Thursday, February 7, 2008

Gender Imagery and Advertising

For years, we have been used to seeing a certain kind of advertisement- especially advertisements from the financial sector. The advertisements would exhort you to save, so that there was enough in the kitty for your daughter’s wedding and of course enough to fund your son’s education. The financial planner’s marketing buzz was to make these basic inquiries and then suggest a savings plan to meet those goals.

But for some time now I have been watching a series of advertisements which go against this grain. In one of them, the daughter of the house comes lamenting that she has secured admission in a good university abroad but doesn’t have the resources to pay the fees and her scholarships will not pay the full amount. Various alternatives are suggested including a loan from a wealthy uncle but they don’t find favor. Finally the father hugs his daughter and says that there is some one who has been saving for this very day for years and the girl gets the point that it is none other than her dad. The advertisement is for a children’s’ savings plan for a particular insurance company but the treatment of the subject is touching.

The same company has recently begun airing another advertisement. In this, a couple has retired and their income plummeted. As they cope and adjust with their life style (the man is shown repairing his old car), the man’s daughter coaxes him to buy a new one. As the man demurs, his daughter provides him the cash, because she has been saving up so that she can be of help and support to her parents in their old age. Again, this is an advertisement for a pension plan of the same insurance company but the manner in which the company has tried to break though the layers of social stereotypes that it is the son who needs an education and the daughter a husband is refreshing. Or the equally prevalent imagery that in times of need particularly financial need, it is basically the son, to whom you turn to for help.

Advertising has a nasty connotation with many individuals - implying the promotion of excess and useless mass consumerism. But in some cases, advertising can be a powerful vehicle promoting ideas for positive social change and this series of advertisements is an example. Typically socially relevant messages can tend to be preachy and sound and look like the old Films Division documentaries which nobody liked to sound and watch. But it is important to recognize and look out for messages couched in commercial imagery but which challenge and replace norms – to begin with in the world of small and big screens and then in real life.

As Suzanne Keeler of the Canadian Advertising Foundation puts it,

Social change doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t ever happen quickly. Permanent social change usually requires commitment, tenacity and real action on several levels - the public, government and industry. It requires attitudinal change at all these levels as well and that doesn’t take place overnight either. Social change is already happening in advertising and it is being furthered by the industry”

Meanwhile, for many of the rest of us, so used to devilling the advertising world as peddlers of greed and consumerism, it may be time to applaud and commend the bright spots around that we see. For there is hope that one day they will turn into beacons of light that will transform the social landscape as we see it today in many significant ways.

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