Why are Indian ads confirming to some clichéd stereotypes?

A number of recent advertisements are portraying Africans in a negative light. While Indians scream blue murder whenever they feel they are at the receiving end of racism, why are our ads so insensitive?

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) plans to pull up the recent LMN ad that was being aired, on the grounds that the advertisement was portraying Africans in a negative manner. Why are Indian ads confirming to some ugly stereotypes?

"This type of racial stereotyping is against our code," said ASCI's secretary general, Alan Collaco. Under Chapter 3 of ASCI's code, the ad for the LMN drink from Parle Agro has broken the rule which states that no advertisements can deride any race, caste, colour, creed or nationality. ASCI has already sent a letter to the agency behind the ad.

The LMN ad goes something like this - two dark-skinned individuals who reside in the desert are dying of thirst and are unable to get a single drop of water. Both eventually end up chasing water hoses, mistake taps for digging tools in their desperation - they even try to suckle a cheetah and finally try to kill each other for water. It can be argued that the ad is trying to stand out from the rest, but it clearly portrays that Africans cannot figure out the difference between a tap and a digging instrument.

Coke's ad for its lemon drink Sprite also takes a similar approach. The commercial portrays a fat dumb guy and a slim smart guy, both stuck in the jungles of Africa and who are trapped by one of the continent's tribes. The fat dumb guy tries to please the chief by breaking into what he thinks is an African dance. He only manages to agitate the chief who decides to make a meal out of him. But the slim smart guy offers the chief a bottle of Sprite and wins him over! All the stereotyped clichés in this ad (fat guys are dumb; slim guys are smart and African tribes are cannibals), apparently wasn't caught by ASCI's radar.

Mr Collaco maintains that there are no other such ads airing on television. But look around and you will find more.

 Ads for fairness creams are big culprits. In a country where 'fair' is equal to 'lovely' and people obsess over every incremental shade from dark to fair (see any matrimonial classified column for further proof), it is clearly big business to encourage and perpetuate stereotypes. Advertisers want gullible young girls to believe that a fairer skin - which can be achieved through the contents of a tube - will get them glamorous jobs, the perfect husband or the winner's crown at a beauty pageant. After making it big with women, most manufacturers have now expanded their market by launching fairness creams for men. According to a few 'surveys' carried out by these whitening cream peddlers, even men would prefer a whiter complexion!

An important component of advertising is suggestion and not information. Advertising makes use of associations, appeal to emotion and the drives dormant in the subconscious. It also reaches out to desires in the target audience-like happiness, health, fitness, appearance, self-esteem, reputation, belonging, social status, identity, adventure and reward.

Ergo, when ads confirm to some clichéd stereotypes, they are actually strengthening them in the minds of viewers and readers.  

Industry people tell us that advertising thrives on stereotyping because it is easy. The association of lungis with south Indians and dumbness with the obese are easily recognisable stereotypes and hence find quick acceptance with customers, goes the argument.

"Yes, ads often stereotype groups and communities. And that is because so does popular culture. Ads only feed on popular perceptions, they parasite on existing prejudices, for a quick connect with audiences. Remember that the job of commercial ads is not to enforce social change; their intention is to sell products and make money. And riding existing perceptions leads to that quicker," said Anil Thakraney, advertising expert and  columnist.

"Sometimes it's about the advertiser trying hard to play to the gallery. One would say, sometimes a bit too hard," said Macklin Lacerda, creative group head, Draftfcb+Ulka.

However, veteran ad man Prahlad Kakkar told Moneylife that certain stereotypes are needed for depiction. "How can you show a Goan without a guitar in his hand? It's needed because it brings about an association to the viewer."

He also said - quite correctly, one would admit in some instances - that people need to lighten up. "Come on, people need to stop taking things so seriously; we've been cracking Sardarji jokes for hundreds of years. So, do you mean to say that Sardarjis are stupid? Give people a break, learn to smile and laugh at yourself or else it would be the end of entertainment in advertisements."

We agree too. However, some stereotypes are just fun-but ads like the ones that sell fairness creams and foster racism are definitely not.

pushkar kulkarni
1 decade ago
how about the toothpaste ads, which claim IDA association??i have never uinderstood what is the sanctity of ida and what "authority" it carries. iot is just making fool of people. i assume ida is owned by colgate?? or majorly sponsored by colgate??
1 decade ago
Ads indulge in stereotyping because it's easy, doesn't require much thought or creativity and appeals to the lowest common denominator which is also the largest segment of the audience. As for racism, it's the usual double standard: we are probably more racist than anybody else, but object long and loud when we are the victims.
TP Viswanathan
1 decade ago
This is interesting. When Johnson and Johnson likens its Baby Powder with Mother's Milk, where are the bosses of Advertisement Standards Council looking at!! It is really frustrating and hurting when that ad is aired in various languages. One has to undergo an orientation course to make complaint on line in the format devised by the Council. A attempted that but stopped at that as I was unable to decipher what they want by repeating the same question. Can't the Council accept a plan advertisement from the consumer?
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