By Dinithi Gunasekera
Besides the unethical advertising of goods and services in the market, from the advertising of detrimental goods to paid promotions by philanthropists, the contentious handling of gender-sensitive content in advertising is not new.
A recent social media advert (20 November 2020) put out by a leading dishwash brand in Sri Lanka with the tagline that was asking mothers to teach their children the proper way to wash dishes, caused a stir amongst the general public, prompting them to say the advert was propagating sexist and backward thinking. The advert has since been taken down by the brand.
When market leaders set precedents like this, what happens with others who might be inspired to follow? Instances such as these call into focus the importance of gender sensitisation in marketing teams.
When contacted, a representative of the Media and Activation Division of the company concerned informed The Sunday Morning Brunch that the group is currently not issuing any statements to the media. However, the public was quick to share their thoughts on the advert in question.
“It would be a perfectly fine advertisement if two children, both male and female, were there, with the slogan reading ‘obe daruwanta’ (your children) instead of just ‘diyaniyata’ (daughters). I think the world has come to a point where corporate companies should know better,” shared Paramie Muthukuda, a concerned final-year medical student.
“Given current times, it was very unwise of them to have chosen this particular slogan/theme for this advertisement,” expressed prospective university student Risaka Fernando. “But I’m not angered by it. I just feel like the person who came up with the idea needs to be fired for being so incompetent.”
Meanwhile, some others said that they don’t think the advert is problematic because the mother is basically teaching that kid to wash dishes. Some shared that feminists will have a say at this, saying there is no guy here, but that they don’t see any discrimination because the mother is only teaching her child.
Brand purpose consultant, talk show host, and advocate Shanuki de Alwis shed light on the current state of things from a business perspective as well as a gender activist point of view.
“In advertising, especially in Sri Lanka, there is a lot of compromise on ethics. I personally have worked in agencies in which I have felt that my own integrity has been compromised many times because of certain management directions I personally disagreed with simply because the goal of marketers in Sri Lanka is sensationalism through controversy. You provoke people or pander to an unethical narrative that already exists in society just to be able to cater to demand,” de Alwis confessed.
The advertising industry and marketers make sales and profit an excuse for unethical narratives, said de Alwis. Despite the nature of these marketing strategies, if they are able to make profits, the industry would not care for the opinion of a smaller sect of society.
As an advertiser, one has massive power in influencing the way society thinks and behaves. Every narrative and every condition we buy into in society has been created and promoted by somebody at some point.
De Alwis used the example of diamond engagement rings which have been made into a necessity in matrimony because a brand like De Beers marketed it in a way that there is no alternative.
“The way society behaves and functions is created and moulded by promotion and advertising, so there is a direct influence by businesses on society. They can proactively play a part in changing Sri Lankan society for the better. It is a choice that has to be made and can be made as a marketer. There have been brands that have changed their problematic narratives and they have grown in the amount of love and respect the receive, by making these changes,” stated de Alwis.
“We create a demand. We brainwash them. We condition people into wanting something and it is our responsibility to make it somewhat empowering and progressive rather than disempowering.”
Virality and clickbait factor
De Alwis went as far as to describe the majority in the advertising industry to be “soulless” and “conscienceless”.
“In the day and age of virality, awards are not given based on who is ethical, but rather based on who managed to make the biggest noise. Controversy sells, similar to idea ‘sex sells’. As an agency, they look for things that create clutter.”
In most cases, it sells because it pleases a considerable audience that is conditioned to respond positively to it as it is their status quo – an unfortunate norm in the industry, explained de Alwis. She said that even if people of urban Colombo are getting infuriated at this type of advertising simply by discussing it on social media, the brand is being talked about, for better or for worse.
The talk show host recalled a previous experience in the industry of an advertisement for a chocolate biscuit brand that made record sales despite having questionable views on colourism and gender.
“It was the wrong thing, but it got attention and got people talking as it was something Sri Lanka found funny instead of shocking. What they don’t realise is that the rest of the world has progressed. There is increasing education on what is ethical, what is politically correct, and what is gender sensitive. As a business, you have to take some sort of responsibility for the kind of work that you do.”
