On the first day of the last week of 2003, Business Standard's "Reader's Write" column published an angry letter signed by several women's organisations and other NGOs.
It contained a well-reasoned protest against the latest Maruti Zen advertisement that shows a predatory car chasing a scantily clad woman down a dark alley.
To quote from the letter: "Maruti has overlooked the fact that cars in general ... have become a weapon for men who abduct and rape women. The projection of cars as predators and women as sexual objects constitutes rape culture."
Certainly, anybody who had watched this commercial on TV would be hard put to disagree -- if they stopped to think about it. As we enter the fourth year of the new millennium, a letter like this is worth pondering over.
The Maruti Zen ad is just one example among many advertisements that depict women in roles that are degrading or commoditified. The fact that the practice rarely gets noticed or commented on shows how acceptable it has become.
The irony is that such advertisements can be the products of corporations that hire reasonably large numbers of women employees. Hindustan Lever is a case in point. It currently employs many women in its rolls and plans to focus on hiring more women in the future.
Yet, this is the same company that makes substantial profits from its fairness cream Fair & Lovely. All its advertisements depict dark girls who either can't get boyfriends or husbands until they use this fairness cream. This is a double whammy.
First, it suggests that girls have to define themselves in terms of the men they attract. Second, it suggests that dark skin, especially on women, is somehow inferior.
Of course, Fair & Lovely has been the target of many protests in recent years, so much so that the company has tried to modify the positioning to skin-care rather than plain vanilla fairness.
But that's about as transparent as the emperor's new clothes. Fair & Lovely's brand equity as the vanquisher of dark skin was established years ago -- and with a brand name like that, how can anyone think otherwise.
Fair & Lovely has attracted attention because it overtly panders to the uglier prejudices of Indian society. But there are other commercials where attitudes to women are just as pejorative, but they attract little notice because they're ingrained notions.
One recent case in point is an Asian Paints commercial about a long-lasting paint. It shows a not-so well-to-do man enviously congratulating his rich neighbour, Sunil-babu, on his new house (painted a spanking new yellow) and a lithe and subservient new wife, dressed in nuptial red, serving her husband (an earlier version of the ad showed a new car as well but that's been dropped).
The next shot shows the same neighbour, now visibly aged, admiring the house, which looks as new as ever, even as Sunil-babu's wife has expanded and aged visibly, though she's just as subservient.
It's the kind of commercial that attracts a smirk from most viewers, men and women, and, because it is aired so frequently it's Wah, Sunil-babu! has become part of contemporary lingo as so many ad-lines do these days.
But if you think about it, the implication is clearly that house and wife are passive possessions that enjoy the same ranking, though one is an inanimate object and the other is a human being.
To be fair the Sunil-babu of the ad also ages in the second shot, but that's okay, he's expected to. Obviously his wife shouldn't — but alas, she's not as durable as Asian Paint's long-lasting emulsion.
Even a one-hour viewing of prime time TV will reveal half a dozen ads that send out subliminal messages like the Maruti or Asian Paints commercial.
I find it strange that a government that displays such strongly censorious views on history and culture has never thought fit to monitor advertisements that pander to a problem that Indian society is struggling with everyday.
It seems okay to allow commercials, with their powerful messages, to pretty much say what they want, even as Murli Manohar Joshi quibbles over such pointless questions as whether Aryans ate beef or not.
Sushma Swaraj attained some notoriety after she protested against the depiction of half-clad women shown on Fashion TV. But she's been remarkably silent on the very suggestive Maruti Zen advertisement, though it's aired several times during prime time every day since it was released in November.
In a country that is hoping to establish its global reputation as a sophisticated purveyor of back-office operations and software, engineering and biotech research services -- all professions that employ a large proportion of women -- maybe corporations need to take the lead in consciously revising social attitudes. Hiring more women employees for the sake of it or reserving board positions for them makes no sense. ICICI Bank has shown how women can effortlessly scale the gap between perception and ability if they're merited for their talent and abilities. How you advertise your products is another good beginning.