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Lakmé Ladies: Modern Advertising Women in India

Suzanne Schwartz had a Fulbright Scholarship to study advertising in India during 2008/2009.  Her ethnography of the advertising agency women who produce the campaigns for India’s leading cosmetics line, Lakmé, is now available for reading in the current issue of Advertising & Society Review.  This issue, which also contains my updated writeup on Cover Girl makeup, will be available to the public for only three months before going behind a screen where it is only available to university libraries.

Called “Girl Power Through Purchasing,” Schwartz’ piece investigates the interface between the emerging demographic powerhouse–professional women in India–and the production of cosmetics advertising. It is a particularly pertinent comparison to the Cover Girl piece because it documents a phenomenon very similar to what happened in America.  In both cases, the women producing the advertising see themselves as the vanguard of social change and the products they sell as signs of that leading edge position.  The advertising campaign itself, then, becomes a stage for acting out what the modern woman looks like, how she behaves, and, perhaps most importantly, what she really wants.

Schwartz’ article is particularly compelling, in my view, for the way she expertly tacks back and forth to show how the Lakmé women try to meld traditional Indian practices and aesthetics with modern Indian ideas and realities.  She sets the whole process in the context of  opening up India to the global economy and the impact that has had on daily life, including gender norms.

The story is also very much reminiscent of several I told about Helen Resor’s group at JWT in Fresh Lipstick, as well as Jennifer Scanlon’s account of the backstory of the Ladies’ Home Journal in Inarticulate Longings, as well as Jean Grow and Joyce Wolburg’s retelling of the Nike Women’s campaign of the 1990s. Collectively, these works are beginning to constitute a critical mass challenging the conventional view–now long outdated, but still compelling in ordinary discourse–of advertising as something that is always utterly a men’s game, always unavoidably aimed at subordinating women.  Schwartz’ work also dovetails quite nicely with the argument made by the Modern Girl Around the World research group, who tell us that the grooming practices of the “Modern Girl” are a global phenomenon that have tended to be associated, in actual practice, with changing roles for women, not retrograde thinking.

Schwartz herself is now an MBA candidate at Brandeis, studying international business and corporate social responsibility.  I strongly recommend Schwartz’ piece to anyone who is interested in the evolution of gender norms in India, in the ethos of the working women there, in the history of advertising, or in the continuing story of cosmetics practice around the world.


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