Deified Mother in Indian Ads: Idealised Image, Ethical Issues

Alokparna Das*

Key Words

Advertising: An attention-grabbing presentation in any medium which typically serves the marketing function of persuading consumers to purchase a product or service, but which may also function to raise or maintain awareness of a brand and the distinctive values with which it seeks to be allied. In terms of communicative functions, although the advertisement is primarily a persuasive genre, it is not limited to commercial purposes (e.g. political ads); it may also be informational (e.g. public awareness campaigns). In the context of the clutter of competing claims for attention, advertisements often seek to be entertaining.

Gender: The socio-cultural construction of male and female identity as the primary social category, with differentiated cultural norms for (stereotypical) masculine and feminine traits, roles, values, discourse practices, and forms of behavior. For social scientists, gender is culturally and historically variable and cannot be equated with biological sex. From this perspective, gender does not explain differences; gender results from the creation of differences.

 Introduction: That the gender view of Indian advertising is more than just biased is a well-established fact. Sexual objectification of women has been debated not just in India but also the world over since the birth of gender equality movements in the 1960s and 70s. However, the focus of this paper is not objectification but the deification of women in ads.

Mother India in our ads – be that of Tata Salt or Mother Dairy – is a docile, eager to please, even somewhat dim-witted woman whose universe is wholly and solely her family, particularly her son. While the real world is changing rapidly, Indian advertisers continue to use time-worn concepts to reach out to consumers. In fact, one advertiser even tried justifying it publicly by saying that the “stereotypical role of women is more of a ‘preserver’, who brings harmony into her home”. In short, she is the Grihalakshmi, a Devi.

A cooking oil ad in Bengali uses Jamini Ray’s painting depicting Durga

MTR ad shows the multi-tasking mother as Shasta- Bhuja Devi

Advertising as a discipline has been questioned on many grounds, one of them being gender portrayals. Many practitioners believe that advertising reflects societal norms, however, at times the question is larger and concerning what is ethical and what is not. After all, the scope of advertising is not just to reflect what is prevalent but also to act as a vehicle of change.

The Indian society is undergoing a major transition in terms of more and more women becoming educated and entering both conventional and non-traditional professions; changes are happening in their roles, in their notions of marriage and family as well as expectations. It is an interesting time to introspect how mothers are being portrayed in ads. Are ads with mother-child interaction any different from what they were a decade ago?

In our ads, women are more likely to be shown in activities like sitting, and men are depicted in activities like running. The majority of all ads using women are for products found in the kitchen or bathroom. Product categories like food items, milk additives, school products, confectionaries, etc. remain the domain of the mother. Thus, the role definition and work allocation still remain the same as what it used to be a decade ago and it is the mother who is held responsible for caring and nurturing the child. A case in point is the Fortune Edible Oils film by O&M on its marketing initiative, ‘Mother Exchange’, harping on Ghar ka khana, wherein mothers share recipes so that their sons can get a taste of home-cooked food even when they are studying or working away from their home town.

Sometime last year, the mother of a gay activist placed a matrimonial ad in newspapers seeking a groom for her son. The ad was discussed on social media and hailed as signifying changes in the notions of the traditional Indian mother: The trusting, affectionate mother figure now seemed to have become a bold woman of courage and conviction. It was a reality, though a rarity, which could have been celebrated in one of the few ads that seem to talk about the changing role of the Indian mother. But no ad agency thought of utilizing it in their storyboard.

Selling the Myth of the Ideal Mother

In the world of Indian ads, mothers in sarees either cook bowls of Maggi, Horlicks or tell their sons that it’s okay if their shirt is dirty. An example is a recent Mother Dairy ad. It shows that the mother will blindly and even dumbly listen when her husband throws a fit, and teach her son that his place is behind her pallu. She would rather shield him from all his wrongdoings and take his blame on herself than teach him what is right and groom him to be a responsible individual.

