Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CONSUMER : October 31, 1999
It's all for her
One area where women enjoy high visibility is in their role as consumers. Many products - beauty, fashion, healthcare and household goods - are specifically directed to women and this means that a lot of advertising seeks to influence women, putting them in a frame of mind to create a market for the product rather than improving their self image. As Myra Macdonald observes in Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the Popular Media, "As evidence grew in the early decades of the twentieth century that the developing arts of retailing and advertising were attracting a predominantly female clientele, marketers and advertisers became significant definers of twentieth century women's desires and aspirations. The media's interest in attracting women as readers or viewers was often motivated first by their perceived commercial value as customers."
Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique presents the feminist viewpoint when she speaks of the 'motivated manipulation' of women's emotions - "the reservoir that their lack of identity, lack of purpose creates to be manipulated into dollars at the point of purchase." She describes a post II World War survey to study the psychology of housekeeping from 4,500 samples divided into The True Housewife Type, whose dominant interest is housekeeping, The Career Woman unhealthy from the seller's viewpoint and the Balanced Homemaker, the ideal type who would opt for mechanical appliances to gain time for outside interests. The idea then was to educate more women to accept membership of this group as it represented the market with the greatest future potential. Women were encouraged to be 'modern' housewives and any felt need for careers was to be subverted by making the home a factory of appliances. The woman hailed as an expert in the finer points of household management, was flattered into seeing herself as a scientific educator able to follow advertisements and promotions explaining the advantages of dust collection systems, elimination of hidden bacteria and preventive health management.
Films helped to promote beauty products and stars defined the rules of the beauty game (Lux soap in the Thirties as well as today). The home maker was equated with domestic consumption and control of the family budget and therefore specifically targetted. Proctor and Gamble toiletries were sold by sponsored 'soap operas', the items they peddled giving their name to a new genre of entertainment. In the Nineties American researchers found that African-American women watched 23 hours more television a week than other groups and so included Black models in their advertisements, a case of commerce providing visibility to a neglected group. Cosmetics advertising targetted Black women who spent $600 million a year on these products, new Black lines specifically meant for ethnic groups were launched as this niche was expected to touch 732 million dollars by 1997.
The Women's Health Interactive's Research Centre is focussed upon learning from women their attitudes, behaviour and needs as related to health information, education, products and services. There are online pages giving the alternative medicine perspective on women's disorders. The Dietary Guidelines Alliance went into research in two phases, men and women in the first and women only in the second, "because they are 'gatekeepers', helping to shape their families' nutrition and health behaviours" - one only needs a slight jiggle of the memory to recapture all the women's faces in the Complan, Horlicks and Dettol ads. In order to spark behaviour change the DGA also wanted "to find out what they (women) believe, what they value and what motivates them (because) identifying motivators and barriers (to achieving better health) will improve the power of the messages and increase the likelihood that a person will act on the message."
Even Russia, which only recently turned capitalist, has had its women polled for the apparels market. The yearning of Russian women for the Western way of life pushes them towards Western clothes and products, it was found, while their financial circumstances hold them back. Russian businesswomen, a new class, wanted attractive, wellmade clothing that upholds their image as professionals. With the availability of more variety they were getting to be more selective mentioning various lacunae in the market in a "Delevoi Mir" (Business World) poll, where their recently acquired awareness stretched to expressing the fear that many stores tried to sell them clothing that cannot find a market in the West.
When shifting women's interests to women norms in advertising and product development change, a Detroit News article speaks of how in trying to sell golf balls to women, the marketing department was studying colour - pink balls - and what colour clubs women would like "instead of looking at what kinds of clubs would fit a woman's stature, what would make women better players. "Some time ago we had the ads for the Cielo car: one in a male voice, the other spoken by a female. Advertisers' stereotypical perceptions of male and female consumer needs in buying a car were very clear when the man spoke in it of various mechanical improvements - "power-this and power-that"' - and stressed the fact that from the days that he had to borrow his boss's old car he had climbed to the comfortable heights of owning this beauty while the woman - even her shy and indulgent tone were a giveaway - appreciated the fact that it had more room for children and the husband who earlier could not hold her hand while driving, now wanted to take her for a drive specifically to hold her hand (power-this and power-that again but put to achieving wholly different ends.) The Dove soap ad creates a similar romantic tone for the woman speaker but takes the intimacy-angle a notch higher when she says Dove doesn't dry the skin like soap does and he says he knows it because "it is written all over you." An artificial feminine mystique is created even while creating multiple possible identities - from the scientific household manager to the executive superwoman playing several roles but always in control - to enhance her spending. Advertising seeks to influence consumer attitudes also by exercising control over contents of women's magazines. It is on record that a leading American women's journal lost the Clairol (hair dye manufacturers) account for six months when it published an article on the glories of grey hair. Since ads therefore self lifestyles and identities, targetting women and youth, consumer education now includes building awareness and encouraging more critical reception of TV programmes.
