“Definitely Male [-centric]”: The Shifting Images of Women in Indian Advertisements

Advertising has seen tremendous changes even over the last decade. Advertisements tend to co-opt whatever is the new cool trend to market their products. For instance ads like the My Choice campaign, #ShareTheLoad, beauty products for dark-skinned women, and so on (discussed later) talk about women’s agency, sharing domestic responsibilities and taking pride in being dark-skinned. But do these symbolise a move away from the binary that either objectifies women or valorises them in familial roles of mother/ wife?

This essay will analyse the portrayal of women’s identity in Indian advertisements, be it product advertisements or social ad-campaigns, without necessarily considering women as a homogenous social group united by its gender identity. There are significant differences and stratification in women and their circumstances and preferences, and in a sense ads must also be seen targeting select groups of women and men.

One can question whether it is advertisements that should even be called out for regressive ideas or be seen as a neutral reflection of existing social prejudices. One can also question whether there can actually be a metric for assessing and labelling an ad as regressive or progressive given the complex messages that every advertisement seems to be sending out and the mixed responses it seems to evoke. For example, beauty creams might have regressive campaigns in valorising white/clear skin, but they also appear paradoxically progressive when they show women working on themselves, taking control of their appearance and advancing their careers, going out there and experiencing adventures, and so on.

Advertisements that objectify women as sex-objects might be clearly objectionable, but others that glorify women as mothers and wives who are central to the maintenance and happiness of the family be it through their careers, their efficiency in domestic work, in taking care of the nutritional needs of family members and the like, might not be dismissed so easily.

Nancy Pilar Perez in her book Roles of Women in Advertising: The Objectification of Women and the Shift to an Empowering Ad Frame (2013) discusses how most advertisements have a tendency to employ means that they believe will help sell their product better, even if that requires them to reinforce certain stereotypes about women. Such advertisements bring into existence the image of an “idealised woman” which is so distant from that of an ordinary woman that they put unfair expectations on women around the world. This idealised woman is tall, thin and has the most perfect features and skin. Her appearance is highly sexualised and eroticised while she continually floods consumers’ minds leaving them feeling inadequate about themselves. Despite this superficial and artificial portrayal of women’s bodies that damages the female psyche, the “sex sells” mentality remains pervasive, and appeals to both men and women steeped in patriarchal ideology.

Perez states three elemental aspects of any sexist advertisement— The Artificial Look, as explained above; Dismemberment wherein the body of a woman is literally separated into pieces that can be ogled at, and Commodification wherein their bodies are objectified to the extent that they become property that can be evaluated.

These issues have led to a number debates where people have argued that irrespective of whether or not the content of these advertisements is unethical, one cannot deny that it has created a more open society which is more comfortable with its sexuality. However, one also cannot deny that there is added pressure arising from the same issues. Sociologists too have taken a stand and criticised the subordinate and subservient depiction of women. Sociologist and writer John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing (1972) says, “…men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

The advertisements that came out in the early 2000s were shamelessly misogynistic and remarkably sexist in their content. Some well-known examples of these would be the evergreen Fair and Lovely advertisements where the woman in focus suddenly starts to do well and provide for her family because people are willing to pay more now that she is fair- skinned. Subsequently, the industry started producing ads that not only objectified women to great lengths, but also portrayed them as pushovers and as people who can’t think for themselves. For instance, most deodorant ads would suggest that if you wear this cologne, women around you will fantasise about engaging in an intercourse with you, as seen in ads by Wild Stone and Zatak where Zatak’s tagline was “Zatak her.”

Michele Barrett in her essay Ideology and Cultural Production of Gender (from her book: Women’s Oppression Today, 1980) discusses how severely limited images of women are presented in a sample of advertisements. Women are projected to be these self-sacrificing, chaste individuals always categorised either in the role of a housewife or a decorative element, “oscillating between the glamorous and efficient hostess and the dutiful, caring mother.” For instance, MTR and Dalda’s ads had housewives and mothers as their target audience. Their marketing strategy was to persuade women into buying their products by assuring their family’s satisfaction if they do so. So much so that Dalda sold their oil with the name “Dalda Husband’s Choice.” Thus what the target audience is comprised of also becomes an important matter of discussion. A kitchen utensil would be sold with the underlying idea of keeping the husband happy while a baby product will be sold to award women with the title of a “good mother.”

Then there were others, fairly recent adverts where the woman in focus was a successful working one refusing her pestering parents to get married, thereby breaking some established patriarchal notions that place high value to marriage and its components. However, the ad takes an opposing stand when it ends on a scenario where she’s suddenly interested in the man suggested by her parents solely because it allows us to guilt-freely purchase the jewellery she is fond of. Barrett talks about how such adverts “that play with the notion of an independent woman are aimed at a market of female purchasers” (Newton,1985).

Other examples reinforcing these notions would be Bajaj Pulsar “definitely male” motorcycles, Micromax Aisha application that is considered to be the ideal woman, Clean and Dry vagina whitening cream and Airtel’s advertisement where the woman who is in a position of power is still the quintessential wife who cooks dinner for her husband after his day at the office.

Certain brands have taken deliberate steps in the recent past to overturn these offensive messages by coming up with ads which have a sarcastic undertone. Examples of these would be the new Havells ads wherein a woman refuses to be tied to her domestic duties, and a man decides to take on his wife’s name in the other. Similarly Vir Das endorsed a new brand of deodorant called “HE” which could have been problematic except that he used an approach that was intertextual — making direct references to other ads which are known to have undermined women’s worth.