Mother Dairy Ad

In today’s actual world, the Indian mother is an independent woman, a role model for her daughter as well as her son. She is not just a caregiver to her son; she has moved on to being a friend to her daughter-in-law. Just as a father can be both a protector and a caregiver. And thankfully, there are companies like Cadbury that are weaving in this new image of the mother in their campaign narratives.

Surveys show that the average age of the mother has gone up with women with good educational background getting married and entering into motherhood at a later age and concentrating on their careers first. But in our ads, the mother seems to be forever young and beautiful due to the use of Santoor or Pears soap or Godrej or Vasmol hair color.

Do advertisers even recognize the growing importance of the working mother? Very few of them do, but even here the working mother is thinking about what to cook for dinner as in the Everest Masala ad or is on a video call at the office to help men and boys wash soiled clothes at home as in the Surf ad.

Through this research paper, I am trying to understand how ads depict the Indian mother in this era of globalization; whether the changes visible in society are being portrayed in the ads as well; and how ethical is it to elevate mother to the status of the mother goddess and set unreasonable goals for her.

Exploiting Emotion, Creating Artificiality

In our ads, the woman is mostly portrayed as submissive; her true place is inside the kitchen or in her man’s arms. On the one hand, her body is used to sell everything – from a ceiling fan to perfume – and on the other, she is the patient, affectionate mother who can sacrifice her career and interests for the sake of her family. In a pain balm ad, the son asks his father, “Sab Kaam Mummy ko hi Kyun Karna padta hai?” The mother immediately gives an apologetic look to the father. Her role as a home-maker is so overpowering that she seems to have no identity beyond it in the decisions that the family takes.

Take the insurance ads for instance. For decades, most insurance ads have depicted the man as the sole breadwinner for his family, while the woman – almost always – plays a dependent. The life insurance sector in India was liberalized more than a decade ago and is one of the biggest in the world, but their ads don’t quite reflect that. The ads by the state-run Life Insurance Corporation of India and the numerous private players seem to be united in upholding the old cliche: a woman’s income and savings are unimportant to her family. In the SBI Life Insurance Zindagi Haske Bitayenge ad, a son asks his father if he should quit his studies and take up a job in case the father dies unexpectedly. The father hugs the son and tells him to not worry. The mother, who is shown as serving food, takes no part in the conversation. The voiceover says: “What if your son asks you this question? Be prepared.” It seems the loss of a mother will not be felt by the family, at least not monetarily. In the LIC India: Zindagi Ke Saath Bhi, Zindagi Ke Baad Bhi ad, a middle-aged woman is grateful to her deceased husband for buying life insurance, which made it possible for her to educate her children, run the household and marry off her daughter. The ad successfully reinforces the stereotype that a mother, without her husband’s income, is helpless.

Most of our ads also reflect society’s preference for a male child. The mother in the Dettol ad advises her son that it’s not so cool to take germs to a party. Would she allow her daughter to go to a late-night party as well after having a bath with Dettol soap?

India is very high on masculinity. Most ads have men giving facts and opinions either by playing a character or through voiceovers. This point towards the man being the chief earner and decision-maker in the family.

Analysis of appearance shows mothers mostly in Indian clothing, fully covered, with visible signs of marriage like sindoor, Mangalsutra. These signs are strong metaphors for their identity. Most ads show mothers as happy housewives. Thus, we can say that ads still go the popular way and it is more about confirming popular beliefs rather than challenging stereotypes. With working women in India no longer a rarity, even if women in leadership roles are scarce, the role definitions in ads are still driven by conventional societal expectations. Advertising should ideally act as a weapon to set trends; instead, the portrayal of mothers is traditional and their domain remains the kitchen with very less involvement in intellectual activities. Unpaid work at home is almost always shown as being done by mothers.

While advertising is bound by the need to sell, the sameness of characters and plots doesn’t do much to differentiate brands either. Stock characters like the mother building her self-esteem by making sure everyone’s clothes stay white or everyone get a healthy meal are so common that we hardly notice them anymore.

