The bindi factor in Indian advertising

There is a lot of buzz around the bindi, or the lack of it, recently.

Before I explain the current buzz, I should add that I have been conscripted into a ‘bindi-related’ misinformation campaign last year. Here is that issue: Do not fall for misinformation – the Scotch-Brite case study.

Now, the current buzz.

Sample some of the tweets.

Now, it is very easy to dismiss all this as pointless and argue, “Isn’t wearing a bindi or not a choice of women?”.

But at least one of the above made a data-backed anthropological point – Ambi Parameswaran.

Ambi published ‘For God’s Sake’ in 2014, a book on how religion, business, and consumer behavior interact in India. A chapter in the book dealt with how cultural markers like the use of bindi, saree, and mangal sutra are evolving in Indian advertising. Ambi and his colleagues looked at 100 TV ads for packaged consumer goods (soaps, toothpaste, shampoos, tea, etc.) from 1987, 1997, and 2007, and archives of Femina for 5 decades to arrive at a couple of inferences:

  • In 1997, 75% of the ads had showed women with a mangalsutra. In 2007, the number was 35%.
  • In 1997, 75% of the ads had showed women with a bindi. In 2007, the number was 30%.

This is very interesting as a data point. But beyond the data, what is pertinent is the simple fact that in advertisements, the models/actors don’t do things on their own – they are always told to do things, wear things with extreme detailing.

So, it is the brand managers and ad agency executives who decide every little detail, including the bindi, or the lack of it. Now, the argument around ‘choice’ seems very different, because it is really not the choice of the models after all – it is the choice of the agency executives!

So how do the agency executives decide what to include and what to exclude?

For example, if you have noticed my commentary, one of the persistent themes that I write on revolves around the use of Hindi, written in English/Roman script, in English language newspapers. See: Language of the heart (and the links below the post).

To be sure, the number of brands that use Hindi headlines, written in English/Roman script, in English language newspapers are far fewer than brands that advertise with just English in English language newspapers. In other words, it is an exception.

But I have also mentioned how those brands and agencies end up choosing a Hindi headline written in English/Roman script for ads in English language newspapers – the brand manager/ad agency executive, sitting out of Delhi/Mumbai decides that they want to have local-connect with the target audience. They look out of their window and hear everyone talking in Hindi. So, the simple conclusion: Hindi connects India.

Some interns in the agency may counter that conclusion meekly: “But this is Gurgaon/Andheri. People don’t speak Hindi like this in States like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, AP/Telangana, Karnataka or Kerala…”. This could be easily tackled with, “That’s hardly an issue. Almost all of them understand basic Hindi. Hindi chalta hai!”.

Done deal.

The brand spends money, it has every right to advertise any way they feel like as long as it is not illegal or misleading/factually inaccurate. As for language chauvinists, they could use language supremacy and language imposition as arguments against such ads but remember – ignoring ads that you don’t like is a choice. Ads are not forced upon us.

But then I also argue that advertising is not about mere communication, it is about persuasion. When you are persuading someone to do what you want, you need to put in extra effort to make it appealing to them, beyond simply passing functional information. A famous quote by David Ogilvy summarises the idea succinctly.

Is there a similar argument to be made about the use of bindi in ads? That is,

  • if brands want to persuade people to buy, they need to showcase more ‘people like me’ for me to relate to and use the reasoning, ‘the person in the ad is like me. If she buys that and seems happy, I may be too’, at a very, very basic level
  • and continuing on that line of thought, the woman model in ad should look/dress like a target customer woman
  • so, if the target customer woman is someone who wears a bindi every day, the model in the ad should emulate the target customer and wear a bindi in the ad too to accentuate the ‘person-like-me’ feel

There is most definitely a valid argument here. However, there are two counterpoints to this argument.

One, there is no problem with access to a bindi. It is universally available in India. That means the target customer woman could completely ignore the no-bindi look in the ad and go on to wear a bindi with the same clothing or jewelry the ad is showing through a woman without a bindi. It’s simply, ‘my forehead, my choice’. In other words, we may focus less on making others (including brands) comply and conform to our way of thinking and doing what we want. Expecting ads to show what we think is appropriate and ‘good’ is a rabbit hole that may never end.