Gender roles in focus
Sri Lanka undoubtedly has a deeply ingrained patriarchal system that has been passed on for generations.
“It is important to remember that it is not only the men who promote this patriarchy, but also women because that’s how they have been brought up and conditioned – the patriarchal system of gender roles,” expressed de Alwis, drawing from her experiences in gender activism.
“This is the reason why some of the people you have spoken to might think we are looking at the issue through an ‘overly feministic’ lens, making mountains out of mole hills, questioning ‘are you saying women should never wash dishes?’”
Because of the sentiment of the general market, marketers are catering to the norm because that is what society is apparently comfortable with at the moment, which proves true in this advert, equating the dishwashing liquid as a symbol of the woman’s world and her role, said de Alwis.
It is understandable that if the industry does not change their ways, we are always going to have people who are going to wonder what’s wrong with an advert like this.
A psychological perspective
Counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Nivendra Uduman stated that advertising of this sort definitely does affect the way society views women and also affects how patriarchy becomes more pervasive in communities.
“It implies that the belief ‘a woman’s place in the kitchen’ is not a choice, further disempowering women from potential opportunity. It definitely is a cause for concern because it keeps these ideologies going into people’s thinking patterns and if it is so, society is unable to evolve,” share Uduman.
Media personnel as a whole have to be more sensitised and made aware of how such things impact society at large, according to Uduman.
Not a woman’s issue
“It reinforces the mindset that stops people from progressing and it stops people from something better. Even in domestic violence, there are large amounts of women who think it’s okay to be beaten by the husband as he is the authoritative figure of the family. These are difficult pills to swallow, but are unfortunate realities. The reinforcement of gender role-based ideologies through powerful media tools such as advertising contribute to the subjugation of women and continues the cycle,” explained de Alwis.
She further noted that it is not only women who are affected by this, but both genders as a whole. There are widespread adverts on men’s perfume and apparel that focus not on how that product empowers them as human beings, about themselves being objectified for women and adverts that take shots at men who are not “macho”.
“A man can have a lot of depth as a person rather than what is portrayed in some of these adverts,” added Uduman. “Young boys who see these adverts also learn that this is what they are supposed to be. To be a ‘type’. There are no messages given about respect, kindness, or consent.”
According to de Alwis, although we currently do have a gender-focused media charter on ethics in advertising, it’s lacking in implementation and monitoring.
“The advertisers have ample opportunity at present to be more creative and more progressive. Brands can contribute to create a more gender-equal society and they can get a lot of PR (public relations) value out of that for championing women’s rights and gender equality, simply by changing their own language. It’s not going to take anything away from the agency.”
It is also important to note that there are many brands out there that attempt to break away from such stereotypes that have the potential to be detrimental to our social fabric. It’s not a man’s or a woman’s issue, but an issue for all.
Adding to this was Sri Lankan advertising mogul and former Managing Director of Leo Burnett Sri Lanka Ranil de Silva, who said that sensitivity to gender is something that should be fostered; he talked about neighbouring India which has come up with concepts such as “share the load”, for example, where they show the stereotypical depiction of the mother as a homemaker being somewhat replaced with the engagement of the entire family unit. “I think it’s a reflection of society since we are also changing as a society. There are dual-income households where there are more women in the world of work and women are breadwinners.” De Silva thinks that although it hasn’t taken a full reversal, there is definitely a considerable change.
“I think the brands that embrace that change will do better. It takes boldness as a brand to make these changes and as a result, it pays off. It becomes more memorable, people relate to it, and women will emphasise more. Data suggests that in Sri Lankan households, most buying decisions are still taken largely by the mother. When brands make these changes, they can expect better sales, happier people and as a result, a better tomorrow.”
De Silva added that how people live in society and what people do in society is captured in adverts. “It’s not ideals that come from the inside. But vice versa, the change in society is propelling changes in advertising as well and this advertising precipitates in the change we are talking about moving forward. Change can be a good thing.”
Teaching all children how to wash dishes may be a first step towards gender equality and progression.
Photo © Sandy Millar on Unsplash