Women's magazines carry a subtitle that reflects their perception of the New Woman. A magazine of that name says "She's a bit like you". Femina announces that it is a magazine for "the woman of sub stance", while Elan announces it is about Glamour, Home and Style "for the woman of the world." In spite of the leaps purportedly taken in view of the changing face of the woman consumer most magazines and women's pages of newspapers do not move too far away from the status quo represented by recipe, gardening and interior decor ideas pages with the mandatory advice on women's disorders by a gynaecologist sponsored by manufacturers of sanitary napkins or birth control pills. The worst kind of lip service to a cause coupled with commercial exploitation of an occasion comes with sponsorship of programmes "celebrating" International Women's Day on March 8 every year, and now, of shopping festivals "For The Woman" with some panel discussions on women's issues thrown in apparently to lift underlying motives to loftier planes. Somewhat on the lines of the beauty pageants testing the brainpower of contestants after their teeth, figure, hair and other assets have been examined by the judges! In addition now, there is also the appeal to "micropreneurs" to take up direct marketing of cosmetics, the attraction to their womanly sensibilities being that they need not keep "work and family separate". And of course there is the new opportunity to give mothers their due on Mothers' Day, a pure and simple commercial opportunity for greetings card manufacturers and florist to make their kill. And the manufacturers' booklets which come free with women's magazines send the clear message "Pamper yourself" when you clean, beautify or rejuvenate yourself out of various tubes and jars.
Manoj K. Jain
The changing face of the modern woman consumer is presented in a cover story in Elan (vol. 1, # 2) when the writer Pamela Cheema, quotes Mr. Dhananjay Khotpal, Senior Art Director of Canco Advertising: "As the buying power (and hence the decision making power) of the 'new woman' is changing, advertisements are now portraying women as powerful (as opposed to obedient and caring individuals), who are concerned about how their money is spent and hence make calculated decisions on what to buy for the family". The emotional appeal of the wife and mother caring intelligently for the family appears in newer areas as in investment bonds and growth funds advertised in women's magazines. Increasing economic power has opened great vistas of imported and indigenously produced products for women but research has proved that even when trendy, the Indian woman does not move too far away from tradition. Cheema's article also shows new markets being created as in the Elle-18 target, the late teenager with a working mother, who acknowledges that they can afford various goods because mother also works and influences decisions taken at home.
With the change in the economic and social status of the woman consumer at least some advertisers have started research on how to address the new woman. Sarah Newman and Julian Saunders of Ogilvy-Mather, have made a study to arrive at a deeper and more relevant approach to female targetting (A&M magazine, July, 15, 1999). Wanting to move away from the two stereotypes of the single girl about town "moneyed, confident, lovers abounding" and "the woman at home with children obsessed with the smooth running of her home, entirely wrapped up in the family with no thought for herself", they talked to various women to understand the diversity of their lives now. They came to the conclusion that instead of addressing the woman merely in terms of her role they should appeal to her identity. They concluded that there are periods in a woman's life when a sense of self or "me" is strongly suppressed (as when she stays at home looking after young children, continuously tired and with multiple responsibilities for others) and others were it is enhanced as in the "emptynester" and therefore if they could isolate the right "me" and communicate it in advertising they could extend their reach. Some of these collective identities they found successful are Outrageous me, The Child in me, Maternal me, Naughty me, Clever me, Nostalgic me, The Lover in me and Independent me.
Manoj K. Jain
There are however dangers that come with increased targetting of consumers with greater spending power. Cyntia M. Lont sounds a note of caution against mixing up feelings with the buying of goods when she says in her book Women and Media: Content, Careers, Criticism, "Advertising creates a heavenly world where diets always work and makeup transforms average women into goddesses. They want to keep women forever searching in the supermarket of love for the dress, the perfume or the pair of breasts that will seduce the dream mate." She talks also of how advertising makes the consumer confuse goods with emotions as when love is equated to the buying of diamonds, success to acquiring a sleek sports car and excitement comes out of a bottle of liquor and of consumer addicts, "soothed with amnesia", whose disillusionment with products is soon transformed into hunger for more. The average woman is often missing in ads and pondering to the affluent in a country with great disparities in income and lifestyles promotes greed, resentment, insecurity and envy.
One women's magazine, in a feature for working women dressing for the whole workday "not an evening of fun", carries a picture of a woman dressed in a salwar suit costing nearly Rs. 8,000 with suggested accessories amounting to a sum of Rs. 67,000. Add to this the window shopping pages and the columns decreeing what is in and what is out, what is cool and what in uncool and there is a sure prescription for reduced self esteem and additional social pressures. It is therefore imperative that the anticonsumerist campaign to reduce consumption with an eye to the conservation of depleting resources, establishing social justice and making people aware of the consequences of their consumption be taken seriously.
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