If the argument then veers into a target customer woman being repelled by the no-bindi look of the ad (as Shefali seems to demonstrate in the tweets above), it is always the (audience) woman’s choice to ignore either the ad, or the product, or both, just like how Tamilians or Malayalees could when they stumble upon a print ad that assumes everyone appreciates a headline in Hindi written in English font, even in the Chennai or Kochi edition.

Two, advertising doesn’t merely show ‘people like me’. It also shows ‘people you could be’ or ‘people you could aspire to be’.

For example, till the 80s, most ads in India has polished English phrases and dialogs. The Hinglish movement became popular with the Binny’s Chips’ line ‘Humko Binnies Mangta’. The story goes that the original line being planned for the ads, meant to target teens and youth was, ‘Looking for fun? Binnie’s the one!’ featuring young people with a guitar and like. When the agency tested the ad in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, the response from a younger kid who tagged along with this elder (teen) brother was in Hindi and Punjabi. That’s how the ‘Humko Binnies Mangta’ line was coined, as one of the earliest ads with a strong colloquial feel, away from polished English or formal, grammatically correct Hindi.

This is an example of how advertising showed what-is (reality – the way the target audience expresses themselves in situations where they eat chips) instead of who-you-could-be (aspirational – the way the target audience may express themselves when they are in a job interview).

The other extreme of this is using foreign models in ads meant for Indian buyers. For example, Allen Solly uses this tactic almost as a default. The rationale here is what I had mentioned earlier: “those foreigners look so perfect in those clothes. I want to be like them”. But it’s not just foreign models – any ad that shows perfectly groomed, incredibly fit models are aspirational since most of the target audience only aim to look like that, while in reality, they are far from that ‘perfect’ state 🙂

Even ads that use film stars and sports stars as models/brand ambassadors are aspirational in nature. They want you, the target audience, to imagine, ‘Wow, Dhoni gets his energy from Boost and has such stamina! My stamina is terrible. Let me consume Boost and get Dhoni-like stamina and energy!’.

Or, ‘Whoa! Akshay Kumar lives a glamorous life in a Lodha property, huh? I want to be like him!’.

So, do the ads that have woman models without a bindi showcase ‘who-you-could-be’ to the women in the target audience? Or, the ad model is wearing a festive look with saree and jewelry, but without a bindi – and because she is carrying that look, ‘I should emulate her too’?

In other words, if ads that feature women models wearing a bindi make the bindi’d look ‘normal’ (how the target audience already look like and are able to relate to), do the ads that feature women models without a bindi make the non-bindi’d look ‘aspirational’ (how the target audience may want to look like)?

Things are not so linear and simple.

Advertising is not the only influence in a woman’s life. There is the home, surroundings, parents, upbringing, school, college, friends, workplace, mainstream media… and advertising. To demand that advertising alone conforms to the bindi-look while ignoring all other influences, that may have a stronger bearing on the woman’s choices, seems misdirected.

More importantly, the bindi is part of the overall look of a Hindu woman in India. It has very strong religious and cultural roots, including the connection to the ajna chakra – but then, these too are mere perspectives and not facts. People have the choice to question the role of the bindi, its deeper significance, its need, its meaning, implied or direct, and do what they think is appropriate.

If the deeper connections and symbolism of the bindi have been lost in present times, advertising alone is not to be blamed by picking a token war with just that form of communication. The advertisements perhaps reflect the view of the small set of people who are engaged in the creation of ads, but people will do what they always will, based on their beliefs and world view, particularly when it comes to something as tiny and universally accessible as a bindi. So, if a jewelry brand ad shows a decked-up woman without bindi, it does not naturally mean that the buyers of the product would emulate her to the last detail. That is giving ads more influence than even politicians’ words, where we assume that what ads portray becomes the trend by default – we all know that it is not true.

The other perspective around bindi could be about conformity. In the case of the bindi, women may go through periods of conformity to societal standards (what is being asked of us – when we are young and don’t have the independence to do whatever we want), a period of non-conformity (‘I will not do that just because everyone is doing it, and definitely not because everyone is forced to do it’) and a period of evolved understanding (‘I now realize the meaning of that action and will start doing that’ or, ‘I don’t think this is rational but everyone is bent on doing it anyway. Considering it seems harmless, I’ll do it my way, when I want to’). In the earlier periods, a bindi may be imposed, while the woman could make their own decisions when they are independent.

