New Internationalist

Brand-hopping beauties

Issue 393

Advertising has always viewed women as vessels for consumer goods. In India, Mari Marcel Thekaekara witnesses an unholy confluence of snob appeal, racism and skullduggery.

Skin whitener being flogged in India using a famous white woman – Catherine Zeta-Jones.

‘To wax or not to wax?’ That is the question. Then there’s the ouch!! pluck, bleach, shave or laser. The new woman has myriad choices (within the rules of the game, of course). Hair must be luxuriant, glossy and dandruff-free if it’s on your head. If it’s on your face, legs or anywhere less mentionable, you stand in mortal danger of being dubbed follically challenged. These are the critical issues for today’s Indian woman, according to the gospel of advertising.

‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ is definitely the message being blasted at them in this, our Information Technology era. Bangalore and Bombay boast thousands of IT and management women. Professionals who have had to prove they are better than men in order to get to where they’ve got. Yet women in Indian ads remain stereotyped and boringly predictable, though in newer, subtler ways.

Word has been out for some time now that India and China are where the markets are. When you are dealing with the female half of a billion people, however, the attack has to be multi-pronged to hit the jackpot. And our versatile, street-smart and savvy ad men know this. Our burgeoning, much-touted middle class numbers – apparently – 250 million, or roughly the entire US population. But even the other lot, the poor, can provide profits.

Living in the back of beyond as I do, the purchasing power of India’s élites stuns me whenever I visit a metropolis. I asked my son to buy me an assortment of magazines from happening Bangalore to read about 21st century ‘shopping’ India. Unbelievably, we now have Indian editions of Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Elle. Even our home-grown specials like Femina have the glossy, hi-tech look, aimed at the ultra-rich, and are consequently devoid of articles that might venture beyond the spheres of fashion and domesticity. However, it took India Today Spice to really do me in. ‘Go brand-hopping,’ they urged, ‘for the hautest of the hot buys.’ And kidding they were not. In poverty-stricken India there’s a readership of women who would buy (or aspire to) a dress that costs 246,000 rupees ($5,366) or a Trusardi bag for $2,290, or a more casual Aigner bag for a trifling $1,745.

An advert for men’s clothing goes the whole hog on sexual clichés

Babes, not behenjis

Why is this more than merely mindless shopping? Because it epitomizes, at the highest purchasing level, what is being done to India. The Indian woman is being transformed, created anew. She is being told that to be beautiful and cool, she must look like an Italian model or a Parisian socialite. All the ads in the upper-crust magazines demand this. In local lingo you must stop being a behenji – an Indian stereotype, homegrown, almost rustic, dressed in Indian traditional (not cool ‘ethnic’) salwars or saris, unburdened with good taste. To be a behenji is to be pitied by the urban, ultra-cool types who read Indian Cosmo, Elle and Marie Claire and try their damnedest to look Western smart.

A few years ago, I laughed at the new Sunsilk shampoo ads which told women it was specially made for long black hair (read 99 per cent of Indian women). Now the upper crust and middle class are told not to be boring behenjis but to go blonde or at least streak their hair. Contact lenses turn you blue-, green- or hazel-eyed.

And of course skin must turn white to be perfect. This predilection for white (in India, it’s called ‘fair’) skin is an ancient Indian obsession. One of the most successful ad campaigns was for a whitening cream called Fair and Lovely. It can be found in remote villages where women cannot afford a cup of milk or sugar for their tea. But Fair and Lovely and Sunsilk marketed their cream and shampoo in tiny one rupee (2 US cents) plastic or foil sachets which crept into every crevice of rural India. The lesson was well learnt. There’s more money to be made from our masses, our poor millions. And exploiting - sorry, ‘targeting’ - the rural woman became the new ad line.

Our rich women are no less gullible. L’Oréal and Garnier were quick to capitalize on the Indian woman’s obsession with skin colour. So, while they strive to bronze white women in London, Rome and Paris, in India they promise to lighten you up with chemicals. L’Oréal’s White Perfect comes with the slogan ‘skin bright, perfect white’.

