Women, advertising and societal stereotypes

Stereotypes are societal shorthand. Stereotypes are simple ways of communicating complex ideas in a simplistic ways. Stereotypes are manifested through many forms in media and are used to represent both men and women. What defines stereotypes is the amazing consistency they display. They may reflect changing societal norms, sometimes they do, yet they don’t move away from hard codes of imagery that exists in society.

The fact is that advertising industry has not created any of the stereotypes, but they certainly have strengthened and propagated many of these stereotypes in order to sell many brands and categories. Advertising does not necessarily depict how women actually behave but how we think women behave.

Today despite changing gender roles, increase in literacy levels, greater number of women joining work force, increased financial independence, greater ownership of cars and bikes certain gender stereotypes have not changed.

These are four stereotypes that the advertising industry refuses to let go off.

1.Curse of dark skin: This is one stereotype the world of advertising has just refused to give up on. Possibly the origination of this stereotype could be the rule of English in India where the fair skinned women were thought to be the epitome of beauty. The entire fairness category is stuck in this time wrap. The women protagonists can be good singers, working women, Cricket commentators, budding entrepreneurs but they cannot succeed in life if they are not fair. Wish the advertising and research industry stepped out to see how dark skin need not be a curse.

2.The ultimate smell test: As a housewife earlier she lived by the kitchen test, today she lives by the smell test. She wasn’t a good wife or daughter-in-law if her kitchen wasn’t sparkling clean; today she is a failure if her toilet is not smell free. Bad odor has become the final frontier of womanhood, mom hood and everything else. Seriously!

3.The melt by diamond wife: As clueless husband you are allowed to make as many mistakes as you can make, only until you can break the bank to buy a 3 carat princess cut sparkling rock for your wife. If only this mistake and make up situation was as simple world will be free of domestic strife and divorces. A sparking rock does not lead to domestic bliss; this is one stereotype that is not going away soon.

4.The fairy Godmother: she knows it all has all the answers. She knows where the missing socks are, she knows which cooking oil will produce tastiest food, what exercise regime you need to follow, how using a home made medicine will make acnes vanish! Yet the fairy godmother knows nothing about finances, insurance, holidays, credit cards, driving, computers and mobiles. So either she knows it all or she knows nothing! It’s time the industry made up its mind

The reality is that women have changed. Working women don’t always wear pants to work. Their husbands don’t sleep hungry in the night.  Their kids do very well in school. If such concepts are ever tested in focus group, women will react with disdain. Some of these portrayals have started to diminish, but most are going strong.

Stereotypes are shorthand, they simplify complex ideas, it’s time the advertising and marketing industry become change makers and sow seeds of new stereotypes. Its time the advertising professionals themselves changed


Original Article was published in Marketing Booster Magazine of March 2013

1 thought on “Women, advertising and societal stereotypes

  1. The question here is whether it’s the advertising agencies or the advertisers themselves who don’t want to let go of these stereotypes. Maybe they’re both in this together. Yes, I do agree that we could do with a bit more truth in advertising (to begin with). And I don’t think people are going to be put off by that, and go for some other brand. Actually, they might love the brand for the honesty.


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