The Hollywood actor Geena Davis is known for her memorable role in the iconic film Thelma and Louise, her comic turn in the children’s film franchise Stuart Little and her role as a powerful leader in the television series Commander-in-Chief.
A lesser known fact is that she is the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and has funded one of the biggest research studies on the impact of media on children.
While children and entertainment remain at the core of the research, the institute has also teamed up with the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity to look at ads from 2006 to 2019 and filter them through six parameters - gender, LGBTQi representation, race and ethnicity, disability, body shape and ageism.
The findings in the study ‘Bias and Inclusion in Advertising’ have been presented at Cannes and all the data and research is available to download on their website www.seejane.org . Despite the rise of femvertising and trending hashtags, 2019 has not shown as much gender progress as one would assume.
There is an India chapter of the institute as well, headed by film-maker Rashmi Lamba, but the focus of the research and sensitization work has been cinema and television.
Under the platform ‘If she can see it, she can be it’ the institute works with corporates, Hollywood and global platforms like Cannes Lions to lobby for positive depiction of girls and women in advertising and entertainment. It seems a simple task as positive depictions are very easy to build in the scripting stage of a commercial. While no creative person I know sets out to write a gendered script, gender slips can happen and often do happen unknowingly and unintentionally.
I'll take the Mahendra Singh Dhoni ad for Oppo as a case in point. I used it at a gender sensitization workshop recently. This was the most-watched ad on YouTube in September 2020, getting more than eight million views. The storyline is simple: Mahendra Singh Dhoni comes upon a young kid practising his shots and sees that he has talent. The boy’s father believes that he should just finish school and concentrate on his studies as cricket is a waste of time. The mother feels for her kid, but clearly has no agency. Eventually, MSD makes a personal call to the father who is then convinced and the kid we believe will have a future as a cricketer.
I must confess to being a Dhoni fan, but if we look at it from the gender perspective, many things come to mind. The main protagonists are all male. Why couldn't it be a girl practising her cricket shots when Dhoni sees her? The ad would have probably scored higher on noticeability and likeability because it would be so fresh. Or why not cast Mithali Raj, Captain of India’s cricket team in the lead? Surely, she could have given the young boy equally expert comments. There is a lot more to decode but I will leave it here.
One of the advocacy principles of the GDI is that nothing is shared with the public or Press. The findings are presented to the relevant industries and concerned corporations. The approach is collaborative and they have a long list of corporate sponsors including Dove, Pixar, CBS, Google and Amazon.
There are many gender studies done in India by NGOs focusing on media and advertising, but the last mile of collaboration with corporations is often missed out. Perhaps Bollywood actors could take a leaf out of Geena Davis’ book – looking at you Kangana, Swara and Tapasee.
Next time you watch an ad or create an ad, ask yourself what could have been done differently to make a positive gender impact. The solution is likely to be just a simple tweak in the script.
Geeta Rao has been Regional Creative Director, Ogilvy and has devoted many column inches and years to advertising and brands.