Advertisers and brands across India have run afoul of the moral police from time immemorial. Whether it’s owing to the portrayal of culturally-sensitive scenarios in advertisements that might be detrimental to the upkeep of peace and harmony in the nation, or even a cheeky hoarding that attempted to address the idea of safe sex in the backdrop of a religious holiday, Big Brother has always kept a watch and nipped such creative endeavours right in the bud.
Of course, every once in a while, someone raises an objection that leaves us stumped, and wondering, whether the outrage is truly justified. Two weeks ago, netizens and India Inc were in for a jolt, when a social activist from Mumbai trained her guns on an e-tailing major. She had accused the brand of insulting the modesty of women through its logo, whose typography, specifically, that of the letter M, contained an obscene depiction of women. The brand was quick to make amends and ensured that its logo was reworked.
While many questioned the logic of brands appeasing individuals or groups based on such ‘flimsy’ accusations, others lauded the brand for its sensitivity by obliging the complainant, and not letting their ego come in the way of doing the right thing. The recent example might not be the strongest contender in the canon of sexism as far as the branding of Indian products and services is concerned. But there have been times when the punishment did fit the crime.
Over the past few years, several labels in India were pulled up for inherently sexist narratives, built either into their branding or advertising. A case in point is the dishwashing sponge whose logo features a vector graphic of a woman’s face, with a bindi in place. An activist had called out the brand for reinforcing stereotypes of domestic duties attached to women, which in turn compelled the manufacturer to reconsider that bit of branding.
Similarly, in 2016, customers of a cab service took offence when one of its ad films called ‘Too expensive to take GF on a date’ was telecast, and quickly taken down. The punchline was seen as a dig at women’s penchant for shopping and ‘unloading’ the bills on the menfolk. Not that any lessons were learned in the process as a deodorant brand found itself in quicksand, thanks to a provocative ad campaign featuring a newly-wed woman drawn to her next-door neighbour who uses the aforementioned deodorant spray. The ad was pulled down shortly. While the brands themselves have been conscious about such transgressions, we must ask ourselves if society has made its shared spaces ‘safe’ for women - on the streets, at the workplace, and even in their own homes? Will making a brand reimagine its logo or compelling an ad film to be withdrawn contribute to ideas of gender parity, equal opportunity, and freedom from harassment and discrimination the way it’s been envisioned in the Constitution?
Tamil Nadu has recently taken a bold step as the state Assembly adopted a Bill that enhances punishment for offences against women and children. Crimes including causing deaths by demanding dowry, stalking, and selling of minors for flesh trade are now punishable by a minimum of ten and seven-year terms respectively. The government on its part has formed the laws. But it will take the collective will of individuals and societies to mend our ways and inculcate a sense of respect and fairness in the way we treat women. One doesn’t even have to look so high as the glass ceiling in corporate India, even little changes on the home front can be a stepping stone towards this. When it comes to questions of gender parity, it’s essential that we look beyond the white noise and the distraction mechanisms employed by a few to blind us from the real impetus to ask the hard questions and take to task those who deserve a real disciplining.