Expert Speak: Representation of women in ads - how close are we to reality?

Akanksha Nagar
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Representation of women in ads

Social Samosa in conversation with women leaders from the advertising industry examines the evolution of the female role models in ad campaigns, understanding if representation of women in ads is at par with the real-world challenges and truths.

The Representation of women in ads has evolved in the advertising ecosystem over time and a lot has happened in the intervening decades. The initial problematic stereotypes and objectification of women primarily as homemakers or mere sex symbols might have cleared, but they have given way to modern challenges associated with stigmas and preassumptions around women's role in society.


The rise of social media has given 'representation' more importance than it ever had. As girls at impressionable ages spend hours on their phones, their exposure to unhealthy depictions or standards of women is multifold. Fortunately, brands and agencies have been working towards making a change.

Brands are waking up to the purchasing power that women today bring to the table and that they can no longer be ignored or relegated to tokenist, archaic symbols of yesterday. 

Industry Opinion


Monaz Todywalla - CEO, PHD India, says, “On a positive note, we’re seeing a lot more advertisers from across industries like FMCG and Consumer Durables portraying progressive women in their narratives - depicting the ground reality of what’s happening in society today. Call it art imitating life or brands choosing to stay grounded and moving away from unrealistic standards of advertising, it surely is a move in the right direction.”

While India has traditionally been a conservative and proud society, campaigns like "Share the Load" by Ariel or Titan's "Raga" have helped shed much-needed light on the hypocrisy of a society that women face every day.


“Representation is the depiction of someone in seemingly ordinary and equally interchangeable situations. I still feel there's a long way to go for that. However, the strides we've made today are far more significant than all those made in yesteryears,” says Ritika Malhotra, Vice President (West), Kinnect.

The progress that has been made in advertising the portrayal of women mirrors how society has developed. But has this led to any impact at the societal level for women?

Also Read: Case Study: How Faasos included Tinder in their Valentine’s Day campaign

On-ground impact of women centric ads

Cause marketing is a form of advertising aimed at earning the favor of a particular audience type.

While brands do pick these up, and most do it in the right spirit, many tackle women-related issues exclusively with fixed calendars around Women's Day or Mothers' Day.


Pallavi Chakravarti, Creative Head – West, DDB Mudra Group, says that not every brand should jump onto the bandwagon just to render lip service. The connections are so tenuous sometimes, that they may end up facing more ridicule than garnering brand love. But equally, if there is a connection and if there is a possibility of affecting societal change, then advertisers and agencies owe it to society to make sure the industry creates work that induces this change

Malhotra says such campaigns are conversation starters. Eventually, that is all that content can do for reform – shed light on uncomfortable topics and bring them to the forefront. Did a "Share the Load" change India's traditionally patriarchal mindset? Probably not. Did it empower women to either push their families or, better still, inform women that such behavior is not okay? Definitely.


In terms of business outcomes, Pragati Rana, Senior Vice President, Strategy, Isobar India, shares, “Every time we have done a women-centric campaign, we have had some nice results. Whether it was the Reebok ‘Bruises can be good’ campaign or the ‘World’s Most Report Trailer’ for Thappad, the campaigns have ended up moving the business needle.”


In the case of the Dove Self-Esteem Project, it helped bring body confidence and self-esteem education to more than 35 million young people globally through educational tools delivered in partnership with schools, youth organizations, parents, and mentors.

However, some stereotypes are tough to move on from. Yet just as society influences advertising, so can evolved communication impact society. 


Rachana Monteiro, SVP, Media Planning, Starcom, adds that “We need to find category leader brands to evolve their creativity to reflect the change that’s already being witnessed in reality.”

Brands are using women's issues in their campaigns, more so than ever in an effort to build a larger brand story and purpose. 


“These ads are not always built to impact the issue and are measured for their benefit on brand. It’s difficult to pinpoint the impact since more measurement is done on brand metrics than they are on social impact measurement per se. Not all impact has to be about the direct on-ground impact or behavior change, every effect adds up to changing the tide. It could be about the hierarchy of effects that a campaign has on our awareness, knowledge, understanding, and advocacy around the issue,” says Ramya Nagesh, VP Growth, The Glitch. 

