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Tough moms and loving moms, feisty daughters and daughters-in-law, caring wives and confident bread-earners—surf through the plethora of ads, contests and hashtags around March 8, the day designated as Women’s Day and it is nearly impossible to find a brand that has not pitched in with an ad in its honour or, a stereotype that has been left alone. Be it FMCG, home care, jewellery, automobiles, financial services or e-commerce, there is scarcely a category that is not celebrating the day. Naturally so; women are a big target consumer group and brands are keen to serve their cause. But the question really is: Are ads sensitive to the occasion and do they help brands? Not really, say brand experts and advertising veterans across the spectrum. While some believe that brands are devaluing themselves and the bigger cause by turning everything into a marketing pitch, others say there is nothing wrong with that as long as the issues are tackled sensitively and storylines eschew banality. Ambi Parameswaran, CEO of Brand-Building.com says that while advertisements during Women's Day are all tactical moves, we should pardon them if they look to be opportunistic. “For any actual results, brands should be careful not to dilute their messaging. One needs to pick up a particular issue, highlight it with a long-term campaign and support the campaign for a longer time,” he adds. Radharani Mitra, global creative advisor, BBC Media Action is clear that such advertising is necessary because we live in a gender unequal world. “But more often than not, it remains at the level of tokenism, without the brand seeking to build any sustained commitment towards society and gender equality,” she adds. Subhash Kamath, CEO and managing partner at BBH India says that most of the advertising seems very basic and tactical. “If a brand wants to truly demonstrate its commitment to women and equality, it needs to do much more than merely advertise on that day,” he adds. Kamath believes that in this rush to align with women’s causes, brands (and consumers) have lost sight of the original intent of the day. “It was originally a symbol of protest for voting rights for women, etc. However, over the years, it has only remained a symbol.” Prabhakar Mundkur, senior advertising professional says what is worrying is that often we are just paying lip service to women. He points to the latest commercial for All Out that was ostensibly in support of mothers with the hashtag #Stand by Tough Moms. Instead of standing up for women, it ended up treating them like doormats. “Another cameo from the India of the past,” he points out. Such advertisements end up damaging the image of women and that of the brand. Brands could pick up cues from the conversations on social media for more sensitive advertising perhaps.
According to data collected by Kantar IMRB Social, there wereover 1, 20,000 mentions around topics around women over the past week and over 5,000 of this was in India and most of it was around sexual harassment at the workplace, empowerment and such issues. “Conversations around the #MeToo and #TimesUP campaigns have evolved into global movements. While US and Canadian audiences ranked highest in terms of participation, Indian audiences ranked fifth overall (and first within the Asian region),” says Akhil Almeida, head- Digital, Kantar IMRB Sandeep Goyal says that advertisements showcasing the day are only taken out by ad managers to sound intelligent and win awards. “Such promotions are not going to fundamentally change how society functions or views the genders. It’s only done so that the brand managers feel good about it,” he adds. Ramesh Thomas, president Equitor says, “If at all there is anything meaningful to be done, first talk about the community, do some actual ground work instead of spending lakhs on ads and use digital media to rope in support for the cause.” Another ad that has raised the hackles of many and led to an outpouring of outrage on social media is that by PC Chandra Jewellers called #Uncelebrate. The ad has young women questioning the status quo: Why does a woman have to be ‘given away’ in marriage? Why is she always asked to ‘sit properly’? And so on. Finally the ad goes on to conclude that it is time to not celebrate the day as it does nothing to change the discourse. Several women’s groups and activists have slammed the ad for being ignorant about what the day truly stands for. Mundkur however believes it is a brave ad for bringing up issues that are relevant. Besides advertising is just one aspect of a brand. Mitra says, “Comm-itment means investment. So how is Brand X investing in gender? There are soap brands that have to primarily sell soap but they have invested heavily in changing behaviour and in linking with the cause of child mortality.” But she says that this level of social responsibility is missing across product categories. The big drawback according to most is that advertising slips too easily into boilerplate portrayals. Kamath says, “Sadly, most advertising still falls prey to stereotyping.” He believes that the world around us is changing and brands must too, communication is only one part of that.