breaking the bias in advertising
Breaking the bias in advertising

When 4 women who have been in advertising get together over wine, and the conversation is steered towards ‘breaking the bias in advertising’, long forgotten work incidents and memories are stirred up. And when you add a clinical psychologist, a sociologist and an activist artist from the USA to the gathering, some deeper insights emerge.

Our very lively and enlightening conversation brought up stories of fun times and some terribly uncomfortable moments too. And I have taken it upon myself to make some sense of it all.

Stories of bias in advertising agencies

  1. I remember being just 3 months into my first advertising job when the boss walked into the room looked me up and down and said – “if you were better dressed we could have taken you to that meeting!” I looked down at my outfit. A white cotton kurta with small pink flowers, white churidar and pink chunni, kolhapuri chappals. And wondered what I should have worn instead to be eligible to go for the meeting! Yes I was that stupid.
  2. My friend Malini (name changed) got back from a very successful meeting where the client finally approved the film script. At the same time her boss had just got back from a meeting where his entire strategy had bombed. When she told the boss about her success he turned around and said – “looks like your dress really worked for you today!” That day, she chose to keep quiet, save her job and sulk. Rather than tell the man what she really thought of him.
  3. My art partner routinely cracked the same joke over and over again. He told the team that the only reason I was working in that office was because my husband paid the company to keep me off his case!!! I laughed with all the others. I also noticed that at the next brain storming session, my suggestions and idea did not get the consideration they deserved.
  4. Visitors from the US office were being welcomed and a senior woman team leader was selected to present bouquets and cut the cake. A junior trainees job. Used to being undermined at meetings, she chose to see this as an honour rather than what it was. Another way of undermining her capabilities.
  5. Amanda (name changed) had this observation about some of the men in her office. They smoked, chatted and faffed around during much of the day. Never in any hurry to get home to their families and kids. This tribe (thankfully not a very large one) routinely planned brain-storming sessions late in the evening, over a smoke or a drink. They declared, they didn’t want women around for these sessions – because they were gentlemen and they had to mind their language around women. The next morning, while presenting their ideas, they made sly digs about women going home early (read – on time).

How the women reacted

After years of being brow beaten, the women were conditioned to remain docile enough to either join the banter or suffer in silence. Understandably, breaking the bias in advertising was not on their agenda. The ones who protested or called out the bias were labelled trouble makers. And we all know what happens to trouble makers. They either get ignored when discussing the next project, or get passed over for the next promotion.

The examples are endless and I could keep going on, but we still need to unravel the entire bias conversation.

These office stories reflect bias in the advertising we create

Women are ordinary mortals. Their sari pallus are not to be confused with Superwoman’s cape. In fact, we should create a guideline of what ‘Not to perpetuate’ for all ad creators?  And on top of the list would be – The superwoman trope. But who is going to tell that to the male boss or the male client!

If you have seen the ad above you would have to agree. Only a man or a male client could have approved this ad. The ad starts with a woman who is worried about pregnancy ruining her career as a model. She walks into a railway waiting room where there is another woman who is officiously tapping away at her laptop. The other woman in the waiting room is a mother who’s baby is crying incessantly.  The laptop wielding feminist dismisses the mother who as someone who has given up her freedom and her independence to become a mother. She is left open mouthed when she realises that the sari clad mom is a high achieving police officer

Women’s Day ads sometimes perpetuate the bias

Ad agency execs and all male creative teams have absolved themselves of all familial responsibilities. They have fallen for the superwoman myth. Their wives will manage home, howling infant and a high pressure job single-handedly. At the railway platform if need be. For heavens sake, where is the father in this whole scenario of milk bottle falling and rolling all over the waiting room floor. Probably in the conference room of some Ad agency, trying to crack the brief that was sent to him in the morning.

I could pull out a really long list of equally insensitive campaigns. But Shubho Sengupta (name not changed) summed it all up very well: “By and large, men still create advertising for women’s products. And it shows. The empathy, the insights are missing.” According to him, “there is a huge gender bias in advertising. Women – in spite of being primary shoppers and influencers – are shown in subjugated roles.”

Can we afford to turn advertising into a Mahila Morcha

Advertising is not about changing social attitudes. It’s about selling products and services. If showing themselves as aware and progressive entities will help the bottomline – advertisers will go for it. If perpetuating stereotypes works for them, no amount of sloganeering or activism will persuade them to change.

The campaign strategist sets the direction and tone of any campaign. Creative persons create the story and content. And servicing persons acts as the go between the client and the agency. Elements of toxic masculinity, patriarchy and bias against women can de-rail the campaign at any point.

Obviously, breaking the bias in advertising is going to take more than just a few blog articles or drawing room conversations.

There has got to be some smarter way to break the bias in advertising agencies. And the resulting bias in the advertising we produce.

Is there a way to negotiate the biased set up without being labelled a shrew?

Much of our discussion revolved around this topic too. We don’t take offence to every personal comment and overthink every joke. but we don’t want to be wishy washy walkovers either.

Every office is not full of toxic masculine energy. Sensitive, considerate, middle of the road male and female colleagues do exist (thank god). Make them your allies.

1. If only we knew then – what we know today! Be supportive of the women around you. In the early years of our careers, we were totally invested in finding our feet in the office. Managing home and kids was our other full time job. We had little time to reflect on the negative energies around us.  Guilty about time away from the children, and guilty about not hanging around in office after-hours, we felt we were batting on the back foot all the time.

We were timid, not even willing to think that we deserved the promotion or the (p)raise we received. But more than anything else, we wished someone had been there to guide us towards realising our self-worth. Instead of lamenting the time lost, it may be a good idea to share our thoughts and experiences instead. We need to create a supportive atmosphere. Where other women will receive the encouragement they need when they go through their moments of self-doubt.

As Madeline Albright , the first woman to serve as US secretary of state once said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” And that means the converse is also true – there’s a special place in heaven for women who help other women. Instead of making the office all about being competitive, think ‘collaborative.’ Something that is easier to do if you lead a team or are one of the very few who reaches ‘super bossdome.’

2. Summon your inner goddess

It’s OK to have self-doubt. It’s OK to leave office early for a PTA meeting. If a man does it, he is labelled a good father. If a woman does it she isn’t prioritising children over work. Rethink it. She is being as good a mother as the father is.

Your inner goddess is not about being perfect at everything. It’s about realising your self worth and being OK at stumbling, learning, ignoring the little things and of course being OK about not getting it right every time.

3. Deliver punch lines, not dead ones.

Malini could have laughed out loud and said – “obviously your shirt didn’t work for you.” the only problem is that moving beyond the hurt and anger takes conscious effort and maybe even years of counselling. Then perfecting some witty one liners is your next hurdle.

Breaking the bias in advertising is not happening anytime soon. Not unless the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women) divisions of Agencies become more than just a lip service to a legal requirement. Until then, let us hope all toxic men have gutsy daughters who will not succumb to the tactics their dads once used.


This post is part of the #breakthebias blog hop hosted by Sakshi Varma and Rakhi Jayshankar, Powered by Beetees Chocolates . Find all the posts from this bloghop here.