You’ve come the "Wrong" way baby

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Surely, the fair, slim and dedicated housewife is the epitome of all that a woman stands for today, right? Wrong!

Back in the 1960s, a delightful series of tongue-in-cheek ads appeared in the magazine for a cigarette called ‘Virginia Slims’. It showed two sets of images – one of women in the 1900s and the other, juxtaposed next to it, of a happy modern women. The punch line that accompanied all these ads read, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It helped create an aspirational image, which appealed to women. This was the 60s and the feminism movement was just beginning to take shape. The strategy worked delightfully well for the company Philip Morris, and from 1968 through 1980s, the brand saw its market share grow up from 0.24% to 3.16%. The ads showed how the modern women was more in control of her life and free to make her own choices. However, the question is really important: Is the modern woman really free? Or has she been simply ‘bondaged’ by modern advertising to live in a world of illusionary freedom? Today, the way women are depicted in ads makes one think – are they a happier lot now, with more freedom and financial independence? Or is it just a superficial change on the surface.

Fair game?

For decades, women have been portrayed in stereotypical roles. Has anything really changed? They are still shown as housewives dependent on men, and as sex objects in advertisements. The mould has been cast and it seems near impossible to break it. You may not see her much in a saree today, or with the vermillion on her forehead, but deep inside, she is very much the same. She is still insecure if her skin colour is not fair and lovely. The numerous advertisements for the varied types of fairness products show how it’s important to be “fair skinned.” Success for a woman is still defined by her fairness quotient. Fair skin is considered an asset in India and advertisements are leaving no stone unturned to prove it so, that your skin colour decides your future. Consider the ad for “Fair and Lovely”, one of India’s leading fairness creams. The father of a dark skinned girl is trying to get her married to an old bald man. However, she manages to change her destiny in the nick of time when she starts using the fairness cream.

In another of its ads, Fair & Lovely shows a young talented girl with a strong potential of becoming a cricket commentator. But to be successful, she is advised by her friend to not spend so much time practicing on a make-believe mike, but rather spend time in front of the mirror and change her skin colour, for turning her dreams into reality. After all, talent is not important, and a fair skin obviously guarantees a fair future, doesn’t it?

If that’s not enough of a humiliation, then Godrej Fair Glow goes a step further to show how, if you are dark skinned, your life is confined to the dark corners of your home. You could, however, use Fair Glow fairness cream to become spotlessly fair and develop the confidence to face people. Now others would find it worthy to talk to you & be friends with you.

Clearly, if you are dark, you are a burden to your family, and your father feels cursed, for how on earth could you foot the bill for his favourite coffee?!!? You however have the option of using the fairness cream to change the fortunes of your family and make them proud of you. How ridiculous is that! Whatever happened to the good old attributes of education and hard work, which were the prerequisites of success. Is it true then that parameters of success are different for men and different for women?

Years ago, Vicco Turmeric cream showed how it was really important to look fair on your wedding day – for that was the only attribute for a girl. Even after so many years, the ‘Snow White syndrome’ has not left us. Rather, it’s gained stronger and larger proportions. These advertisements have taken our obsession with fairness to greater heights.

The fairness cream market is humongous in India – about Rs.1,000 crores plus – and HLL, with its Fair & Lovely brand, is the market leader. While the “Raymond’s Man” is the “Complete Man,” a woman is not of any worth till she is fair. How fair is that? Shouldn’t she too be judged on the basis of her inner talent and capabilities than just on her skin colour. The ads should stop showing that dark skin is bad and unsuccessful. Fair is not necessarily lovely. We must give all skin colours a fair chance. Hey mothers, stop asking your little girls not to play in the sun, lest they should become dark. Hey, advertisers, wake up to the fact that beauty is not skin deep.

