From the discomfort zone: Socially disgracing women

From the discomfort zone: Socially disgracing women

The consumer forum can stop such products that feed on people’s sense of worth and horribly humiliate women.

The ads emphasise how fair skin grows a girl’s confidence, lands her plum jobs and raises her marital fortune.
The ads emphasise how fair skin grows a girl’s confidence, lands her plum jobs and raises her marital fortune.

When I was working with a European company that made different types of home cleaning products like sponges, cleaning dusters, mops and the like, I remember the brand was once accused of being disrespectful to women. We had devised a special mopping innovation for the client where the handle’s manoeuvrability enabled easy cleaning. Rinsing it was made easier too. It provided great consumer advantage. The advertising storyline used the tango dance. The stick represented the man and the mop was the woman. The product achieved huge sales success within six months. Then one day, the client got a notice from the court that women were being abused as servants in the ad, thereby degrading them. The ad had to be taken off air within 48 hours. Even the product concept was questioned because in the tango dance, the woman, represented by the mop, does all the dirty work like a slave through complex dance steps. On the other hand, the man (the stick), largely only provides the balance. However, the client could save the concept and the product if they kicked out the advertisement. The big lesson we learnt was to be super-sensitive and to not tamper with people’s sentiments and the dignity of women. The accusation that women had been insulted by the ad did not come from activists, but a consumer forum. Just imagine the superior power consumers have in developed countries that the industry itself can’t do things the way they want.

Zapping the TV remote yesterday, I stumbled upon an edible oil advertisement on a regional Indian channel. The prospective groom’s family was choosing the bride based on her ability to cook. Doubtful, scrutinising faces were shown to light up brightly when they tasted her cooking one by one. But according to the ad, the cooking was good only because of the oil. The prospective bride’s family was shown surreptitiously paying thankful reverence to the oil brand for achieving this success. Isn’t it shocking how we socially ill-treat our women to sell branded products? That the girl’s performance is judged as though she’s a cook that is being hired is bad enough. Add to this our unjust social system that debases the honour of women by accepting such a bride selection/elimination process. To top it all, here wash tis TV commercial blatantly demeaning the woman’s cooking competence while showing a heroic brand as helping her overcome her shortcoming to make her a winner. The ad’s tone and manner may purport to be fun, but isn’t it a below-the-belt punch to the dignity of women? How can arranged marriages use women as merchandise to be selected on abilities that will provide comfort to the family choosing her?

I remember when I was around 10 years old, I went along with my maternal uncle’s family when they went to select a bride for him. The girl was very beautiful. I was the only child there and she was very attentive to me. I quickly became fond of her and felt happy that she would be my aunt. She was called to walk around and serve us delicious food and sweets. I was looking forward to the marriage, but after a while I heard that the marriage had been called off. I was very disappointed, but could not understand why. Much later, after I’d gone to France and was on a holiday trip home, while having some nostalgic conversation, I was shocked to discover why she was rejected. When they had asked her to walk, it seems that she took big bold steps which displayed her character to be very independent. So it was assumed that she would not be a subservient daughter-in-law. You can’t imagine how ashamed I felt that my family could inflict such an insult.
People in our country lack the courage to challenge with scientific logic.

They either fight, not debate or keep quiet. I squirm to see fairness cream advertising in India that disgracefully slur women’s honour. Being the world’s most heterogeneous society with strong geographical changes across south, east, north and west India, every Indian’s morphology and pigmentation obviously cannot be the same. Yet culturally, in every region, fairness is coveted. The ads emphasise how fair skin grows a girl’s confidence, lands her plum jobs and raises her marital fortune. Skin lightening cosmetics have, year after year, played on the insecurities of people and created a Rs 3,000 crore industry by 2014. As film stars are used to advertise these products, the film industry is largely responsible for propagating such social non-acceptance fears because of dark skin. How many heroines have you seen who are dark? Does it mean the role model for women in our country is fair heroines?


The earliest commercial fairness creams in India were made in 1919. In 1975, an MNC whitening product came in and its has ruled monopolistically for several years to become a Rs 1,000 crore brand. It seems 30 per cent of fairness creams are secretly used by men, so from 2005 onwards, a special whitening product for self-doubting men promising them better prospects was successfully launched. Today, many international cosmetics companies have joined the fray to entice women to become whiter. Millions of our people are below the poverty line or don’t have the money to take care of their skin through nutrition. Instead they fall victims to such products for their skin troubles. Don’t these companies realise how insulting their proposition is to the natural beauty of women? The Centre for Science and Environment says health is at stake too because about 44 per cent of fairness creams marketed in India contain high toxic mercury levels that can eventually affect the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. By quoting this NGO, I am of course not raising any issue of creams protecting skin from the sun’s ultra-violet rays.

Frankly, we don’t require activists to rebel against such disgraceful money making activities. The consumer forum can stop such products that feed on people’s sense of worth and horribly humiliate women. There are already many different ways that exist in this country that disgracefully insult its women. It’s a shame.

Shombit Sengupta is a global consultant on unique customer centricity strategy to execution excellence for top management.

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