Why all deodrant ads commodify women and diamond ads don't

Mar 11, 2015

- By Vivek Kaul

Vivek Kaul
This is another column which is different from the usual stuff that I write. Over the last few years I have been observing a few advertisements that tend to commodify women and few which don't and have been wanting to understand, why things are the way they are. This column is a result of that.

Take the case of deodorant advertisements. These ads are like item numbers in films. They titillate and present women as one dimensional objects of sexual desire.

The only difference is that at the end of the deodorant advertisement the hero usually gets the girl because he has had the foresight to spray the deodorant on his well built body. The woman gets attracted by the smell of the deodorant and is hooked on to the guy.

One such advertisement was that of Wild Stone deodorant which featured the out of work but still stunningly beautiful actress Dia Mirza. As the formula for such advertisements goes, Mirza is seen getting attracted to a well sculpted male model who has applied the Wild Stone deodorant.

In real life it would be foolish to think that beautiful women are attracted to men on the basis of just a brand of a deodorant. But this ad, like most deodorant ads, is not targeted towards women. It is targeted towards men.

As brand guru Martin Lindstrom writes in Brandwashed - Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy: "in general women tend to more easily persuaded by ads that are more romantic than sexual... Men, on the other hand, respond to sexual innuendo and women in bikini."

In fact when it comes to deodorants a lot of research and thinking has been done to arrive at these cliched advertisements. As Lindstrom told me in an interview when I asked him what the ultimate male fantasy was: "A man sitting in a hot-top-spa with two naked ladies on each side - popping a bottle of Champagne. Unilever, the manufacturer of AXE discovered this very observation based on thousands of interviews and observations of men worldwide - realising that this very fantasy indeed seems global - and today explaining why AXE uses this very imagination as the foundation for all their ads."

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And that explains to a large extent why all deodorant advertisements are one and the same. Geoffrey Miller, a professor of evolutionary psychology has an explanation for this in his book Spent - Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour. He writes "Biology offers an answer. Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children. Many products are products are signals first and material objects later."

Deodorant ads work on this evolutionary trait and tend to project the smell of a deodorant as a sexual mating signal from the male to the female. This is primarily because biologically the best strategy for a man is to be promiscuous and try and attract as many women as possible. "The more women with which he mates, the greater number of children containing his genes are possible... Thus, a man's biological criteria can be simple: 1) she must be healthy; 2) she must be young; 3) she must be receptive; 4) and she must be impregnable," writes Richard F. Taflinger in You and Me, Babe: Sex and Advertising.

While a man may want to be promiscuous it may not be always possible for him to do so because of societal pressures. But even with that a subconscious need may still remain. And that is what marketers who commission sexually loaded ads, play on. A great example is the chocolate man ad of Axe Body Spray, which had multiple women swooning over one man.

The other product that has taken on to sexually loaded advertising is the male ganji. A typical ad shows a guy wearing a ganji (these days chances are that this could be a filmstar) always getting the girl in the end. What is true about ganjis is also true about the male underwear.

An ad that went overboard with sexual innuendo was the Amul Macho underwear ye to bada toing hai. The ad showed a woman, who was probably newly married, going to the village river to wash her husband's underwear. And in the process the other women around her were shown to get sexually turned on. The ad again played on the promiscuous nature of men even though it did not feature a man and ended up demeaning women through its one dimensional projection.

In fact automobiles are another area which tend to get sexually loaded advertising. This phenomenon is still to take off in India where most car advertising tends to concentrate on the family and if not the family, then the double income no kid couple.

But in the developed countries this mode of advertising has been around for a while. Lindstrom points to a Volvo ad showing a silhouette of a Volvo's driver's seat with its parking brake extending in the air - precisely like an erect penis - over the tagline, "We're just as excited as you are".

One thing that is common to this track of advertising is that they tend to project women as bimbos. As Madhukar Sabnavis of Ogilvy & Mather puts it "Do Axe commercials project women as bimbos, or are they a light-hearted take on the man-woman relationship? I would prefer to think it's the latter...The judgement is subjective and qualitative, and so it cannot be cast in stone." While the advertising industry might say that they are not projecting a stereotype, the evidence is clearly to the contrary.

But what about women? Why don't they take to direct sexual advertising and tend to be swayed more by romantic advertising?

A few years back Tanishq released an advertisement featuring Adil Hussain and Tisca Chopra which had all the settings of romance-a couple in a restaurant with the candles lit, saxophone playing in the background and a man getting ready to gift a solitaire to his wife of ten years.

So why do these kind of advertisements work well with women? As Taflinger puts it "Women...have a far greater physical, physiological and temporal stake in producing children. This means she must be highly selective in her choice of men if she wishes to produce the highest quality children in her reproductive lifetime. If she selects just any man that comes along, she could waste all that time and energy that pregnancy and rearing require on a possibly weak or nonviable child. She thus aims her biological criteria at getting the best possible man. The sex act, and his participation, being so brief, doesn't have to be of any particular interest to her. What is important is the quality of genes he brings and the help, if any, she will have while carrying, bearing and rearing the children."

Now that does not mean that the sexual desires are strong only in men. As Taflinger explains "She also has sexual desires as strong as a man's. However, she will often subordinate that desire. That is, she may desire a physically attractive man, but she will not actually have sex with him until he has satisfied more than physical criteria."

Hence, women are more careful than men when it comes to entire ritual of mating. But that does not mean they don't send out sexual signals. They do that, but not in a way as direct as men. The entire cosmetics business is built on this insight. As Miller puts it: "The whole cosmetics business is focused on helping women appear younger, more fertile, healthier, and thus better able to bear offspring. The evolutionary background of cosmetics is that in most primate species,sexual selection focuses very heavily on facial appearance. In assessing women's ages, men apparently evolved to pay close attention to facial and bodily cues of being in the young-adult phase of peak fertility. So women could evolve to fake their fertility all the way from around age twelve to around age twelve to around age sixty."

And how cosmetics help? "One way of faking fertility across a broader age range is to apply cosmetics that amplify facial fertility cues that peak in young adulthood, such as plump lips, large eyes, prominent cheekbones, smooth and radiant complexion, thick and glossy head hair, and minimal facial hair,' writes Miller.

This explains why you will see more deodorant ads stereotyping women in the time to come. But you will never see a diamond ad doing the same.

Vivek Kaul is the Editor of the Diary and The Vivek Kaul Letter. Vivek is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. The latest book in the trilogy Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System was published in March 2015. The books were bestsellers on Amazon. His writing has also appeared in The Times of India, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Business World, Business Today, India Today, Business Standard, Forbes India, Deccan Chronicle, The Asian Age, Mutual Fund Insight, Wealth Insight, Swarajya, Bangalore Mirror among others.

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