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Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Portrayal Of Women


Abraham Maslow in his Theory of Human Motivation stated that while people aim to meet basic needs, they seek to meet successively higher needs in the form of a hierarchy. This theory seems to have become the mantra of the advertisement industry that not merely caters to human needs but also creates them, thus establishing a materialistic culture. It is true that the ultimate decision to buy a product is in the hands of the consumer but advertisements do modify consumer needs, building new ones from the previous. People find themselves buying things they do not need.

The kind of materialistic culture that advertisements have created was well estimated after the iPhone 5 was launched. The name sold well! Not many of the millionaire sons who had ordered iPhone 5 even before its launch in India would have known that the only significant difference between iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 is the so-called “brilliant 4-inch retina display that allows you to see more of everything”. What intrigues one is the question of how long can one follow the escape route into the virtual world. One has to come back to reality, reasonably speaking.

Above all, the advertisement and public relations is one highly competently flourishing sector with humungous employment opportunities for the creative minds. The materialistic aspect of it can once again be judged by the cut-throat competition here for those who want to earn name and fame, and for those who want to cut others’ name and share of fame. The battle of brands between two leading national English dailies, The Times of India and The Hindu, through the advertisement campaigns against each other is suggestive of a strengthened earthly-mindedness of the generation.

What might also be an extreme case of the current materialistic culture is one when we are tempted by a product, and being unable to seek it, we might end up falling into the vicious circle of thefts and robbery. Ambika Puri, B.Com student of Delhi University, says, “The same ad may have a different effect on different societies. While ads may influence a person dwelling in urban areas to buy a certain product without its need, it may leave a member of a minority society disappointed.”

Along with all this, it becomes equally important to talk about the portrayal of women in advertisements. Women are, more often than not, shown assuming a passive role giving ample satisfaction to the ‘male gaze’. Commercial ads for deodorant brands like Axe, Vanessa and condom brands depict women as having being made for males; furthering a step in the gender biases prevalent in our patriarchal society. Another major aspect of gender roles in creating a materialistic culture is that the advertisements are made differently for male and female audiences. For adolescent boys, ads are made targeting their all-in-one-man aspirations. Ads of Hero bikes and of drinks like Thums Up and Mountain Dew are made depicting adventurous and daring men. While for adolescent girls advertisements are made inspiring them to become sweet and sensual by depicting attractive models/actresses endorsing a teen product.

Shruti Gupta, An economics teacher at Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University says, “The big MNCs like Coke, Lays, McDonald’s, etc. have such powerful financial muscle which they use in advertising. It makes the youth of today think that watching a match in a stadium without buying a bottle of coke and chips is boring and useless. The irony is that in a country where poor people don’t have clean  water to drink, some people harm their health by consuming junk food.” She goes on to add, “From an economic point of view, advertising today is a game of money. Adverts distort the consumption and production patterns of a nation. We don’t really need mineral water when so many people in villages and rural areas don’t even have clean water to drink. In a nutshell, ads distort economic priorities of a nation through misallocation of resources. Their products are promoted on such a huge scale on banners and billboards that they are visible everywhere and create such a huge impact that each one of us starts believing that we cannot party without a bottle of coke!”

Adverts also have a tendency to divert one from reality and make one dream beyond one’s reaches. The ads that one sees on billboards while crossing the main roads portray a lifestyle that each one of us would want to have, consequently only leaving us in a miserable state of envy. And if one gives into these ads, one is often found being stereotypically associated with that brand in particular. For instance, if one sees a girl wearing Reebok shoes and Reebok sweatshirt, she exudes an impression of being athletic.

An interesting concept prolific in the advertisement industry is of behavioural targeting used by online website publishers, advertisers and marketers. It allows them to tailor ads based on consumers’ web behaviour to increase their profits. However, this concentrates dangers to the user’s browser security and is even considered illegal by many country’s privacy, data security and consumer protection laws.

The most plausible solution to this constructive materialistic culture is with the consumer himself; by being smart and aware, by availing consumer protection services and consciously keeping away from victimising oneself due to this materialistic culture.


Image source: YouTube
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        An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

        Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

        Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

        The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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        Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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        MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

        With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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        A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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        A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

        She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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        A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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        A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

        As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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        Find out more about her campaign here.

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        A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

        A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

        Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

        A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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        Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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