This post is by Poonam Kumar, Asia Pacific regional director of brand strategy at TNS
In Ramayan, India's most revered epic, the main female character Sita willingly follows her husband into the forest for 14 years of exile. Like a good dutiful wife she meticulously places her feet exactly where her husband walks, ensuring that there is no evidence of her existence as a separate entity.
The Ramayan personifies India's deeply embedded patriarchal code and has set the standard of what is required to be a woman of virtue and value – obedient, chaste, self-sacrificing and ideally invisible.
For decades, Indian brands have faithfully mirrored and reinforced this code, without subtlety or apology. The fair-skinned domestic goddess is put on a pedestal, to be condemned or appreciated. It was not unusual for advertising to shame a woman for her child not growing tall enough, or her husband's shirt not being white enough, or even to imply that a girl had no suitors because of the dark and undesirable colour of her skin.
It doesn't help that this puritanical attitude sharply contrasts with the vividly suggestive treatment of sex in Indian movies. And with no sex education in school and little or no responsible discussion at home, the youth have had to deal with the confusion created by objectification on one hand, and the repression of women on the other.
But the winds of change are on their way – female literacy has skyrocketed, child marriages are declining and female representation is on the rise. The brutal rape and death of Nirbhaya, 'the one without fear', served as the tipping point and anger at the unfairness and exploitation boiled over. It has emboldened women across the country to demand a reappraisal of women's place in society.
Brand messaging is shifting in tandem. Marriage and approval are no longer shown as the only goals. Servility, shame and punishment for chores not executed to perfection are no longer acceptable. There is recognition that relationships have to be reciprocal. Boys and girls are shown interacting with each other naturally, and youth brands are pushing the boundaries of sexual awareness and choice.
Honda Pleasure Bike targets young women. Done lightheartedly ('why should boys have all the fun?'), the brand tackles the issue of women's dependence on others for mobility, sweeping aside the hundreds of questions she is asked every time she steps out of the house.
One of the most progressive shifts has come from Fair & Lovely, a brand that once preyed on traditional marriage anxiety with clips showing the rejection of brown skinned women by potential suitors. The brand's new protagonist shrugs off an 'irresistible' proposal from a man with a house and car, saying that she needs a few years to earn these herself.
The loudest and most effective campaign is P&anp;G's Whisper. More than 50% of urban Indian women practice regressive menstrual taboos. Considered unclean and untouchable, it is said that if she touches pickles, they will rot. Whisper tackles this head on, telling her to touch the pickle, break out of repressive conformity and achieve her dreams.
Brands in a market like India sell more than products. They sell us concepts of love, success, relationships and most importantly normalcy. They must therefore serve as champions of change. We don't need adverts that are the lukewarm products of focus groups of bored average housewives, playing back hackneyed stories full of conditioned biases. But at the same time, women should not be unshackled from patriarchy only to be trapped into other tyrannies such as objectification, unattainable beauty and super skinny body sizes.
Instead, brands must show the possibility of a different truth; where the differences between genders do not create inequality, reduce respect and impose limitations. Instead, differences create better relationships, better work places and ultimately a better society; where a woman is allowed to achieve as well as enjoy her femininity, where she is not asked to trade off being a mother and wife for her career. Don't define her by exalted notions of chastity, don't worship or violate her. Give her a voice and most importantly a choice. Empower her to be human, free from constant critical scrutiny and from the threat of failure.
Finally, brands cannot just skim the top layer of society. Equality is meaningless unless truly democratic. All savvy marketers understand that success and scale can only be achieved by targeting the lower tiers. Women are in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties, they live in the cities and towns and villages. They are married, single and divorced. They are daughters, wives, mothers and grandmothers. They work at home, in offices, in factories and in the bazaars. They are 49% of 1.2 billion consumers. They are ready for the possibility of a different truth.
This post is based on a paper presented at ESOMAR Asia Pacific in May 2015. Subscribers can read it here: Shedding the chastity belt: The beginnings of the Indian sexual revolution.