The most significant thing is that I can’t remember a single ad with a working woman. I’m sure there are some but none of them leave an impression. As for working women in blue-collar jobs or in the unorganized sector, it would be hard to find any, and if you are thinking of the Airtel wife-boss ad, even here, the woman goes home to cook for her husband and calls him up to tell him that she is waiting for him with a four-course dinner.

Tradition versus Modernity

Although in parts largely modernized and even westernized, India is still in many ways a traditional society where life is built around caste, religion, and gender. Traditional gender roles, despite certain revisions, are still the standard in large segments of society. In conflict with this is the huge appetite for sexuality in media. The challenge of sexism is entrenched in the majority of society.

So, is advertising playing safe, and are working women in India still seen as ‘exceptional’ or not ‘normal’? According to a 2013 WorldBank study, only 27 percent of the female population aged over 15 is working in India. Though an estimated 5.5 million women join India’s workforce every year, many of them leave soon after having children, stymied by societal restrictions and barriers at the workplace. Between 2005 and 2011, India’s economy grew 7 percent on average, but the number of women in its labor force fell from 31 to 24 percent. A recent ad by a branded garment company does a good job of connecting with young women making professional ambition and pregnancy go hand in hand. It’s commendable to have a pregnant working woman (played by actress Radhika Apte) as the protagonist.

Another ad that deserves a mention here is the ‘Share the Load’ ad by Ariel that shows a father’s apology to his daughter highlighting the struggles of working mothers. The most powerful aspect of the film is that the apology applies to both his wife and daughter. But why does a woman or a mother need a man or a son (as in Raymond’s ad), a father (as in this Ariel ad), or a superstar (as in Tata Tea Jago Re ad featuring Shah Rukh Khan) to uphold her true worth? Is this mere tokenism?

Raymond’s Complete Man Ad

The earlier Ariel washing powder ad too fought for gender equality. The campaign featured a pair of older women praising the young woman for her career achievements, only to be interrupted by a young man who wonders why his wife has not done his washing. The mother-in-law, rather than embroiled in a power struggle to enforce subservience on her daughter-in-law, is in awe of the career opportunities women have today. It’s the son who interrupts this moment creating a shaming tactic for the traditional attitude.

In such a scenario, Dabur Vatika’s ‘Brave and Beautiful’ campaign needs to be applauded for focussing on the struggle of cancer survivors, especially wife-mother-working woman-home-maker, who lose their hair during chemotherapy. This ad depicts one of these women foregoing her head-scarf not just when she is waking up her husband and feeding her child but also while going to work and the support she receives from her family and most importantly, women colleagues.

So is the plot changing? Is the Indian mother gradually changing and from being a protector, moving on to being a friend and guide? A recent Bournvita ad takes the mother out of the kitchen, competing with her child to make him understand the value of winning. These transformations may be neither too deep nor too profound, but they need to be encouraged. After all, it is a welcome change to see a dusky, divorcee and mother of a young daughter getting ready for her second marriage in the Tanishq ad or a middle-aged mother accepting the live-in relationship of her son and his girlfriend over a cup of tea in the Red Label ad.

Ad guru Piyush Pandey feels that it is time the ad industry stopped portraying women as submissive. He says, “Advertising tends to imply that women have no existence without ‘X’ brand. A woman has a role as a mother, a wife, and a daughter, but we can show these things only up to an extent. We can’t keep pushing it. People are not dim-witted, they can see through cliches. It’s not that advertising is some sort of a moral guide, but it still has certain responsibilities towards society as it reaches millions of homes and influences people.”

Adman Josy Paul, however, finds ‘submissive’ to be a harsh term to define the women in such ads. He says, “A mother bringing a glass of milk for her son doesn’t imply that she is serving her son. Rather, it brings out the finer nuances of the mother-son relationship.”

