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.
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.
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.
Lux, Liril and a couple others were The Big Bad of getting women actors to roll around in flower petals for you.
Also, has there even ever been a non-sexualised bathing scene (starring a woman) since Jeanne Dielman in 1975?!
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.
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:
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.