People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 46

November 14, 2010

The Images of Women in Advertisements


 Manjeet Rathee


THE growth and influence of media during the last two decades in the era of globalisation has led to tremendous changes in how people view themselves and the society at large, particularly in terms of their role, image and identity. Television is a form of visual media that has now reached almost every nook and corner of the country and for, want of alternative forms of entertainment and culture, a majority of people are so constantly exposed to it that it has almost become “synonymous with life.”




With an overwhelming domination of advertising in the era of globalisation, real human needs and values are now being reduced to a point where they are interchangeable with consumer goods. Artificial wants are being created in the name of new looks, beauty, glamour and power where “anyone can become fair and handsome just in seven rupees” (Fair and Handsome Imami Cream for Men), where “blots are good” (Surf Excel), where all the pains of life can be relieved in an instant (Himani Navratna oil), and where one’s world can change for the better or worse with the use or abuse of various products.


Television and advertising have thus come to intrude into real lives as “cultivated addictions” that are designed to capture and dictate the minds of people in a particular way suited to certain defined life styles and value systems. In the process, it is the real needs and images which are constantly getting relegated to the background or completely obliterated.


Advertisement is one of the most powerful influences and works like “the magic system” in shaping public consciousness, particularly of the young developing minds, on gender, caste and class issues. The images of the various sections of society, which are constantly beamed on television through advertisements, tend to have a deep influence upon the perception of society towards the role and identity of these sections --- be it women, dalits, tribals or other marginalised groups. As a matter of fact, the way the images of these sections are subtly constructed and propagated makes it extremely difficult for the ordinary people to make a distinction between the imaginary and the real life.


This implies that large sections of people, mesmerised by the constant rush of images propagated through the content of advertisements, tend to miss the subtle and “unanticipated” consequences which silently go on influencing the manner in which we think and form opinions about our own selves and about various segments of society. The larger design behind the “construction” of these false images and hyper reality is to manipulate us as “individuals” in accepting and perpetrating the power of the rich and wealthy and to thus reinforce their dominant ideologies. The primary function of advertising today is no longer limited to selling products to “unsuspecting customers.” It has been dangerously expanded to “selling audiences to advertisers.”




In this age of opening up of our economy to global market forces which thrives on the logic of what sells best and what sells quickest, it is no wonder that women and young girls have become the most important target for media and for the advertisement industry in particular. Two broad trends can easily be discerned in this direction. Either women are commodified for the sale of various products or they are depicted in typical stereotyped roles, be it the proud display of their domestic subjugation or the different categories of working women trying to entice their bosses in different ways for promotion, marriage or other prospects which rest solely on the exploitation of their body.


In the process, thus, the entire worth and identity of women is reduced to graphic and titillating representation of their body which works as a saleable sex commodity parading under the label of the so called modernity.


This kind of objectionable portrayal not only desensitises the public about women’s multiple roles and achievements but also intends to demean their status and work contribution apart from helping to build up a particular mindset which provides legitimacy to such social and economic devaluation of women. This is particularly true of advertisements where images of women are carefully constructed by big advertising companies to reinforce and obtain public sanction for certain value codes which will serve their interests and create more profit. When women are portrayed in only such limiting and negative manner, it tends to affect particularly the young and developing minds and tends to make it more difficult for the grown-up men and women to accept and appreciate them as diverse, multifaceted, compassionate and socially responsible human beings.




Globalisation in media is generally understood as a substitute for the modern value system and freedom of choices. But in a world “increasingly dominated by things and by consumption,” the sole drive to sell and earn profit has only led to reinforcement and glorification of the exiting traditional and modern stereotypes, to proliferation of images of elimination and discrimination in the name of empowerment. A careful look at the various advertisements and serials would reveal that a woman with a modern outlook and consciousness is almost invariably either caricaturised and derided. She is presented as arrogant and conceited, with little or no respect for family, human values and human relationships.


However, the truth of the matter is that in their desperation to promote a consumerist culture, corporate media go all out to encourage and propagate crass commercialisation of human relationships through their products. In advertisement after advertisement, it’s not love, compassion and other human values that are shown to mediate in the family and social relationships. Rather it is pure commerce that becomes the deciding factor in the development or continuation of human relationships --- be it husband-wife, parent-child or any other relationship. A particular brand of car or television, a particular cream, lotion or deodrant or even a brand of paan masala is all that is needed in forging a bond between the two families or in choosing a husband or a wife. A father chooses or rejects a youth as the future husband for his daughter solely on the basis of whether he is the proud possessor of a particular model of car or bike or whether he uses a particular brand of wall paint.


