The Pakistani woman today has more choices open to her than ever before. Not only are more girls opting for higher education, they are actually outperforming their male peers.
Pakistani sportswomen — Naseem Hameed, the women’s cricket team — have gained international acclaim, filling fans with patriotic fervour when they succeed. Gone are the days when part-time teaching was the only employment that made sense for a married woman — now more and more are forging full-time corporate careers, along with bringing up the children and managing the household. In the cities, where women from the lower-middle class have always been economically active, now women from all social strata are stepping into the workplace.
Then why is it, that when I switch on my TV, the woman I see is still the same stereotypical picture-perfect housewife trying to sell us cooking oils, detergents and soaps much as she did twenty years ago? If it’s not her, it’s the insecure single woman, who thinks that her route to marital bliss is through attaining perfect skin and hair which will enable her to snag an eligible bachelor. Unlike the many strong, ground-breaking women that Pakistanis see in their public lives, the Pakistani woman in our ads is a strange creature whose self-esteem hinges on how well she manages to wash her husband’s shirt or how much sex appeal she exudes. She lives in constant guilt and insecurity, fretting over her children, fussing around her husband, craving approval and reassurances from everyone around her.
The angel of the house
There are sound business reasons for advertisers to focus on a woman. A woman is the main decision-maker as far as household purchases are concerned. Financial independence is largely irrelevant - it is nearly always the housewife who makes the groceries’ list. In her capacity as the ‘influencer’ in these purchasing decisions, the housewife remains a key target market for makers of consumer goods.
“The home is female-oriented and it’s the female who does the shopping and decides what the child should eat, so it makes sense to target the mother. If we do use the father, it’ll be strategy-based, not a regular thing,” says Omer Hussain, the head of the creative department at BBCL.
From household electronic appliances to ice creams, to shampoos and soaps, it is the woman who sells the product. On any given day, there’ll be dozens of ads on TV with dozens of women. But the woman depicted in all of them will be more or less the same. In her youthful incarnation, she is the desperate-for-attention college girl surrounded by a posse of friends and admirers. When she grows up, she is the housewife who keeps up the perfect facade while her husband and in-laws fall at her feet.
“Largely, the depiction of women hasn’t changed from 20 years ago,” says Sami Shah, creative director of a major ad agency. “For most products in the market, the housewife is the target consumer and advertisers play with variations on the approaches to her: there’s the bechari housewife, the dutiful housewife and the perfect housewife.”
These women have “modernised” without truly changing. “Some MNCs have tried to go beyond the housewife stereotype by portraying confident, outgoing women. But at best they show them as models or actresses,” says columnist and cultural critic Nadeem Farooq Paracha.
However, Rashna who is an executive creative director at the advertising firm, IAL Saatchi and Saatchi, has a rosier view. “Contrary to popular belief, depictions have changed from 20 years ago. You do still have a housewife hanging clothes and making food. That does not make her less worthy. Even if she is a housewife and mother living in a joint family system, how she approaches the role has changed. She is more self-assured, more confident,” she argues.
Some ad people claim that there are now many more non-traditional roles which depict women as having come into their own and not just following roles that society has placed on them. Safeguard ads depict female doctors recommending the use of the soap to keep germs and disease at bay. But such progressive ads are painfully few and far between and their impact diminishes in the flood of ads reinforcing the stereotype. It is rare too, to see a female protagonist in hi-tech products. Cell phones and cell phone connections seem to be marketed exclusively to men, as do energy drinks. If a woman makes her way in an ad for any of these products, she will merely be the prize that the man gets for using that particular product.
“This is the sheer nature of the market,” explains Rashna. “Of Pakistan’s 20 million internet users, two-thirds are men. There are more men than women on the internet, using cell phones and on Facebook. There are more financially independent men than women.”
Despite the Asma Jehangirs and Naseem Hameeds, the woman of the ad-world is almost exclusively a homemaker. This, despite the fact that women in urban lower-middle income class routinely work outside the house out of sheer economic imperative. Their financial contribution is essential in holding the family together.
“There is a respectable, rising rate of double-income families. But there tends to be less appreciation of the fact that women are not only confined to the house, and of the role they’re playing in the economy,” says Shah.
