Objectification Of Women In Advertisements Is As Problematic As Vulgarity

Indecent and vulgar content in ads catches our moral and religious eye right away. Subtle, yet profound objectification of women, however, remains elusive, continuing unabated in the high-grossing advertising industry without raising alarm. The Gala biscuit ad controversy has brought to spotlight the same realization - that objectification of women and ‘gender clichés’ in the media are very much still a reality, happening in spite of feminist and gender rights crusades.

Driven by our passion for women’s freedom and independence, while promoting ideals akin to Mera Jism Meri Marzi, we have overlooked how the female body is so often exploited under the guise of liberalism and, at times, misdirected and self-defeating feminism. In the realm of the superficial and manipulative world of advertising, the above slogan easily converts into Mera Jism Creative Director Ki Marzi, as women’s presence continues to be exploited in ads to hawk all kinds of products. The advertising industry has been known to exploit women’s bodies to attain marketing and sales goals. Men overwhelmingly dominate creative departments of most ad agencies as well as their output, while female creators find themselves as the unsupported minority. This gender-based job discrimination is neither favourable for diverse content creation in ads nor the way women are portrayed in the media.

There is nothing indecent or vulgar about the recently banned Gala ad; though this is being debated in many quarters while scathing criticism is hurled at the controversial commercial. However, the overall presentation and portrayal seem to be simply needless and irrelevant. Talk of irrelevance and we may ask, why does a woman have to dance in an ad to sell biscuits at all? Why can’t she, for that matter, be shown scaling a mountain, or even carrying a gun for the purpose of advertising a biscuit brand? Or better still, why can't she be shown sitting at her executive office table, dunking a cookie in her luxurious cup of tea, the same way that male models are depicted in tea, coffee and biscuit ads? Can’t we have women appearing as chief executives or being portrayed in other high-achiever roles in advertisements?

What is visibly clear in the Gala ad is the absence of a legitimate link between the product being advertised and the ad’s presentation, which means that there is no content and campaign connection, whatsoever. In fact, the ad is so generic thematically that if we take out the biscuit from the footage and replace it with any other product, say a shampoo, a skincare cream, cooking oil, soap, tea brand or anything under the sun, it would fit in well - or, should I say, just as badly.

The ad is a typical example of how women are used to sell merchandise, something that the advertising industry has always been guilty of doing. Representing women in stereotypical roles where women are just worth their bodies or worth a skill that ‘accentuates their bodies’ has been a means of entertainment and endearment for the male eye. The ‘Dais ka biscuit’ (national biscuit) slogan could have depicted Mehwish Hayat in a more unorthodox or non-conformist role, doing something novel and empowering across the four provinces, especially considering that she is also a Goodwill Ambassador for girl children rights. It is high time the advertising slogan for the female gender, ‘pretty not powerful’, is done away with.

Women’s ability to dance or look pretty doesn’t empower them in real terms. Though good looks and the ability to dance well are desirable traits, and dancing itself should be recognised as a beautiful art form, they usually tend to overlap with the opposite gender’s desire to utilise women as objects of pleasure and gratification. ‘Artistic or erotic’ is the question feminists are posing at advertising creativity across the world.

A group exhibition "Women on View: Aesthetics and Desire in Advertising" at Berlin's Chaussee 36 gallery examined how the female figure has been used in advertising throughout decades and how advertisers and photographers have depicted women as objects of pleasure. It makes it quite clear that despite today's gender rights movements, advertising remains in the dark ages of gender clichés. Featuring photos by some of the most famous names in commercial photography, the images are meant to spark a dialogue about the eroticization of the female body in advertising and its impacts on society. While researchers establish that the ‘sex sells’ slogan may well be misleading, its prevalence in media has been criticised for promoting stereotypes of the female gender.

Even in the age of #MeToo, gender clichés remain glaringly present in the advertising realm. From early product advertising in the 1940s to hyper-sexualized female forms in the 1990s, such depictions are self-negating, not liberating for women. It still remains to be seen if mentalities in advertising will change radically in the years to come or whether women will continue to be sexualized through irrelevant appearances in commercials. Even though studies document a decrease in salacious portrayals in advertising in recent years, every third advertising image featuring a woman can still be sexualized.

Advertising media can play a substantial role in redefining power dynamics of the genders, so that women may be portrayed as powerful, not just pretty. “Flawless” is anatomically impossible, yet it is rendered and reinforced by irresponsible advertising all the time. The psyche at the advertising agencies goes such that men would drink certain brands of cola or coffee if they could associate them with an objectified woman’s image. This makes one wonder how many commodities and services owe their success to female-charmed ad campaigns. One would think that women might at least stop facing job discrimination and gender pay gaps after it all.

Faryal Shahzad is an entrepreneur and a freelance journalist based in Lahore.