Do Sri Lankan ads portray women fairly?

By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya

Last year, there was outrage, particularly in urban Sri Lanka, over a hoarding advertising OSMO Fitness, which showed a barrel next to the words: “This is no shape for a woman”.

Just last week, dating app Bumble attracted criticism for its “#EqualNotLoose” campaign in India, which implied that female users of its competitor Tinder were promiscuous.

Advertisements have also often pigeonholed women into the role of a housewife, such as a recent radio spot of a washing powder brand which portrayed a wife who was terribly concerned, of what her husband’s colleagues would think, if they noticed a washing powder stain on the husband’s shirt, which she blames herself for failing to remove when washing his clothes.

Such campaigns remind us of advertising around the world in the so-called “Mad Men” era, when ads routinely portrayed women in subservient roles, or ones in decades past during which women were sexualised and objectified. While many of us are currently taken aback when looking back on the advertisements from that era, has the Sri Lankan ad industry truly moved on from these outdated concepts?

“Sadly, we see women stereotyped in a domesticated role,” said Dentsu Grant Group Chairperson Neela Marikkar, adding that: “It seems like we want to keep perpetuating that old world view of a woman as a perfect housewife who loves to do laundry, whose hair is perfectly in place even though she may have just woken up, which we all know is far from the truth.”

Marikkar with over 30 years of experience in the industry, spoke about the beauty standards promoted by advertisements, she explained that: “The pressure for young women to constantly pursue near-impossible beauty standards in order to be desirable, continues.”

This is despite the fact that enhanced employment opportunities have elevated the status of women and brought more women into the workforce.

Unrealistic potrayal

“A recent survey demonstrated that in advertising 40% of women are shown as housewives versus just 12% as working women. This is an unrealistic portrayal of women today.”

J. Walter Thompson (JWT) Sri Lanka CEO Alyna Haji Omar, with 20 years of experience in the industry, also lamented over the prevailing state of affairs.

“For me, the most lethal form of advertising is the one that reinforces the patriarchy in this country. For over a century, our women were groomed to conform to insidious and debilitating gender norms; a culture of shame, guilt, and obedience were weaponised in schools, places of worship, by parents, in marriages, among ‘friends’ and communities at large to ensure that the Sri Lankan woman knows her place.”

However, she added that the ad industry was working with clients to bring about progress.

“Many of us are working with our clients to evolve the conversation; recognising the value of female capital and understanding that defining women according to their responsibilities is limiting while celebrating their achievements and aspirations is inspiring. This is paramount to meaningful progress.”

When asked whether the pigeonholing of women into the role of housewives still sells, Leo Burnett Sri Lanka CEO Arosha Perera, with two decades of industry experience, said that it is a matter of relevance.

“It is a question of relevance to the purchase decision-maker. And it is certainly not of universal relevance. With successful brands, the role of the housewife also evolved to depict the important and multi-facetted role she plays in the lives of the family and society.”

However, Triad Joint Managing Director Varuni Amunugama Fernando stated that she didn’t see the role as a limitation.

“In my opinion, a housewife is somebody to be valued, because women are multitaskers.”

Fernando, who counts 25 years of ad industry experience, and as the co-founder of Sri Lanka’s leading home-grown advertising agency Triad, spoke about the perceived sexualisation of women through advertising.

“I don’t think any respectable brand will really use sexuality or sensuality for mass communication.”

According to Fernando, this portrayal is mostly used by niche products, because it doesn’t have mass appeal.

“The mass market constitutes many target groups; a man, a woman, a child. It’s a mass market, so it gets exposed to society at large,” she said.

Marikkar, however, had an opposing view, saying instead that it is most definitely the mass products that portray women in this way.

“Niche products are taking the plunge and becoming more imaginative.”

Perera pointed out that FMCG products in particular rely on this portrayal as they are targeted at homemakers. “The FMCG category focuses a lot on women in general as they still make a bulk of the purchase decisions in the home. We do notice the role of the homemaker being more prevalent in mass market products that cut across segments.”

Who decides?

The next question to look at is who decides the way in which a woman is portrayed in an advertisement; is it the ad agency or the client?

Fernando believes this portrayal depends on the brand and the brand ethos. “Most brands, whether you take a global brand or a local brand, have their own brand guidelines. So if you take most of the modern brands today, whether it’s a woman or a child or any kind of prop that you use, it has to fall within those guidelines.

