Have things improved for women in India's ads? A bit.

The World
A woman laborer watches television inside her house at the compound of a brick factory at Libbar Hari in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.

A woman laborer watches television inside her house at the compound of a brick factory at Libbar Hari in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Growing up in India in the '80s, we had only one television channel. News was state sponsored and everything in the programming, including commercials, was meant to promote good values. Women took care of the family and men took care of everything else — including taking the wife shopping to buy her a pressure cooker.

I look at these “classic” ads now and cringe. Then again, I cringe at TV commercials today, too. They almost never reflect my reality.

I live on my own, I work, and I most certainly do my own shopping.

A few years ago, I did a story on what’s now being called “shadeism” exploring why our crazy brown society is so besotted with white skin. The best selling "fast-moving consumer goods" item in India is skin bleaching cream that causes all sorts of damage to skin, not to mention self esteem and self worth.

While researching, I met the women of the All India Democratic Women’s Association who successfully sued Unilever, the makers of Fair & Lovely, to take their ads off the air. Until then, I’d never thought about how advertising can be a vehicle to create a demand for something no one should ever need. That there are people who promote a product that tells a subtropical country of dark skinned people that to be worthy of anything — a proposal, a job, a husband, a promotion, even a good tennis game — you need to look like someone else.

It was a relief that these women were watching out for us. Instead of making me more vigilant, however, it made me avoid TV completely. I’d just switch the channel when the adverts came on because they insulted my intelligence. Like this ad, about how smartly men can provide life insurance for their helpless families if something happens to them (because women play no role, of course).

The only ads I can’t avoid are the ones I see in the movie theaters. Along with previews, they are part of the experience. Almost all films screened in India have a forced intermission halfway through so you can load up on snacks — during which ads play nonstop.

Once in a while there will be something that’s not hideously insulting. Like this Google ad in which a girl helps her grandfather reunite with his best friend from before India’s partition. Or the Ariel #sharetheload ad in which the women pause to ask if laundry is only a woman’s job.

I went to meet Josy Paul, the chairman and chief creative officer at the advertising agency that conceptualized and created the Ariel ad, and he told me it was a reflection of the changing times. Compared to when he’d started out in the field, his office now has more women — a lot of them single and living alone – and all of them young. The average age of his office is 25.

He told me that the Ariel ad was actually a reaction to other ads out there. Including this one for a network carrier that stirred up quite a storm. I heard about that one on Twitter — and had to go see for myself what the OOTD (that’s “outrage of the day” in case you didn’t know) was about. In it, this boss woman is gently on an employee’s case about not meeting his deadline. Fast forward to the end of the work day, she’s leaving, but he’s still at this desk, slaving away, poor chap. Flash forward some more and boss lady gets home in a chauffeur-driven car, changes her clothes, cooks dinner and then makes a phone call to ask someone (presumably her husband) when he’ll be home. Surprise, surprise! The person on the other end of the line is the employee working late.

She then says, "tell the boss your wife has told you to come home," and that she’ll wait on him for dinner. Were the twitterati celebrating that a woman was the boss? Indeed, no! They were aghast that she went home and cooked up dinner and then waited to eat it.

Which, when you think about it, in India, seems a bit of a stretch. In our country, the cheapest thing to get is labor and we all have cooks and maids. With the exception of one single friend — and I have many, check my Facebook ;) — even my friends who live at home, friends in bed sits, friends who live with flatmates or a partner — everyone has help in the kitchen. So … outrage. Flaming outrage online. What was this throwback to the '80s? Isn’t a woman who’s successful at work liberated from having to play the good housewife as soon as she takes off her heels?

Josy was amused at all this. The women in his office had also spoken up and together they’d created the Ariel ad to speak for women.

***

A few nights later, I had coffee and dessert with school friends at a swank restaurant in midtown. I brought up the story I was working on and we spent a good part of the evening groaning about the most outrageous ads from our childhood days and singing jingles.

I said that ads still have to catch up with the fact that all of us don’t live in large multi-generational families any more. A lot more women work and have a say in decision making. For every sexist ad I came up with, my friend Samrat came up with some examples of change — and he would know, he works in advertising.

So, he pointed out, two decades ago, they were pretty patronizing to women. Then, an ad showed a father scanning matrimonial ads for his daughter, now he’s shown doing it online with his daughter. Samrat tried to convince me that advertisers now realize that at least the urban woman is an individual with spending power and in turn don’t hawk only baby and health products at them.

We drank our wine, picked up our own checks. We agreed on this though we haven’t “come a long way, baby,” we’re getting there. Probably. Maybe.