Featured on April 18, 2004

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The composite impression of the Indonesian woman in advertising in 2004 is that she is not so strong, certainly not invincible but she does suffer gladly and lives to please.

Some choice examples.

* An undeniably pretty young woman is still (somehow) sentenced to be the perennial wallflower until her skin is transformed several shades lighter. Oh, and make that wavy hair super straight.

* A wife sighs and smiles at her endearingly sloppy and unhelpful husband. Men, you gotta love ’em.

* What does a hungry boy find when he goes home from playing outside? There is go-getter mom, finding the time to do a quick batik pattern in between her household chores.

And more: Husband shouts at wifey to find his jacket, a bride freaks out as she cannot cook while hubby is a hog, a husband and his friend do a leering “the ‘milk’ is just right” as buxom mom hovers in the kitchen.

By and large, these representations — sexist, stereotypical and seeming to hark back to a bygone age of the totally dependent woman — continue to dominate the market.

The message is that femininity means becoming flawless beauties (skinny, straight hair and fair-as-can-be skin) through product consumption, using coquettish body language to attract the opposite sex and maintaining an aura of feminine innocence to remain sexy.

Of course, sex sells. But what on earth are a couple of scantily dressed women doing in a car paint ad?

According to Jean Kilbourne, an American activist against advertisements causing negative societal impact, the sexual images tie the product with women’s basic desires, as if by buying the product, they are going to get not just sex, but love.

“Sexualizing women contributes to creating a society that has less trouble digesting violence against women. Ads also create impossible standards for women to live up to,” said Kilbourne, a writer and award-winning documentary filmmaker, on the Internet.

Jeanny Hardono, creative director of Lowe Lintas, the local branch of Lowe Worldwide ad agency, acknowledged that using women’s sexuality was the easiest way to create an ad.

“I believe that happens not only here, but all over the world as well,” she told The Jakarta Post.

“Here, I must admit, advertisements still objectify women. Perhaps because not everyone is aware of a gender perspective, and the gender issue has yet to be on the agenda nor become a reference for advertisers and ad agencies,” Jeanny told The Jakarta Post.

It’s not just about objectifying women, but also taking advantage of women’s insecurities, for instance, about having fair skin, which is the wish of most Asian women.

Believing that such ads are misogynistic, “Rossie”, a senior copywriter at an ad agency, refuses to handle skin whitening products.

“Of all the beauty product ads, I think those for skin whitening products are the meanest of all. Because the bottom line is always that you won’t get a guy unless you’re white. Hair products don’t always use that approach, but skin whitening products do,” she said.

“Sadly, the product sells, because it’s what Asian women want.”

Aside from using women’s sexuality, Rossie added that most ads still weigh on the formula of boy-meets-girl and boy-gets-girl, with most of the young women shown as shy and innocent — the way society would like them to be.

“Attracting the opposite sex is another easy trick. But advertising people deny that they only want the easy way. The excuse then is human insight, that women want to be beautiful because they want to attract men,” Rossie said.

Another excuse is that it is what clients want, or because it is in line with the research done by the client or the ad agency.

Glenn Marsalim, creative director of OgilvyOne (of Ogilvy & Mather international group), said research showed that public perceptions defined women as submissive and people pleasers.

“Do women feel like they are losing their dignity if they use skin whitening products or straighten their hair? No way,” he argued.

According to Jeanny, however, the research is often abused to validate taking particular approaches, which results in a pattern for certain ads.

“Like bank ads must have men wearing ties, or detergent commercials always show housewives doing the laundry,” she said.

The prevailing mentality is that it is good to stay in one’s comfort zone, and better not step out if there is no example to follow.

No advertisers dare to be different, which Glenn also attributed to the monetary crisis and a reluctance to take risks.

“Besides, people are getting more individualistic right now. In the 1980s and early ’90s, pop culture can still dictate and aspire people. Not now. There’s no single trend right now.”

However, if sex is the easiest trick in advertisements, it is still arguable if it will actually boost product sales.

“There are so many factors which can boost sales. Could be the price, good distribution, relevance to people’s needs and interesting marketing. An ad induces trial, and works as shock power. If it has no relevance with the product, it only ends up as a cheap trick,” Rossie said.

Women’s rights organizations such as the Indonesian Women’s Coalition have called upon ad agencies to sit down with them to enhance their gender sensitivity.

“We urge advertising agencies to start changing the social construction which is still against women. It’s their role in educating society,” said the Coalition’s secretary general, Masruhah.

Rossie said that ultimately it was not the job of ad agencies to become gender awareness advocates, because they were merely taking from what the wants of society.

“Ad agencies are just an opportunist. They won’t focus on skin whitening if people don’t want the product. The responsibility of ad agency is only for the client. If they don’t want to increase women’s insecurities, then don’t take the job,” she said.

They need to respect the customer, and the only responsibility was to not mislead through false advertising.

Glenn said the issue was not about advertising and the media, but the public’s view of women.

“I think if the value of women in society changes, the ad will follow. If women have jobs and something to do, the portrayals will shift,” he said.

Ads merely reflect society, and in the end, he said, they were “all about dollars and cents”.