While there are enough brands that genuinely are representing women well, there are tropes one often sees which advertisers fall prey to, where women are shown regressively.

What more brands can do

In most commercials, the woman is still a mother, she dresses differently and perhaps speaks differently, maybe even has a job – but still is in the kitchen, cooking, cleaning, looking after the kids. 


Payal Vaidya, EVP Experience Design, VMLY&R feels that ads haven’t moved away from the clutches of stereotyping – most miss capturing the real essence of women’s personality maybe because it’s a bit much for brands or because the brands won’t buy it and maybe because the larger set of audiences won’t buy it. It’s a cycle that few brands have tried to break and fewer have gotten it right.

Monteiro pointed out that brands still continue to stereotype on:

  • Beauty is about women looking good, despite the rise of the metrosexual male (15% CAGR growth of the male grooming industry in India)
  • Raising kids is still a woman’s job. The Indian men today are equally involved in raising their kids. However, our advertising continues to ignore this
  • The kitchen is still a woman’s domain. All the health problems are with the family and the husband while she in the one to make the smarter choice on atta, oil and namak

Recently, advertisements for cars or financial services have increasingly begun showing more women in their imagery. Although in many of these depictions, the woman is seen as a passive onlooker or the happy recipient but not involved in the decision-making.

Malhotra, adds, Sectoral differences are still understandable. The problem lies in representation in ads for non-gender-neutral products. They are featuring women for aesthetic value addition as opposed to representing them as consumers – often suggesting that they're still a part of these advertisements as a means to elicit positive reactions from the male audience.”

Need for women behind the screens

Advertising is more often than not a close reflection of the ideals of culture and society of the times. The challenges stem from bias that we are blind to, like gender roles, gender stereotypes, things that are ingrained in us as we grow up in a patriarchal society. To counteract this, Nagesh says, it needs us to be deliberate and really thoughtful about the choices advertisers make. 

She advises, “It is extremely important that not just the content of advertising change but the balance of people making these ads. There is definitely a need for more female creative leaders and their gaze to play a larger role in shifting this dynamic.”


Echoing the similar view, Aparna Tadikonda, Executive Vice President (South), Interactive Avenues, adds that the real problem lies in looking at these insights from a man’s perspective who is making those decisions on the brand side with a noble intent of the course to bring change as a responsible brand.

Therefore, nurturing an inclusive environment with a gender balance is important if you want to portray a woman in the real sense that resonates with her.  

While the attempt should be made to get it right, Rana doesn’t see tokenism going away anytime soon. As more brands realize that these narratives are important to build an emotional bridge with their audience, they will deploy their best agency architects to create this bridge. But only a few of them will get it right. 

Beauty ads especially still tend to create this flawless beauty image.


Nisha Singhania- Director and Co-Founder of Infectious Advertising, thinks that the ads need to start normalizing real people - blemishes, dark skin tones, different body shapes, etc.

Whether it’s about Victoria’s Secret saying no to its fashion show or the Fenty X Savage showcasing body and racial inclusivity, they are all in the right direction. But the point is women and the issues that need attention are still way too many and some are still considered taboo. And that’s why no one talks about menopause or older women, adds Tadikonda.


Another reason for this is that marketing and advertising is still a male-dominated industry, she added. So even women-related issues are most often still looked at from a male lens.

However, there are many new brands being launched with the purpose of uplifting women at the core of their brand promise. We see brands building engagement platforms exclusively for women. But we are yet to see many brands treating genders alike and making it inclusive and not exclusively for women.


Mansi Datta, Chief Client Officer, and Head – North, and East, Wavemaker India, adds that consumers do appreciate these nudges and provocations as can be seen by the social media banter and chatter around these ads. If nothing else, these ads push the brand codes towards a future-forward direction.

“Purpose-led and authentically inclusive advertising is the next big pivot for brands and those ahead of the curve are already seeing holistic business improvements and opportunities that lie ahead,” adds Todywalla.

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