Yet another perspective could be around specific situations. Women may choose the no-bindi look with certain kinds of clothes (the non-saree, trouser-shirts clothing), or depending on social engagements (apt for festive periods, not apt for dropping the child to school, and so on). This perhaps explains the change in approach towards bindi, saree, and mangal sutra depiction in Ambi’s research.

Advertising alone cannot change such perspectives.

The broader lament in the lack of bindi in advertising doesn’t seem to be about advertising at all. They are about inadequate representation of Hindu symbolism in popular culture (of which advertising is a part). A woman without a bindi in advertising, particularly around festive ads, is assumed as representing,

  • a non-Hindu woman (that is, a Muslim or Christian woman, and hence, ‘How can you show a non-Hindi woman look in advertising meant for a country that is predominantly Hindu?’)
  • a woman who consciously chose not to wear a bindi because she thought it was ‘uncool’ to be seen with one in public (that is, ‘How can you indirectly use independent choice as a way to make bindi uncool?’)
  • the brand pandering to secular outlook at the cost of Hindu culture (and the related, ‘How dare they?’ or ‘That’s not what your target audience want you to depict’)

These are, after all, merely perspectives, or a point of view.

But, imposing the idea of ‘no bindi no business’ (an indirect boycott movement) is a threat to force brands to conform to a point of view. The idea is that there is only one way to consider the bindi issue – ‘my way’: “If there’s no bindi in a festive ad, ‘I’ do not appreciate it, and because I belong to the majority in India, only my say has the right to exist. If a brand shows women without a bindi, that is insulting the idea of ‘my’ India, and hence I will not only rebel against such brands, but I will use my majority status to make them comply through a boycott“.

To be sure, an online boycott call is not illegal (as I had explained in my earlier post), it is simply uncivil and wants to achieve something by force, and not by engagement and understanding or rational logic.

Talking about why a bindi makes sense, in whatever way – emotional reasoning or rational logic – may be a far better method to go about it than forcing brands to comply through brute enforcement via collective boycotts.

But then, when we start expecting our perspectives to be the ones that should have the right to be used in pop culture, because ‘I belong to the majority in this country and my/our way is THE way’, there could be no end. There are already tons of responses to Shefali around the use of color green in clothing in Hindu festive ads, considering the color’s association with Islam. Next, we could specify which colors are appropriate with which kinds of Hindu festivals and outrage against brands that don’t comply. Or ask that brands start showcasing male models in traditional Hindu attire and not kurta-pyjama/western formals since they are not appropriate for Hindi festivals. There is no stopping this line of thought – it is limited only by our imagination.

However, this ‘missing bindi’ in Indian advertising seems to be a cherry-picking activity. Ads that do show women with bindis don’t get any rewards (because they are conforming to a baseline?) while the few ads that show women without bindis are identified, outraged upon, and offered a boycott threat.

In response to Lakshmipathy Bhat’s post that builds on Ambi’s 2014 perspective, I checked a week’s worth of newspaper ads only for festive ads… and found tons of brands that showcase women with bindis. In fact, the ones without bindis seem to be in the minority (click on the date-stamp to see the full thread on Twitter). So he merely uses a 2007 data point to assume that 2021 is no different, or worse, without looking at fresh data (he showcases merely two, in the post!) to back this hypothesis.

Ironically, even Tanishq Utsaah, one of the ads that he points to by example, has another ad where a woman is with the bindi, that somehow escapes his attention. So far, I have found 4 variants (from what I have observed) of the Tanishq Utsaah print campaign and 3 of them feature women without bindi while one does. If it’s a 1 out of 4, should we call for a Tanishq boycott till they conform completely?

And, even more ironically, all this conformity seems restricted to only women’s portrayal in advertising. The men depicted in advertising get away with everything and there is no boycott call for brands that do not showcase men in certain, traditional Hindu ways, even in ‘festive’ ads. That says a lot about the choice of boycotts and who it expects to comply with.



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