“At the end of the day, as an agency head, my thinking is that any ad should give an idea, and sensuality is not an idea. For you to really market, communicate, or sell a brand, product, or service, that ad should portray an idea based on an actual strategy.”

Marikkar said that it is a combination of both the ad agency and the client: “Clients want to play safe and agencies are keen to relate to what they think is the typical target audience. I think what they forget is that many women today play both roles. So why show her only in her domestic role? Why not her working woman’s role?”

Perera said that market data and research is one tool which could be utilised to move towards a more nuanced portrayal of women in advertising: “With most established brands, there is always a broad consensus on these key roles that influence the purchase decision, often led by market data. These are possibly the brands that are reflecting a more accurate picture of the evolving role of women, and are possibly helping fuel the continued relevance of these brands.

“I do not doubt there are other marketers and agencies who are led into perpetuating stereotypes due to their own personal preferences too, to the detriment of their brands. We at Leo Burnett Sri Lanka believe that understanding people is critical to a brand’s success. And to this end, we continuously invest in research to help us and our clients better understand the role of women in marketing and communication.”

Omar highlighted the importance of diverse teams in combating stereotyping: “Less diverse teams that are overwhelmingly male or have no female representation in senior decision-making roles or a corporate culture that doesn’t recognise and prioritise the value of women are usually far more regressive.”

Whether it is the ad agency or the client that wants to portray women in a sexual or stereotypical manner, it is important that we move away from these outdated and harmful images.

“According to our recent JWT Intelligence Women’s Index study, 58% of women say that role models in TV or film have inspired them to either be more assertive or more ambitious,” Omar said, and as she explained, this means that “how women are portrayed in culture and what they see on screen matters”.

•Four leading ad agency heads share their views

What effect do stereotypical portrayals have on society?

Triad Joint Managing Director Varuni Amunugama Fernando I think this applies more to a very western society. But then again, this whole concept of sexuality started like that as they are a more liberal society, as opposed to Asian society. However, if we make portrayals in certain derogatory ways – doesn’t have to be sexual and doesn’t necessarily have to be women, it can be any one – it’s very bad because it’s negative impact on society. With communication, you try to build perceptions, you change people’s mind-sets, and you get them to think differently. So if you are irresponsible in your communication, it can have a negative impact on society. Dentsu Grant Group Chairperson Neela Marikkar We are unfortunately lulling women in to a false notion that motherhood in particular is full of joy and radiance. In reality, a mother is never so relaxed, well-dressed, and calm at home. I look forward to the day that we can be more open and supportive to mothers in particular and portray them as they really are. Today, advertising needs to be authentic. That’s what consumers are looking for, especially the millennial generation. We also need to break free from stereotyping women by portraying them in more empowered roles. They are the backbone of the country’s economy and we need to showcase this aspect more in our communications. Finally, the myth that only “fair”, slim women are beautiful and desirable should be steered away from. This has an extremely negative effect on our perception of women. J. Walter Thomson Sri Lanka CEO Alyna Omar The real impact on the plight of women in this country is not hidden within a 30-second ad or a YouTube pre-roll. It’s firmly etched into the fabric of our culture; it is in the attitude of too many of our men folk, it is in the dishonesty of our political agenda, it is in our puritanical moral code, it is in our textbooks at school, it is in the dress code for mothers attending PTAs, it is in the lip service we pay to diversity policies and in the way we trivialise the double standards we apply and uphold every day. Advertising and marketing have the power to become serious and credible champions of progress, we can challenge the fortified walls of patriarchy in this country; we are the right industry with the right brand of irreverence and courage, with the loudest voices and access to the most influential budgets to effect meaningful change. Leo Burnett Sri Lanka CEO Arosha Perera The success of communication hinges on relevance. While we need to reflect the realities in society, continued stereotyping in communication can have very negative results on society and indeed ultimately, the success of brands. The smart marketers and agencies will base their decisions on research to help perceive the nuances in the evolution of society and their audience. They will ride the crest of the wave, fuel the positive, and thereby ensure the continued relevance of their brands. For example, the famous “like a girl” campaign for the “Always” feminine hygiene brand, from Leo Burnett Chicago: They brought to life the brands long-standing commitment to empowering women through puberty education in a whole new way to the millennials by breaking down stereotypes and turning the phrase “like a girl”, previously an insult, into an empowering message.