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


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 clichéd 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.”
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.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Mar 11, 2015

Why the UP MLA needs a Rs 20 lakh car

Vivek Kaul
Chote Netaji Akhilesh Yadav is a concerned man these days. A man concerned for more than 400 MLAs of Uttar Pradesh. To help them he decided to increase the area development fund for the MLAs and MLCs of Uttar Pradesh to Rs 1.5 crore from the current Rs 1.25crore. And then he allowed the MLAs to spend Rs 20 lakh from the increased allocation of Rs 25 lakh to buy a car.
The media did not like the move. And went bang bang bang against it, forcing Akhilesh to withdraw the “free car” offer. “I take back the whole decision. The reason behind this is that most of the MLAs have decided not to take the offer after the media hype,” he told reporters after changing his decision.
When making the decision Akhilesh had said that a car will provide MLAs mobility and help them more effectively. Fair point. Once the electorate of this country has elected an individual to represent them, they need to provide him with the basic things that he needs to carry out his job of representing them, properly.
Given this a car is surely a necessity for an MLA. There is no arguing with that. So to that extent Akhilesh was right. But the question that crops up here is that why allocate Rs 20 lakhs to buy a car?
Cars in India can be bought for as low as Rs 2 lakh. I am no auto expert and won’t be able to tell you the difference between torque and horse power, but I do know that a decent comfortable car can easily be bought in this country from anywhere between Rs 5-8 lakh.
So why allocate Rs 20 lakh then?
Before I get around to answering this question, let me deviate a little and tell you about something interesting that I read in a book titled Spent — Sex, Evolution, And Consumer Behaviour written by Geoffrey Miller, a few years back.
In this book Miller points out that “Consumerism has deep roots in evolution.” He then explains it with an example. “Why would the world’s most intelligent primate buy a Hummer H1 Alpha sport utility vehicle for $139,771? It is not a practical mode of transport. It seats only four, needs 51 feet in which to turn around, burns a gallon of gas every ten miles, dawdles from 0 to 60mph in 13.5 seconds and has poor reliability. Yet, some people feel the need to buy it.”
The question is why would anyone want to buy a car which has such poor performance parameters. “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,” writes Miller.
The last sentence is particularly interesting: “Many products are products are signals first and material objects later.” Just keep this sentence in mind, and let us return to Akhilesh and his Rs 20 lakh car.
Why does an MLA need a car? The answer is very simple and Akhilesh has already explained it to us. An MLA needs a car to go around his constituency. It gives him better mobility. Allows him to meet more people. Travel faster. And spend his limited time in a much better way.
All the above mentioned things can be easily accomplished even by buying a Tata Nano or a Maruti Zen or any car in the range of Rs 5-8 lakh. So why allocate Rs 20 lakh to buy a car?
For an MLA a car is much more than mobility. It is a signal of “power”. It is a signal of the fact that he is an “important” person. These are things that are very important for an MLA to project to the constituency of voters. If he is visiting a particular area of his constituency there has to be a buzz “ke MLA sahab aa rahe hain”. And all these needs or “signals” as Miller calls them, cannot be accomplished by driving around in a Tata Nano with a ‘red-light” on top.
What an MLA needs is an SUV (sports utility vehicle). A bigger car which conveys a sense of “power” and importance. Driving around in a Tata Nano or any other cheaper car will not convey this. And SUVs are expensive. The good ones cannot be bought for a price of Rs 5-8 lakh. And so you UP MLAs need Rs 20 lakh to buy a car.
The logic is similar to that of politicians taking the risk of going around in “helicopters”, given that so many of them keep crashing and killing them. A politician flying in a helicopter and landing in an open field, dust flying around everywhere, thousands of people waiting to have a look at him and hear him speak, creates a sense of awe, power and importance among the voters.
So will Akhilesh now allow his MLAs to buy helicopters and bill it to the state? That of course won’t happen, given that the media has successfully nipped his “car for MLAs” scheme in the bud.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on July 4,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/india/why-the-upa-mla-needs-a-rs-20-lakh-car-367173.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])