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The shameful, politically incorrect side of the Indian ad industry

by Piyasree Dasgupta  Apr 2, 2013 12:06 IST

You know what gets us going? What is the world weary Indian woman's espresso, Deepak Chopra and pranayam rolled into one? It's a packet of detergent. The killer one with jasmine fragrance or the other one that leaves the hubby gawking at his underwear like he's spotted Lady Gaga in a tandoori chicken dress.

You can be in denial but you can't hide from the great Indian advertising business. They know all your deep dark secrets. How you fancy not a man, but any man who wears deodorant. How, deep inside your hearts, you're a Fair and Lovely ninja. How it's not sex, but the sight of a bowl of grapes, chocolates or whatever condom makers fancy, that's enough to make women sit alone at home and moan like its their favourite pastime. How the best thing that happened to you after Pink Floyd is a gaggle of girls cooing 'Hi handsome, hi handsome, hi handsome' (each with a baffling cadence resembling a shriek).

Strange, but true.

A screengrab from a Wheel detergent commercial starring Prachi Desai and Salman Khan.

A screengrab from a Wheel detergent commercial starring Prachi Desai and Salman Khan.

The world is up in arms against a JWT poster for Ford that went viral - one that shows  Silvio Berlusconi flashing a victory sign and a bunch of skimpily clad girls bound and gagged in the back of a car - and has accused the Indian advertising firms of being obnoxiously sexist.

The case, as an article on The New York Times points out, turns the spotlight on the conflicts that populate the Indian advertising industry today. It points a finger at enthusiastic young ad professionals going to great, shameful lengths to win awards. (The JWT ad was uploaded on a website and was an entry to some award). It explains how Indian ad professionals these days have little sense of political correctness.

The furor is not all misplaced maybe. NYT points out, how the ad, in the backdrop of the recent incidents of abuse against women in India, comes across as one that is of bad taste. It is sexist, it stereotypes the woman and is outright insulting.

What, however, is unfortunate is that it takes the image of a bunch of scantily clad women, bound and gagged, to wake up to the fact that Indian advertising's  gender view is more than just a little skewed.

We obviously don't froth at our mouths when in commercials after commercials, women (some of them, celebrities) are seen lighting up at the sight of XYZ washing powder the way Nigella does at the sight of a gorgeous piece of steak.

Now there is little that is wrong with washing clothes. However, to suggest that a woman would run to blow dry her hair and dance around lines of just-washed clothes, at the mere sight of a lemon perfumed washing powder and with no help from any narcotics, needs incredible amounts of imagination. Of a healthy kind I'm sure. Because look at how many people agree to it - first, all the bright minds in the agency who make the ad, then the visibly pleased manufacturers of the said powder, then the TV channel people who run the ads every 5 minutes and those thousands of women, and men, who sit through them patiently. Without complaints. Remember this gem of an advertisement that featured actors Salman Khan and Prachi Desai?

Just a month or so back, Indian women's activists wrote a strong letter protesting the Harvard College Women's Center's announcement that they'll suggest ways to tackle gender violence in India. No, they couldn't lie down and take the symbolic assault of the West on the Indian's woman's sense of self and independence. Obviously, ads like these, which suggest Indian women are a bunch of pretty nutcases who can be manipulated with a bar of soap, aren't that offensive. Or the world has stopped paying attention to TV.

According to NYT, the JWT case saw a big name in advertising step down, a team of ten people being shown the door. On the other hand, we all yawned and looked away when this enlightening ad of Merino Laminates surfaced on TV.

Angry young woman enters husband's house seeking a divorce. And since husband knows the loony he was married to pretty well, he has done up his house with Merino Laminates. Woman gawks, swoons, drools over the wardrobe, caresses the kitchen cabinet, blushes at the sight of newly laminated drawers and changes her mind about the divorce.

Now there isn't anything creepy about salivating over a kitchen table right? Obviously not. There isn't anything vaguely disturbing about suggesting that women would walk out of a marriage over bad looking kitchens? Obviously not. For, there wasn't as much as a 'yuck' over the said ad on even Twitter, forget firing people for making it.

Let's look at the target audience here. People to have access to TVs, people who will spend on deodorants, will buy two hundred rupees a kilo washing powders, laminates to do up their homes etc. People, we can expect, who don't struggle with money all that much, who have had decent access to education. Don't know about the men, but women who don't spend their evenings washing clothes of the joint family or sniffing out men wearing the right deo.

But who cares?

These are small casualties of watching the test match or the dance reality show. Not noxious enough to take up cudgels against. Only when, carried away by the tradition of vile stereotyping, someone does what the JWT guys did and the world takes notice, that we solemnly join the Indian-ads- suck chorus. Till the IPL match starts that is.