I have always loved watching advertisements and have grown up humming ad songs and mimicking them. The short and interesting phrases jammed with catchy tunes and interesting visuals compels us to memorise them and we end up punctuating our conversations with ad slogans. The fact that they instantly hijack our unconscious headspace and easily enter into our everyday discourse reflects the strong ideological, cultural and social impact they cast upon us, without us being aware of it.
While underlining ideologies propagated through advertisements are a mere reflection of the society, the powerful impact of advertisements can also be used to question normative structures of the society. There have been only few ad campaigns in India which have attempted to do that and most of them only contribute to the larger narrative of society’s dominant practices. One of them being outright sexism and baseless categorisations of male and female chores. Observing these gender-based divisions has almost decimated my love for advertisements.
Although there are so many advertisements that reveal this problem, I would like to stick to cleansing merchandise ads to highlight the inherent ideological flaws in them. Dishwashing soaps, detergents, toilet and floor cleaners and soap advertisements mostly have women (as mothers and housewives) using them, as if they are the only ones who are responsible to keep everything clean and tidy and it is solely their job to clean dirty dishes, utensils, toilets and clothes.
In following advertisement snippet, we see a mother-in-law asking her daughter-in-law about washing dirty clothes (“Par tumhare haatho ka kaam badhaa diya“) which is normalising the fact that only women are supposed to clean clothes and it is their ‘haatho ka kaam’. And the product is there to make things ‘easy’ for her.
Another cleansing detergent ad which is mostly anchored by television personality Ram Kapoor is about liquid gel dishwasher where he replaces bar soap with liquid gel and hands it over to a lady. Ideally, if he had come to tell her about the new easy alternative, he should have demonstrated it himself. But we don’t see that happen in the ad because the visual of a well-dressed man doing dishes would send chills across the spines of the viewers. Also, the fact that a man is telling the woman to make a ‘wise’ choice of liquid detergents reveals the idea that men are wise and smart beings who are there only to guide naïve and gullible women about right things and women are only to follow his guidelines and do things as directed.
It is noteworthy that even when men are not physically present in some of these ads, the voiceover that tells women about the product is that of a man and not a woman. This alludes to the didactic attitude of dominant males who are constantly watching women perform roles within their assigned purview and directing them to make fair choices because apparently, women don’t have the brain to think for themselves. Take, for example, the following cloth washing ad where the male voiceover derogatorily asks women (haha, chowk gayi deviyon? Ye hai naya Tide Naturals sirf ₹10 mein) to switch to an effective and low-cost product.
Toilet cleaning advertisements are yet another chunk imparting gender-based roles to the society. If you google Indian advertisements on toilet and floor cleaning liquids, you will only find women cleaning the floors and toilets. The following snippet only has women in all the three consecutive results. Toilet cleaning is believed to be one of the murkiest jobs and only the women of the house are deemed fit for it. It is disturbing that we have never ever seen a man in any such advertisements. Even in our own houses, we rarely find men cleaning toilets and floors.
‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ is on full swing and we have been constantly bombarded with government-sponsored advertisements on encouraging people to build toilets and use them. The recently launched ‘Darwaza Band’ campaign under the Swachh Bharat Mission has been solely based on using toilets. The campaign ad is anchored by well-known Bollywood actress – Anushka Sharma who prods women to encourage men on using toilets. In this preachy ad, we only see a group of women being lectured by the actress on why it is important for women to raise their voice and ask men to use toilets.
The important issues of menstrual hygiene and women related problems are not brought up in the ad which claims to be on “women safety”. The ad is more focused on men not using toilets and less upon women’s health and safety issues. It only talks about using toilets but doesn’t tell us as to why one should use them. Apparently, this advertisement also tends to hold women responsible for unchanging practices in the village and therefore we see the actress addressing women (while referring to men) by asking- “Abhi bhi shauch ghar se baahar? (do they still go out to defecate?)” The campaign slogan- “Jab jaagegi naari to badhegi duniya saari” itself is a clear justification of the argument that a woman is obligated to uphold moral values and it is her duty to ensure sanitation and healthy cleaning practices.
Repeatedly, the onus of keeping everything clean lies upon the women and it is their “haatho ka kaam”. Moreover, in places where toilets are still a distant idea, she needs to ensure that men stop going out for defecation. Even in those cases, she is the one who would be required to clean it on a regular basis, not the men. Hygiene is important for everyone regardless of your gender and therefore, it is unjustified to only force it on women.
Among these ad campaigns which have just re-iterated the dominant beliefs, there has been few others which have attempted to alter advertising practices by not conforming to the conventional norms. One such ad campaign was- Aerial’s ‘Share the load’ campaign. Revered as one the best ad campaign of 2016, it questioned the practice of considering laundry as a woman’s job only.
Without being preachy in any sense, the series of ads spoke about bringing minimal changes. The campaign was magnified on social media and a lot of people shared their ideas on role-reversal practices. This campaign is an example of how a small advertisement with a strong message appealing for minimal changes can initiate positive conversations. It is time that advertisers think outside the pre-defined boxes (literally) so that we get to see more such ad campaigns in other merchandise commercials as well.