In India derogatory references to skin colour are routinely ignorant and crass. There is some waving of the cultural flag by the moral police who claim traditional Indian values are being swept away by decadent, permissive Western influences. But these are warped protests. They do not want ‘liberated’ women (read women in Western garb), because this threatens to overturn patriarchal control mechanisms. It implies the questioning of decision-making male authority. It means the docile, submissive, dowry-bringing daughter-in-law goes out of the window.

Although the ‘now’ ads portray the modern Indian woman as a liberated, cool consumer, there is a new twist in the tale. Formerly, ads were blatantly sexist, draping semi-nude women around any product, ranging from cars to washing machines. Now you have the modern woman panting after the male. So the nude is the male stud with the perfect Greek god body. And the women drool, chase and/or attack him. Implicit is the message that the new liberated woman, out there in the office, is sex-starved and can’t wait to pounce. One of the most obnoxious is an underwear ad on TV which had women mobbing a man because of his irresistible jocks. He is left bemused, his body dotted with lipsticky kisses.

Modern domestic goddess

Another has the boss drooling, licking his lips, a glazed look in his eyes. His bespectacled (read sex-starved) secretary, not unreasonably, thinks he’s hitting on her and begins to unbutton her shirt, sending out I’m-for-it-too vibes. But it’s not her the bossman is leching after. It’s a Kwality-Walls ice cream being licked sensuously in the background by another, a beautiful babe. So what’s new?

The ads directed at the average middle-class woman show her dressed more traditionally. But she is poised, beautifully groomed, not a hair out of place, has the perfect home and, if it’s detergent, her family is delighted because the kids go to school in spotlessly laundered clothes thanks to mummy and the washing machine detergent. Or hubby comes home to gourmet meals. Sings hosanna to his smart wife who shops so cleverly that she produces instant to-die-for coffee, noodles or soups which save money, nourish the body while pampering the taste buds. So the stereotyped ideal Indian woman is preserved. She is educated, modern, beautiful – but also the dutiful, perfect wife and mother.

All washed up

Go a zillion notches down the economic ladder to majority India. No glossy magazines here. It’s where the hoi polloi, the illiterate, the unwashed starving millions without spending power live. But nowadays even the poor get to watch telly, courtesy of community TVs donated by local governments at election time. And it is through this medium that unlettered Indian women are conned into buying fairness cream to make their skin white and shampoo to make their hair silky black. Traditionally every village had local, organic, home-produced shampoos and soap powders made from plants ranging from reetha soapnuts to hibiscus flowers. Now these products are in demand by the élite (who’ve ‘discovered’ organics) while poor women buy chemical, synthetic substitutes. The 10-gram sachets sold at one rupee a pop are a rip-off. The rich city woman pays far less for her half-litre bottle. Economy of scale? Or gross exploitation? Women in ads never make decisions about banking, insurance or pension funds. Here the woman is the wife whose thoughtful, intelligent husband, sage and omnipotent, has invested wisely to provide lavishly even in their old age. If a woman executive is shown, she is advertising a suit. Mostly she’s the secretary. The stewardess. Always smiling, happy to be of service. There’s the implication that she’ll go to any length to serve. It’s supposed to be naughty-clever copy. Space here for men to fantasize.

‘One is not born a woman but made,’ Simone de Beauvoir wryly noted several decades ago. In the current Indian scenario the aptness of that remark seems tragically appropriate. Why do women continue to take pride in allowing themselves, their bodies, to be exploited and abused? The Indian women’s groups who protested against beauty pageants had little support. The women who do a bikini trot to become beauty queens don’t see themselves as exploited. Real life, as always, is elsewhere. As I write this, today’s newspaper reports that self-help groups of the women of Vellore rescued over 200 children from bonded labour. This is a world away from the delusional dreams of adland. Perhaps the day will come when all women, not just commie-hippy-liberated-feminist ones, will recognize and fight against the ad culture that denigrates and devalues them.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a frequent contributor to the NI.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Brand-hopping beauties

Leave your comment