorants Are Basically Spray-On Gender Roles

Axe and Wildstone are repeat offenders when it comes to unnecessarily sexualising people, but it’s worth looking at how men and women are portrayed.

Women are supposed to have fair underarms and frolic among flowers, but “it’s a men thing” to be perpetually trapped in the gym or locker room.

And who can forget how Axe truly believes in its ability to turn heterosexual women into dithering fools?

You might as well slap on some spandex and yell “By our powers combined, we are Captain Sexist Advertising“, because the messaging goes a long way in subtly reinforcing narrow gender biases. This can have a particularly negative effect on young viewers from ages 5 and up, who, picking up these subtle hints, can develop lifelong prejudices from this distorted view, reducing them to two unfinished halves of a potential whole.

And if you’re wondering why we’ve hardly mentioned trans and non-binary people – well, we’re just glad mainstream ads haven’t already descended stereotypes on them.