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CASE OF THE 
STEREOTYPICAL DILEMMA

To stereotype or not to stereotype, that’s the question. (Apologies to Shakespeare!)

 

Every story confronts a dilemma. At some point of the narrative, it has to decide on whether to advocate or challenge the stereotype.

 

A good book may take several pages to build the story to arrive at this fork and resolve it. But modern communication encounters reducing attention spans. It needs to tell this same story in a few seconds. We live in an era of six second YouTube pre-rolls. (It is smaller than the time you would take to read this last sentence).

 

This burden of time has pushed us into an era of oversimplification. We use existing human biases about gender (among others) as a storytelling shorthand. Much advertising is guilty of using such gender stereotypes. In a perverse way, these portrayals only further reinforce the stereotype.

 

In a 'caveat emptor' world, marketers continue to use such stereotypes because consumers do not reject such depictions. In fact, such depictions do well in consumer research and in marketplace performance.

 

Why does this happen? Is this because mainstream India, the belly of the market, continues to live in the past? Or is it that the stereotype is not deemed to be derogatory but a true representation of reality? It’s not stereotypical, but just typical?

 

Some may argue that portraying women as nurturing home makers are regressive. On the other side of the coin, such roles are a mainstream reality for women in India. Over many researches and enquiries, brands have learnt these rooted truths. It only followed that these truths have converted into successful communication formulas.

 

In such a universe, issues like gender stereotyping are ‘first world’ problems. These only trouble and invite the ire of the niche twitterati. Citizens of this universe would claim that the nation has many more serious issues to solve.

 

There is a common saying in India that roughly translates as “For every truth, there is a countertruth”.

 

In this instance, there is a counter truth. Biased gender portrayals affects niche and luxury brands negatively. This is even more true among an affluent and aware section of Indian audiences. Politically incorrect communication immediately invites the ire of such netizens.

 

Such niche brands are now popularising the concept of ‘Femvertising’. Empowerment has become a common theme to break mainstream women stereotypes. These brands are reshaping the image of an ‘ideal woman’. Look at ads like Nike Da-Da-Ding, Puma Propah-lady and Ariel Share-the-load !

 

Yet, stereotypical male portrayals still fly under the radar. Brands may get get kudos for breaking woman stereotypes. But challenging male stereotypes continues to be fraught with risk. This may be because male stereotypes put men up on a pedestal. (In contrast, women stereotypes tend to be condescending). For example, Gillette got negative press in India when they launched ‘The best a man can be’ campaign. So, we continue to love the macho Indian man. But, the ‘Sati Savitri’ (metaphorical; Victorian Prude) has left the building.

 

From all this, can we infer a two pronged approach? Mass brands should stay true to the stereotype in line with mainstream culture. Niche luxury brands should challenge them to be more in line with the world.

 

Many questions follow from this inference. Is it the curse of the popular brand to follow conventions? What is the cultural meaning of desire in such an orthodox world? What is the meaning of progress in such a universe?

 

Challenging the stereotype makes it outrageous. But aligning to it makes it unnoticeable.

 

The problem with stereotyping is not that it is untrue, but that it is incomplete. Stereotypes usually paint a unidimensional picture. But, people are rarely unidimensional. For example, a mother taking care of her family is not her only and complete story. She is also be an astrologer, marathon runner, fashion diva and part-time shrink to her friends.

 

This multifaceted nature of human personality gives us a clue. As a culture, Indians believe in the circular narrative rather than a linear one. This is the reason why, we prefer a thali with a little bit of many dishes, rather than the linearity of a four course meal.

 

In the same vein, we could expand the stereotype rather than seek to break it. Our CEO calls this the Maya Point, as an acronym for ‘Most Aspirational Yet Accessible’. It's about striking the right balance between how much to keep and how much to change. It’s about walking the knife’s edge between being refreshing and yet not being over-the-top.

 

'Maya' creates fascination for the character within relevance for her story. Hitting the Maya point requires us to track what is rising in culture. This is worth repeating. As marketers and advertisers, we need to track what is emerging rather than be a slave to what is true.

 

The third alternative to blind obedience or raw rebellion against the stereotype? We expand the stereotype on dimensions that are already rising in culture.

 

In sum, expand the stereotype on what is rising, rather than be hostage to its current reality. This creates 'palatable desire' at the point of Maya. Maya then is no longer an illusion.

 

What better way to have your cake and eat it too?

Also read a special report on Millennial Mums from TBWA\India.