These post-modernist images with new notions of wealth display, looks, power and success dominated by self-centred, glamorous and expensive lifestyles have almost, unhesitatingly come to be viewed as part of a normal life. In the process, the dignity and freedom of the ordinary lower class poor and rural woman, as also that of tribal and minority sections, is at stake.


Further, many of these advertisements perpetuate, glamorise and glorify violence as the only acceptable solution of complex problems. The way they present domestic violence within the family and sexual harassment at workplaces, often has a direct bearing on the increase in violence in real life. Justification of eve teasing in an increasing number of advertisements and serials, all in the name of fun and entertainment, is an area that requires serious thought and probing. This particular kind of portrayal, as revealed by various statistics, has been a cause of increasing cases of harassment and violence against young girls, especially in educational institutions. Many a time even a classroom is shown as a place for trivial fun-making with everyone, including the teachers, enjoying the “treat.”




The advertising agencies and serials externally impose homogenous standards of female beauty and worth, in order to sell their products and propagate stereotyping. These are seen to have far reaching impacts on the mindset of young girls, especially of those who intentionally or unintentionally land themselves up in this mad race for achieving almost impossible standards of beauty. Since advertising agencies believe that thin and white coloured models sell products as well as set standards of modern looks and glamour, all the advertisements and serials on television reinforce the importance and necessity of a thin body and white skin as a measure of a woman's innate worth and substance.


In countless advertisements, we find that black colour of the skin becomes a continuous source of anxiety and inferiority complex not only for the “poor” girl but for her parents and everyone around as well. The use of a particular cream or whitening agent suddenly transforms her into a “fair magical girl” and all her problems are instantly solved --- be it marriage or a promotion or getting a good job in a multinational company. This unnecessary glorification of fair skin is against the scientific principles concerning health care and not only promotes false notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘superiority’ based on skin tones and external appearance. It is at the same time highly insulting to the innate human values of love, truth and wisdom, and makes a mockery of the worldwide struggle against colour discrimination. At the same time, this constant reinforcement of the culture of thinness and standardised ‘plastic’ beauty intends to send a message for ordinary girls and women that in order to look beautiful and ‘presentable,’ they will have to constantly work on their external looks and appearances, whatever be the cost.


This kind of limiting, superficial and rather derogatory portrayal is in stark contrast to the real-life day-to-day experiences of the vast majority of ordinary women and poor, rural women whose struggle for survival and dignity of the self is far too difficult and full of heterogeneous complexities and conflicts than is reflected on the television. Further, this kind of lopsided depiction totally tends to ignore the struggles and protests of various sections of women against the dehumanising forces of modernisation and globalisation whose subtle motive is to keep them rooted to the exploitative character of modern society. Hence it is imperative that the whole issue of modernity and empowerment is understood and represented in the right perspective in the media and communication technology.




Generally, it is argued that media is “giving the people what they want.” This is far from truth. The fact of the matter is that media --- owned as it is by the rich and influential people and guided by market and consumerist values --- has very entrenched vested interests in perpetuating the conservative and pseudo-modernistic depictions of women. Consequently, the market demand is falsely projected as public demand in order to keep the discriminatory and prejudiced mindsets and myths intact and alive.


This stereotyped and sexually aggressive portrayal of women is a profitable trend in the new market economy. It also serves a dual purpose --- of subjugating and confining women to the forces of patriarchy on the one hand and making them easy prey as saleable commodities to the ever consuming and ever exploitative forces of global market on the other. Woman at the grassroots levels are constantly breaking these stereotypes through their daily struggles and immense contributions to the economy and society, and all attempts to “essentialise” and “homogenise” their existence and identity is a part of a larger design to make their real issues insignificant. Various advertising agencies are yet to wake up to the growing needs and struggles of ordinary women for realising the long cherished values of equality, peace and justice. As women and other marginalised groups are the backbone of any society, their fair and pluralistic representation would no doubt create space for development of more human values in the minds of the people and would go on to make at least young people more sensitive to their real needs and problems.


At the same time, a viewer's ability to just say “no” to this kind of derogatory and prejudiced portrayal and the pressure from intellectuals and groups committed to social change --- combined with the political will to strictly enforce the laws and regulations related to the content of advertising codes --- can also go a long way in making the advertising companies socially more accountable and responsible.