A few days ago, social media was up in arms over two ads of a deodorant brand that managed to press all the wrong buttons, all at once. One of the adverts, involves a group of men staring at what appears to be a woman, and setting up a sexist premise for a punchline that is more offensive than tongue in cheek. The second iteration of the ad goes one step further and blatantly alludes to the possibility of sexual assault by employing the same crass euphemism, which unfortunately happens to be the brand name of the deo as well.
The ads triggered backlash on Twitter, as many complained about how the creatives normalised, or rather legitimised the culture of rape, and more shamefully, the sense of fear it invokes in women. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry almost immediately instructed YouTube and Twitter to pull the plug on the broadcast of these advertisements, which had a dream run during the recent IPL.
The I&B Ministry declared that the videos were “detrimental to the portrayal of women in the interest of decency and morality”. The ads had also violated the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) apart from running afoul of the guidelines of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). The Delhi Commission for Women had reached out to the Delhi Police and I&B Ministry to initiate legal action against the company. In the aftermath of these developments, it’s worth examining what led to the genesis of such creatives that seem divorced from the ground realities of modern India.
It might be unfair to place the onus of undermining women’s safety on this one ad alone, as there have been many precedents in the advertising space, where women have been portrayed in insensitive narratives. These adverts, typically directed at the male demographic, follow a template that seems to have been inspired by the mating rituals of animals and birds in the wild. A man, seemingly a simpleton transforms himself into Adonis, with just a dab of deo.
Ironically, advertising and marketing executives who might have spent millions in pursuit of MBAs and certifications, having hobnobbed with like-minded youngsters, are so blinded to a social evil that is an everyday occurrence in India. It begs the question, was there even a single woman on the panel that gave the final go-ahead for such creatives before they landed on social media?
But here’s some thought for the creative community to chew on. Sexual assault is the fourth most common crime perpetrated against women in India. As per the National Crime Records Bureau’s annual report from 2019, over 32,000 cases of rape were reported across India during that year. That’s 88 cases a day, or one incident of assault every 16 minutes in India. The victims comprise infants, toddlers, school children, office goers and senior citizens. Something to think about before scripting those 15-second airbrushed treatises on assaults.
Of course, it might seem like overkill to reprimand creative agencies for indulging in their share of sexism, for we haven’t even scratched the surface of inherent misogyny prevalent in mass media and public discourse. A BJP leader from Maharashtra courted controversy last week when he admonished the NCP lawmaker Supriya Sule with a ‘go home and cook’ remark, while expressing his agitation on reservations. By that logic, when those at the helm of leading the nation themselves harbour such regressive perspectives on women’s role in society, what chance do ordinary citizens, and least of all executives on a budget, and a deadline stand?