Power of images

Advertisers today don’t sell products. They sell a life style, an image. The images of women being portrayed in advertisements is scary. It’s sending all the wrong signals – especially to teenagers and young girls, who try to copy the images doled out in generous quantities by advertisers. But the ridicule doesn’t stop ‘fairly’. On another front, all ads showing women put a premium on ‘slimness’. As early as the 1920s, some ads for a cigarette brand ‘Lucky Strike’ ran a punch line, which read – “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” It tried to associate ‘smoking’ with ‘slim’. That was the start!

Even today, advertisers obsession with slim women has not changed. Unnaturally and unhealthily thin models are fast becoming the role models of young girls. No wonder, most of them suffer from eating disorders. Of all the people suffering from eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, 90% are girls. The ultra-thin, airbrushed images of women with flawless skins and perfect figures have resulted in almost 66% of women having a low self-esteem about themselves. The ads have changed the way society views beauty. Women, today, are being objectified and almost victimized by having to live up to ideal (and impossible) standards.

Today, ads sell more than products – they sell dreams. However, some of those dreams are turning into nightmares for many girls trying desperately to ape the women shown in ads. All successful females are shown as slim – and fair – and hence happy. How many real women look like that. Isn’t it time someone wakes up to this fact? Dove was one of the few gutsy beauty products to come out with ads which harped on the “real” beauty of women. It showed “real women” in its ads, and proclaimed to the world that they should be proud of themselves. Beauty was all about being positive, being confident and not about having to fit into a particular mould. It helped a lot of young girls feel good about themselves.

Twenty years ago, models weighed around 8% less than the average woman. Today, they weigh a whopping 23% less! Did someone talk about women’s liberation? She was better off yesterday than she is today. Isn’t it time we redefined beauty? Images are powerful & it’s time we showed women as images of power.

Home, garden, housekeeping

Yes, that’s what women were confined to years ago, and nothing much has changed since then. Even though today, more women work outside home, earn and control significant amounts of money, and make large important purchases (like automobiles, computers), they are still always shown in advertisements of household products. The woman’s opinion is important only as far as washing machines and microwave ovens are concerned. So the “Whirlpool mom” is a superhit because she stays in the house and the biggest kick she gets in her life is when she can remove the stains from the children’s clothes in a jiffy. And when it comes to cars, the woman is shown scantily clad, lying idly on the roof top, doing nothing much(!), while it’s the man who is the decision maker as car is his symbol of success! And for woman, the symbol is the bunch of spotless white clothes of her family.

Yes, women are shown in power settings, where they are dressed as commandos wearing thick protective attire. They land from a plane and search the entire locality, till they reach their destination – a germ infected toilet. Then comes the punch line – “Here comes the expert in cleaning toilets,” (Harpic!). Is this all she is capable of? With an increase in the number of father-headed single parent homes, men too are actively involved in the purchase of home products. However, even today the so called “liberated” women is expected to be the perfect home maker. So Videocon says, “You and Videocon, the perfect homemakers.” It’s time we moved on.

Women are from Venus

Yes women are different from men, and need to be portrayed differently. However, somewhere down the line, some aspects got overlooked, and some overemphasized. Fair or dark, a woman is beautiful. You don’t expect her to look up to Michael Jackson (who changed his skin from black to white) as a role model when it comes to skin colour. Today, women entrepreneurs abound and we need to recognize that. Women have moved ahead and some advertisers like LIC are showing the way. Their radio ads show how everyone insures the life of the male – the head – but forget to insure the life of the woman who is a life-giver herself! Yes, there is a ray of hope. Let it grow stronger.

This time round, while keeping our navratra fasts, let’s just pause for a second to ponder. These nine days we would be thanking the female forces of nature. We would be praying to the three main goddesses of Hinduism – Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati – all of them epitomes of Shakti. All of them revered and respected by men and women alike. We spend nine nights acknowledging the presence of these goddesses that live within us, imbibing us with their spiritual energy and power. Could we take nine minutes to ponder over the merciless slaughter of women in our advertisements?

Today, women have achieved great heights. They have come a long way. However, our advertisements depict a different picture. It’s time to rework their images, for the woman portrayed in most ads today makes one feel not that she’s come a long way – but that she’s going the “wrong” way.