MY VIEW: Tracing the Evolution of a Woman’s Role in India Through Its Ads

How has society’s views of married life changed over the last 50 years? Do we still see married life and gender roles through predetermined rose-tinted glasses? Advertising provides some interesting snapshots of how the depiction of married life has changed over the decades in India because married couples and their relationships have been a fertile hunting ground for advertisers.

This excerpt from brand strategist Ambi Parmeswaram’s new book, ‘Nawabas, Nudes, Noodle: Indian Through 50 Years of Advertising’, published by Pan Macmillan, explores the different ways in which couple dynamics are presented now.


Demographers will inform us that there has been a steady growth of nuclear family homes, homes where it’s just the mom, dad and kids. It is a myth that for centuries Indian homes were all ‘Hindu Undivided Familes’. Sociologists tell us that for centuries, in most Indian societies, the eldest son stayed with the parents, while the younger sons and, of course, the daughters moved out – but for matrilineal societies as in Kerala. So we have had the concept of nuclear families in India for many centuries. But undoubtedly, the trend has gained speed with rapid urbanization and migration in search of work. According to the Indian Readership Survey, in the last twenty years, the share of nuclear homes in urban India, has gone up from 35 per cent to 45 per cent. The concept of nuclear families in itself changes some of the dynamics of the home. The absence of a mother-in-law gives a lot more power to the wife. The husband has a counterpoint to his power in the house. The ancient concept of the ‘karta’ or the head of the household is no longer prevalent in a large percentage of homes. All these are empowering the woman of the house to do a lot more than she has ever done, redefining her role in her own eyes as well as those of the society at large.

It is true that, unlike in the developed markets, the Indian woman is still playing the role of a homemaker. Rena Bartos, American demographics researcher, has through her research shown that the simplistic approach used by marketers of classifying women as non-working and working is flawed. Even among women who work, she has shown that there are various shades of commitment to career and to family.

The role of the wife in India has now expanded beyond the home and the kitchen.

During the 2010s, we have seen several ads, which have tried to present the man-woman relationship in a more edgy manner. Havells brand of juicers had an ad created by Lowe Lintas where the rather portly husband comes home after his morning walk with a buddy and somewhat patronizingly shouts out to his wife (‘Babes’) that she should quickly drum up a glass of fresh carrot juice and another of orange juice. The young woman brings him the new Havells juicer along with a carrot and an orange, and asks him to make it himself because she was stepping out for her morning run. Or in yet another ad, this time for the matrimonial website, Bharat Matrimony, the young man’s parents suggest that since he got a promotion at work which allows them to live comfortably, perhaps his wife should stop working now. He – an antithesis of the Havells husband – responds that his wife is working because she likes to work and will continue to do so as long as she wants to. Shutting up the parents in the process.

Ariel, a laundry detergent brand from the global major Procter & Gamble, is running a major campaign called #ShareTheLoad, encouraging husbands to share the laundry load with their wives.

Indian Ads 1

Are we seeing a revolution in the way marital relationships are evolving in modern India? The concept of marriage, the roles of the husband as provider, the wife as caregiver is as yet the most common paradigm in India. Ads have been able to capture this well and, as we saw, have started exploring the fringes of the stereotypical roles like in the Airtel advertisements. But I would submit that the Airtel ad was a depiction of a future, not the current reality. And in a sense, good advertising is an attempt to always stay one step ahead of the consumer. …

What may have caused this sea of change? I think the transformation has been caused by a few distinct phenomena. Firstly, women in urban homes are a lot more educated than their mothers. So the big educational gap between the husband and the wife has narrowed dramatically in just twenty years. Given this education, the woman is a lot more vocal in expressing her desires. Advertising captures this eloquently. Secondly, couples are moving out of their home towns, more often than ever. This movement in itself has forced the couple to become more self-sufficient, putting more pressure on the man of the house, who now needs his wife’s help and cooperation to carry his new burdens. Thirdly, growing financial needs have pressurized the woman to start working, with the support of her husband and often her in-laws. From being a thorn in the side of the ‘bahu’, the in-laws are slowly becoming a valuable source of help, at least in taking care of the children. …

The future will throw up newer issues and changes in relationships. For instance, live-in relationships are still scorned in most Indian societies. I was delighted to see the Tamil movie O Kadhal Kanmani by Mani Ratnam exploring this new dynamic. Chances are that we will see a lot of this happening in society leading to major issues for parents to tackle, which will also be reflected in Indian advertising. Fastrack has an ad where a young girl gets up from bed – she had spent the night with a guy in the boy’s hostel – quietly slips out of the room, runs through the corridor, jumps over the gate and runs off into the street, all while putting on her clothes and shoes which were in her Fastrack bag.

The brand asks its users to ‘MoveOn’. Brooke Bond Red Label tea also has an ad which shows a live-in relationship. So brands are experimenting with the way man-woman dynamic is presented in advertising…

Indian Ads2

Indian couples are still negotiating the next phase of their duties but with women taking up successful careers and starting big and small businesses, we may see more stay-at-home husbands, who will be in charge of bringing up the child, attending PTA meets, visiting the family doctor, housekeeping and more. I am sure we will soon see ads that predict this future.

It is amusing to recall that in the ’70s, the government of India used to run long commercials in cinema halls and on the television extolling the virtues of using a pressure cooker. In a boring monotonous voice, the ad explained to its viewers how a pressure cooker can save almost 30 per cent of fuel cost, since food cooks faster when cooked in a pressure cooker. I suspect the ‘Jo biwi se kare pyaar’ tag line sold millions more cookers than the fuel-saving litany from our then socialist-leaning government.

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Submitted by theWomen’s Feature Service (WFS) and republished here in arrangement with WFS.

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