Washing powder Ariel came up with an ad called “#ShareTheLoad” which emphasised on sharing household duties with male members of the family. Other examples that can be contrasted with sexist ads are Forest Essentials’ Warrior Princess featuring a powerful woman and Titan Raga watch ad where the woman turns down a proposal to focus on her career.

As opposed to products advertisements like the ones mentioned above, a number of ad campaigns endorsed by popular Bollywood actresses rolled out of the Indian advertising industry, where they believe they created ground-breaking, radical and empowering ads. While these ads upheld what they had set out to achieve, they either represented a very small minority of advantaged section of the society or were straight-up unclear in their message.

For instance, the “My Choice” campaign led by Deepika Padukone in 2015, produced by Vogue focussed on bridging the gender gap by valorising women’s choice. While the campaign managed to empower women to a certain extent, the ambivalent reaction of the audience showed that it was not an unproblematic ad. The ad features some of them most elite and highly privileged women even though it directed at tackling issues about “people like us,” who are not urban upper class professional women. The “My Choice” campaign appeals to groups of women who have very specific liberal values and backfires for women don’t stand for those values.

Overlooking issues like female foeticide, rape, harassment at workplace, domestic violence, intrusive male gaze and the like, the video only seems to talk about bodily images and characteristics exhibited by women. At some point she says “To be a size zero or a size 6, they don’t have a size of my spirit and never will…” This statement is ironic since the “attractive” female body type features in glossy magazines like Vogue itself. Moreover, the many women appearing in the video are models who do in fact adhere to size zero.

Again when she says, “To marry or not to marry, to have sex before marriage, to have sex outside of marriage, to not have sex, my choice…,” women committing adultery just as some men do might not actually be on the feminist agenda, and hence this part of the ad invited criticism. It is possible that men espousing adultery may have invited none or perhaps even more criticism depending on the way one looks at it. And thus, the idea of adultery in the ad complicates what is valued as gender equality.

Then again, one can’t completely disregard their effort since any choice can be empowering because it is an act of agency. Although making choices can lead to making regressive choices, like a lot of women justify wearing heels by stating that it makes them feel powerful. Practices such as getting breast implants and waxing bodily hair are gendered and unequal. Whether this ideal of beauty is embraced as empowering, or denounced as objectifying is a difficult question to answer.

A very similar ad-campaign featuring Madhuri Dixit rolled out recently with the name “Boys Don’t Cry.” The central point of video is that instead of teaching men to bottle up their feelings, we should teach them to be sensitive to women. What the video portrays accurately is that men too are expected to live up to this bizarre notion of masculinity where crying necessarily compromises their identity as men. However instead of furthering this point by discussing how that affects the male psyche, it takes a different turn to another issue altogether, that is, of men generally hurting women and domestic violence. The video seems to suggest that men who are forced to curb their emotions like to hurt women instead. It suggests that repressing their emotions makes men violent towards women.

Although it acknowledges that even well-to-do individuals face domestic violence and not just the lower classes of society, it implies the idea that crying is the exclusive behaviour shown by women. It reinforces the idea that women are the weaker sex by placing the power back in the hands of men, asking them to take this responsibility of not making women cry.

To conclude, one can question the role of men and women in society and how exactly advertisements envision these roles. Regressive ads appeal to male consumers by feeding into their patriarchal beliefs, and to female consumers with the idea that they want to appease men. While conventional ads target male consumers by objectifying women as well as female consumers by objectifying women themselves and upholding their own patriarchal beliefs, new ads are simultaneously invoking “real men” and “rebellious women” in response to conventional ads.

This essay noted the ambivalences in assessing and labelling ads as regressive or progressive and the complex messages that every advertisement seems to be sending out, and the mixed responses it evokes. It observed how even ads such as the “My Choice” campaign and “Boys Don’t Cry” that focussed on empowering women and being sensitive to women respectively, have remained problematic about their idea of equality.



Barrett, Michele. 1980. “Ideology and Cultural Production of Gender.” Women’s Oppression Today. Verso Press.

Berger, John.1972. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Press.
“Deepika Padukone – “My Choice” Directed By Homi Adajania – VOGUE Empower,” YouTube video, 2:34, posted by “VOGUE India,” March 28, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtPv7IEhWRA&t=60s

Newton, Judith, and Deborah Rosenfelt. 1985. Feminist Criticism and Social Change (RLE Feminist Theory): Sex, class and race in literature and culture. Routledge.
Perez, Nancy Pilar. 2013. Roles of Women in Advertising: The Objectification of Women and the Shift to an Empowering Ad Frame. Report, University of Texas.

Further Reading

Dhapola, Shruti. “Viral video: Here’s why Madhuri Dixit’s ‘Boys don’t cry’ short film doesn’t work.” First Post, October 28, 2014. Accessed October 12, 2016. http:// http://www.firstpost.com/living/viral-video-heres-why-madhuri-dixits-boys-dont-cry-short-film- doesnt-work-1774513.html.

Jyoti Sharma Bawa Hindustan. “Sorry Deepika Padukone, these are not the choices women need.” https://www.hindustantimes.com/. March 31, 2015. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/sorry-deepika-padukone-these-are-not-the- choices-women-need/story-sjkcRzCx8j48InY9VcP28N.html.

Mambrol, Nasrullah. “Michele Barrett and Marxist Feminism.” Literary Theory and Criticism Notes, December 21, 2016. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://literariness.org/2016/12/21/michele-barrett-and-marxist-feminism/.

Women in Advertisements and Body Image – Overview. n.d. https://womeninads.weebly.com/ index.html.

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