Do you remember that one washing detergent/toilet cleaner/dishwashing soap advertisement where a woman is shamed for how dirty her clothes/toilet/dishes are and then a man shows up and hands her The Product of Her Dreams, and suddenly all is well with the world again? If you’re saying that sounds like basically every ad ever, you wouldn’t be wrong. For a long time, these were the ads that dominated our TV screens. Faisal Qureshi would don a blue cap and go door to door convincing women their toilets weren’t clean enough and that they needed to buy Harpic. Or Wasim Akram would host bizarre competitions between women to see who had the most powerful washing powder.
But if you’ve been paying attention, it seems like things are changing. No longer do we have ads solely depicting women using Lazeeza Kheer Mix to impress her in-laws or taking a box of Lipton out of her cupboard in slow-mo so she can make a Rishta-worthy cup of tea for her potential husband. Somewhere along the way, the way we depict women in advertisements has changed significantly, and while there might still be an odd case of blatant sexism and misogyny, for the most, ad agencies have pivoted towards a more gender empowering take, that touches on social issues. And boy is it a refreshing change.
This year alone has seen many really great campaigns. In February we saw Shan’s advert promoting women labor participation by touching on the concept of ‘doctor-bahu’ and encouraging mothers-in-law to facilitate their daughter-in-law, as opposed to being a hinderance in their career.
Then in March, around Women’s Day, we got a couple of excellent campaigns touching themes of women empowerment, such as the LifeBuoy advert about encouraging girls to have big dreams.
Around the same time, mattress company Master MoltyFoam also rolled out an advert where it partnered with Safe Delivery, Safe Mother (SDSM) —a woman-led NGO that works to improve maternal and reproductive healthcare and access in the country. The ad was set in Gilgit-Baltistan, and really highlights how difficult maternal healthcare access can be in rural communities with tricky terrain.
The Friday Times spoke to Mehreen Shahid, the CEO and founder of SDSM, to understand the experience of partnering with a big brand like Molty Foam to raise awareness on important social issues such as this. “We covered the story of a skilled birth attendant of the Gilgit-Baltistan region, where SDSM has done a lot of work, within that region,” she said. “The purpose of highlighting that was, we looked at accessibility, we looked at the fact that there is mountainous terrain, often times connectivity is a problem,” she elaborated, adding that in each of the areas they operate in, accessibility of a skilled birth attendant is very important. “Being able to reach a healthcare facility or a community clinic on time is crucial, because those are critical moments where the mother and baby could lose their lives,” she said.
Mehreen stressed that maternal healthcare is a very ignored and underserved area in Pakistan, which she said was surprising given that over 95% of women in the country are mothers. Pakistan loses over 14,000 women every year, which comes to about one death every 37 minutes.
She said that SDSM wanted to not only highlight these statistics, but also the importance of primary Health care, accessibility, training, and equipping skilled birth attendants. “Everybody can be a part of it, not only by just contributing financially, but also by volunteering, offering in-kind support, partnerships and collaborations,” she said, adding that the ad was very well-received, and that it was a great pleasure collaborating with MoltyFoam as they had the same vision.
MoltyFoam, while perhaps best remembered for their iconic sentimental ‘Meri Nanhi Parri’ advertisement, has really been committing itself to creating meaningful powerful ads that target important social issues. Just this month, they partnered with actress Mahira Khan’s digital platform Mashion, and produced a video for her Mashaadi wedding series. The ad in questions touches the topic of domestic abuse and gender based violence, and depicts supportive parents who let their daughter call off her wedding on the day of, when they find out her husband-to-be has been physically abusive towards her.
So what has led to this change of pace when it comes to advertising? TFT spoke to Ayesha Rashid, a senior creative manager at BBDO, which is an international advertising agency with offices in Pakistan, who said that there certainly has been a shift in how ads work now. “Brands are relatively more conscious of not offending people by being sexist or stereotypical, so they take care of that,” she said. Ayesha recounted a recent example, where she was working with a brand that is launching sanitary pads, and said, “The concepts took too long to get approved because there was always a feeling of not wanting to come off as a typical woman who’s burdened with chores or who nobody stands up to help.” She said they had to be very careful of that and tried showing women being aspirational and not ‘bechari like ads used to show’.
She said that another example that she is working on would be of another ad that’s coming out very soon, from a very famous snack brand, that shows a girl being a cricket fanatic. “Which is, frankly, unheard of in previous advertisements or even generally,” she says. Ayesha says that brands like Dove and Gul Ahmed are doing a great job at highlighting women in a positive uplifting and inclusive way. The aforementioned ‘doctor-bahu’ advert by Shan was also done by her agency, and she says that it’s another great example because it’s an ad that shows how mothers in law also need to change their thinking.
The winds of change have been blowing for a while, and while our adverts are surely changing, hopefully our minds and attitudes will follow in suit. But for now, we’ll take what we can get. Every small step is a victory.
Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.