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The Age of Inclusion

Deval Karthik on inclusive communication as a media trend in 2016 and what it says about Indian society and consumer behaviour

I have been staying in the UAE since 2013 and as a result do not get much chance to watch TVCs for Indian companies and brands on TV, barring on some channels at select times. So my primary source of watching Indian ads that are ‘different’ and therefore ‘trending’ is Facebook posts of former colleagues and former students.

Whatever is trending, generally, has a short shelf life. Just as the success of any film is now determined by the 100/200/300 crore club and how quickly it made it there, any trending item is defined by number of views and shares. Impact of the film or the ad on the society really does not matter.

However, as I watched what was trending, curiosity got better of me and I started searching for advertisements of various product categories on You Tube. I was pleasantly surprised at the findings.

The TVCs in pre-liberalized India used to primarily have a dominant male voice, instructing what to buy. Whether it was a detergent or a refrigerator. Families were shown to follow Brahmanical traditions and women were show pieces doing household chores in crisp cotton sarees. Liril girl in the waterfall and Lalitaji’s ‘samajhdari’ were not a norm but an exception. A Father always saved for ‘Bete ki padhai and beti ki shadi’ and Life Insurance was meant only for men. Weddings were lavish and suits were crisp. Aspirational lifestyle was and still is a norm.

What seems to have changed in the advertisements in the recent times is that ‘inclusion’ now seems to be more acceptable. As Sonal Dabral, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of DDB Mudra puts it,”Compassion is so much bigger than bias” and that’s what we are witnessing in newer communication. (Ted EX, IIM Kashipur)

The Changing Family
A perfect family earlier meant joint family, eating together. A wedding was all about the bridal trousseau and bidaai. However, the notion of a ‘Perfect Family’ projected in the ads earlier is now being challenged. An ad for a jewellery brand projected an opulently decorated mandap, with all the revelries and baraaties in place, and the bride that walks in with her daughter from the previous marriage to enter a new phase of life. She is a confident bride, neither coy, nor teary eyed.  The same jewellery brand, this year shows a young girl gifting her sister a bracelet on Rakshabandhan, a festival traditionally celebrated by a brother and sister. This year also saw a lot of jewellery brands giving women the onus of buying themselves jewellery as opposed to depending someone, (mainly the men in their lives) do the same.  There was also, a brand that has always claimed to be for ‘The Complete Man’ shows a little girl, gifting a coffee mug to her Mother on Father’s Day, celebrating single mother who also acts as father to their children.

The Changing Sexuality
Some years ago, it was unthinkable to show romance between people of the same sex. Not only was it a huge taboo, but the marketers and advertisers now have decided to make them visible as slowly, they are warming up to the idea. A youth accessories brand, some years back, showed two young girls coming out of a closet, adjusting their outfits and giving coy look to each other. That was not yet the era of heightened debates and sharing and trending. But when a fashion brand in last couple of years showed a young lesbian couple, debate ensued. Then there was the very recent online ad that showed a gay couples across India and people didn’t bat an eyelid. It’s a good sign that people are observing the changes and are at least talking about it. Ignoring it would be a matter of concern.

The Changing Society
Many young people now tend to move to bigger cities and metros for study or work. Life styles are changing. In one ad, Parents walk in to their unmarried son’s apartment only to find him ‘living-in’ with a young woman. Stunned by what they have seen, they don’t walk away angrily, but reluctantly accept what they have witnessed.  In another ad, father of the girl in an arranged marriage meeting asks the boy if he knows any cooking and when can they visit to see where and how he stays. The boy, too, accepts the challenge.  Accepting the changing realities and challenging the antiquated norms is a good trend. Not that it will change the society, but the product and the brand does get noticed as it moves away from the clutter.

Earlier, pregnant women appeared in very few ads, mostly for products related to early childcare. But a pregnant woman asserting her right to work, right to promotion and starting out on her own because the organization doesn’t recognise her potential showed how much the advertisers have also moved on. Now we see many more ads showing pregnant women as part of a regular work force, finally accepting that they exist. This reality finally has seen the light of the day in advertisements.

We do see and hope to see more pregnant women depicted as regular work force; more differently abled and differently inclined people as real people; more families that are not the ‘standard’ family as normal families because they are real and they also make marketing sense. And I hope, we can also see real neighbours, not just in advertisements, but also in reality.

The Changing Abilities
In a more exciting scenario in advertising, we see a young couple expressing their love using sign language as one of them is mute. In another that prompts the viewers to ‘change the direction of the wind’ a visually challenged candidate appears for the audition of a TV newsreader. There is one more ad where the visually challenged girl is ready to start a new educational journey in a foreign land on her own.  Stammering is mostly frowned upon or made fun of. But when the advertisers challenge this belief, it warms up hearts.  Inclusion of the differently abled in mainstream advertising is very heartening.

But it is not the end because all is not well, yet.  Some advertisers have focussed on the changing norms in the society. Many still remain adamant with stereotypes. A recent ad of high tech refrigerator has girls that are almost invisible as the smart mom explains the technology to the boy and his active ‘boy’ friends. Cooking oil ads cater to the growing boy or to the man who must stay healthy. Hygiene and health care still remain exclusively for boys. It is always the boy who is taken for dental care, being rubbed a vapo rub and using 100 per cent germs free hand wash.  Only boys are actively making clothes dirty and proud moms use detergent to clean the stains, claiming ‘stains are good’. But an overt and excessive promotion of male child in advertisement is a stain that does not reflect that well on advertisers.


Deval Kartik is a Ph.D. in Consumer Behaviour and has been in training, communication and teaching for 24 years.
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