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Stereotypes and Indian advertisements

Stereotypes and Indian advertisements
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Advertising is the window to the society. It is a story told in a minute. Thus it is not surprising that it reflects what the society’s prevailing...

Advertising is the window to the society. It is a story told in a minute. Thus it is not surprising that it reflects what the society’s prevailing views about a particular topic are. Just visualize the following scene. Why is that women are mostly shown as washing clothes and men are pictured pursuing manly and intellectual pursuits in our advertisements?

One of the few exceptions that come immediately to mind is one of BPL smart wash that shows a woman conducting a meeting while her washing machine takes care of her clothes or of an Ariel advertisement that shows the husband washing clothes. Stereotyping is a term given to the human tendency to make over-simplifications and generalizations about people or objects based on limited experience.

For instance, India is full of fakirs, magicians and snake-charmers. Similarly it is thought that the whole of Middle East is a vast stretch of desert as depicted in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Nothing can be further from the truth. From his personal experience, the author can vouch for the fact that Sultanate of Oman is not a desert. It is an arid place like Telangana and that in fact Salalah, the southern part of Oman is as green and picturesque as the state of Kerala.

Sana’a the capital of Yemen is a hill resort and the average temperature during any time of the year is only around 140C. Stereotypes are rampant in advertising. Depiction of women in Indian advertising is very illustrative.

Women fight over men and motorcycles: Two loving sisters are fighting and are at each other. They claw, spit fire and have murderous intentions. One finally throws the other into the bathroom and locks the door. She takes a helmet and triumphantly leaves the house. Waiting for her is a young man on a Bajaj Motorcycle. She is driven into the sunset. The lesson: materialism is everything in life and you can half kill your own sister for a ride on the latest motorcycle.

Women are bimbos: The advertisement shows two young ladies shopping. A child of one of the ladies wanders into the busy traffic. She is almost overrun by a motorcycle only to be saved by a guy driving with CEAT tyres. The IDIOTS (in this case the women) assail the young man about his driving skills. The voice over says “The streets are filled with idiots……” The young man is shown looking at the women with a bemused open jaw expression.

The second advertisement shows a lady driver jabbering away with her aunty alongside. The driver is overly excited, can’t control herself and can’t resist eating a huge homemade laddu. In her haste to gobble it down, she almost collides into a two wheeler, who saves himself with a sudden break. The tyre is obviously, CEAT again. The women are again shown as half-witted bimbos. Is this depiction of women drivers or is it the manifestation of a deeply rooted stereo type?

Hot milk:You need to drink hot milk for it to be a nutritious drink, (Kellogg’s to its horror has discovered that this stereotyping is increasingly becoming very difficult to break as Kellogg’s has to be eaten with cold milk and Kellogg’s cereal becomes soggy with hot milk).

Polygamy: Indians have come to accept polygamy as an acceptable practice, what with the popular literature and the popular cinema even providing the justification for a man to have many wives. One advertisement that comes to mind is that of Nescafe’s three-in-one coffee. The advertisement is that of coffee, milk and sugar coming together in a pouch and that it is very convenient to use.

But the imagery used to depict this association is very disturbing. The ad shows three puppies, ONE MAN and TWO GIRLS frolicking under the garden hose, ONE MAN and TWO GIRLS cycling. The contention is why one man and two girls, why not two men and a girl?

Depiction of boys and girls in advertisements: The boys are always shown as Mama's pets and depicted as brilliant while girls have to only look on adoringly. (I am a Complan boy, only then the girl says I am a Complan girl). The games that girls play are always about house-hold chores and it is as if they are being told that is what they will end up doing when they grow up. (Case in point the Oreo advertisement where the girl dresses up like her mother and talking to her father imitating her mother).

The girls are told at a very young age that they should be very careful about their complexion. Just recall the Life-Buoy Gold advertisement. The girl is not very worried about not getting the first rank, about putting on weight; she keeps saying I don't care! But when told about her dark complexion the whole scenario changes, it is as if the whole world has fallen on her head.

Skin colour and fairness: The matrimonial advertisements in the leading newspapers are also a classic case in point, Red; wheatish, brown, white are some of the brides' complexion mentioned – never dark, husky, tanned. This has a lot to do about our fascination for the fair complexion as the yardstick for beauty. Ironically, many foreign tourists who come to India are desperately seeking the tanned look and Indians are equally desperate to look as fair as the foreigners. The popular literature shows Jeans clad women of easy virtue. Just visualize the advertisement of trigger Jeans. The Girl very seductively says "Trigger my passion”.

South Indians: South Indian men and women are also stereotyped. They are depicted as crude, dark and unintelligent. Recall the Ortem fan Advertisement. The South Indian says ORTAAMA, and the suave North Indian Punjabi Man says “Ortem” correcting the poor South Indian. Fevikwik also makes fun of the south Indian. It shows the south Indian successfully cheating at fishing (baiting fish by using a stick coated with Fevikwik) much to the annoyance and despair of the honest and hardworking North Indian.

This could be the reason why the Chauvinistic North Indian cinema audiences have accepted the south Indian heroines (the damsel in distress) but not the dark South Indian heroes (the knight in shining armor reserved for the virile and fair North Indian men). To ram this point home, the makers of the popular TV mega serial Mahabharata depicted Krishna as being fair. But a reader of the Indian mythology can easily point out the blunder; Krishna according to the books is NEELA MEGHA SHYAMA (blue or dark in complexion).

Anything foreign must be good: Indians are crazy about anything “Phoren” (Indian way of saying foreign). R. K. Laxman nailed it with his cartoon which shows an ophthalmologist saying to a patient. “You have a foreign body in your eye, as it is a foreign body would you like to retain it!”Indians are in love the label made in........ This weakness is exploited by the marketers who print labels such as Made as Japan, Made in U.S.A (Ulaas Nagar Sindhi Association). Etc.

It should not be thought, however that stereotyping is necessarily unhealthy, for it does serve the function of simplifying the complexity of social interaction. It is not possible to relate to each new person as if he were unique, and the formation of a stereotype based on the class or category to which he belongs is inevitable until the experience modifies it or shows it to be incorrect.

Stereotyping can be helpful for it alleviates ambiguity and enables a fairly rapid and easy evaluation of people and objects. On the other hand, it may give too simplistic an evaluation and lead to the formation of prejudices and to discriminatory behavior. It is thus important to ascertain the national stereotypes or images existing in a particular market. While positive images can be easily be used to advantage, it is far more difficult to overcome negative images.

By:Dr M Anil Ramesh

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