He cites Maggi’s mom to prove his point. The campaign, ‘Mummy’s Khushiyon Ki Recipe’ celebrates mother-daughter bonding in a contemporary setting. The TVC starts with the mother helping her daughter to pack her things as she gets ready to move out and stay on her own. The mother is upset and asks her the reason for shifting out even though she will be in the same city. The film ends with the daughter inviting the mother to her new house whenever she is hungry.

The ‘two-minute noodles’ ad campaign introduced the ‘Maggi Mom’ who not only cooked for her children but also went to work. The Maggi Mom is a Nestle construct. She was introduced in 1983 when the noodles entered India. It was a unique marketing pitch at that time. The Maggi Mom has taken lots of shapes since then – she has even Madhuri Dixit doing aerobics and feeding her children instant oats noodles. Adman K V Sridhar points out, “Bringing mothers to the forefront strengthens the belief and develop a deeper affinity with the brand. These ads are not just about selling Maggi but also the thoughts which people had in mind about the brand.”

Mother, the Goddess

A recent viral video produced for American online greeting-card shop, Cardstore.com, titled “World’s Toughest Job,” purports to present footage of interviews with applicants for a job called ‘Director of Operations’. The requirements are unlimited hours of work, no sitting, no breaks, possession of degrees in “medicine, finance, culinary arts,” and no pay. Then, the big reveal: billions of people already have this job — moms. The video has been viewed 18 million times on YouTube and; many see it as a heartwarming reminder of the hard work that mothers do. Others aren’t so impressed. “I don’t appreciate messages that seem to build women up while telling them that nothing they can achieve matters more than having babies,” said one comment.

There is nothing new about advertisers exploiting the myth of the ideal mother. During the women’s movement of the 1970s, ads depicted the ideal mother as a powerful multi-tasker. In a 1980 TV commercial for Enjoli perfume, a woman transforms from a career girl to a mother to seductress. World Savvy Monitor (2011) cites a UNESCO report on the global status of women that suggests that media portrays women in four ways: “glamorous sex kitten, sainted mother, devious witch, and hard face corporate and political climber.”

This is true of the Indian ad scenario as well.

Conclusion

Advertisement affects our daily life, both consciously and subconsciously. The content and message of ads, therefore, have a responsible role to play in the shaping of society. The role of women has been changing over the years in various fields around the world. Today 30 percent of employees in the software industry are women. But has the representation of women in advertising changed over a period of time? During a study conducted by the India chapter of International Advertising Association and Hansa Research, 57 percent of professionals in metros said that ads have not been able to portray the actual status of women.

I would like to conclude with some political ads. Are mothers a vote bank? Both the NDA’s India Shining campaign and the UPA’s Bharat Nirman had specific ads targeting mothers and both these campaigns failed to get their desired results, i.e. winning the Lok Sabha elections. Perhaps it’s time the ad agencies do some introspection, understand that the Indian mother is not as naïve as portrayed in their ads, and be real and ethical about their depiction of mother in ads.

UPA’s Bharat Nirman Ad

References

  • Basu, Partha Pratim, Chanda, Ipshita. Ed. Locating Cultural Change: Theory, Method, Process. New Delhi: Sage, 2011
  • Dasgupta, Sanjukta, Sinha, Dipankar, Chakravarti, Sudeshna. Media, Gender and Popular Culture in India: Tracking change and continuity. New Delhi: Sage, 2012
  • Frith, K. Ed. Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang, 1998
  • Ranganathan, Maya, Rodrigues, Usha M. Ed. Indian Media in a Globalised World. New Delhi: Sage, 2010
  • Williamson, Judith. Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London, New York: Marion Boyars, 2005
  • Chanda, Ipshita. Packaging Freedom: Feminism and Popular Culture, Kolkata, Stree, 2003
  • Bathla, Sonia. Women, Democracy and the Media: Cultural and Political Representations in the Indian Press, New Delhi, Sage, 1998

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