I aspire to . . . wash clothes
Some believe that this insistence on focusing on the stereotypical housewife might actually be doing the products a disservice.
“When ad people show perfect housewives, they try to justify it by claiming that they are showing aspirational ads,” says Paracha. “They don’t realise that they are actually alienating consumers. Women don’t aspire to become begums. Not only is it economically impossible, they have more important roles to play in society.”
Still, it is hard to break ingrained habits. According to Shah, “Ads deal largely with stereotypes because they’re easier to relate to. No brand wants a paradigm shift because of the risk involved.”
Eliminating risk is a key goal for companies who want to market their products as widely as possible. Of the two to four consumer profiles that they get from market research, companies must decide what percentage of the population each represents. The aim is to relate to the largest target market and hone in on as many consumers as possible. Ad agencies simply work on the briefs provided by the marketing department of the relevant company. The target consumer is a key component of that brief.
“We try to see what the potential consumer is already doing and then try to fit into their lifestyle,” says Sana, a marketing and sales employee at P&G. “When we’re selling diapers, people ask us why we don’t target working moms, single mothers or dads — that’s because it makes more sense to connect with existing consumers. We need to reach a mass market, not a niche. We have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”
The need to avoid endowing the woman in the ad with any characteristic which might alienate potential consumers, results in the reinforcement of a bland stereotype. What is sometimes forgotten, though, is that the research itself is open to questioning. Paracha is extremely skeptical of the methodology followed in market research. “I used to question these practices all the time,” he says, stressing that much of the research is derived from poorly-assembled focus groups since the money and the will for doing meaningful and extensive surveys is absent.
Despite causing a long-lasting shifts in consumer habits, it is ironic that marketing and advertising companies do not see themselves as agents of change: “It is not the responsibility of advertising to preach for change,” asserts Rashna. “It’s about selling a product. Should an ad be progressive, give substance? Yes, society is evolving and an ad should reflect that evolution. However, people still live in a joint family system and women tend to be the caretakers of the house, but even while refecting traditions, advertising should not be regressive.”
Sana concurs: “Our aim is to bring a fresh campaign to the same consumers — we don’t aim for a change in the consumer unless the research shows that we have to.”
But disarming marketing and advertising of its ability to change and even manipulate consumers is not only simplistic, it is false. As Paracha says, “Advertisers end up making some sort of a statement whether they like it or not.”
One step forward, two steps back
Some argue that the relentless bombardment of the two female images — the submissive housewife and the siren — is merely a reflection of society. Still, in an industry where internationally sex appeal is used to sell everything, Pakistan fares a bit better because of strict guidelines on dress codes and behaviour. This is not to say that there haven’t been creative circumventions of the rules. The Magnum ad, which depicted a smoking-hot Neha eating ice-cream, caused a furore when it aired and was quickly toned down. It now enjoys immortality on YouTube.
“A lot of things have become accepted in our society. People are more open,” says Omer Hussain, who worked on the ad. “As far as the Magnum ad was concerned you have to understand that this is the positioning of the product worldwide –provocative.”
Interestingly, research shows that sex appeal works both ways: a man with chiselled features and ripped abs in an ad targeted at women, has just as much potential to lure in consumers. However, it is nearly always a woman who is objectified and subtly pressurised to attain a certain ideal of physical beauty. “The only reason you see it more in male targeted ads is because there are other ways to appeal to women — women want meaning in things. But it does not necessarily ensure long-term sales and will not work at all if it is tasteless,” says Rashna.
Others argue though that the pressures created by advertising are not for women alone. “Women are using media to their advantage,” says Omer Hussain. “At the same time you have to see that metrosexuality is growing, men want to look good and women are becoming more and more demanding of men.”
Twenty years the only females in advertising were models, but now there are many more women in senior positions in the corporate and the creative side, and in marketing. What is truly fascinating is how the women in this field seem to have internalised the philosophy of their male counterparts and continue to reinforce the female stereotype. Perhaps with a little more time, when these women truly come into their own, we’ll see a different woman in our ads.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2011.