Young Indian girl smiling in front of her home.


Gender Bias and Inclusion in Advertising in India

Advertising and marketing play a powerful role in the process of gender socialization and women and girls’ empowerment. This research project was conducted by UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, UNICEF Programme Divsion in New York, and UNICEF India with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The study measures the level and type of gender stereotyping found in Indian advertisements on TV and YouTube, through analysis of the 1,000 most viewed advertisements in 2019. The purpose of this study is to assess the role of advertising media in reinforcing and challenging harmful gender roles that shape the lives of girls and women in the country in order to drive more gender sensitive advertising.


UNICEF works to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, for gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. Promoting positive gender roles in marketing and advertising is critical for achieving this goal.

Children learn from family, schools and the society around them. They are exposed to a barrage of media messages daily; some directed at them and others seen by them, even if they are not the target. Gender stereotypes differ across time and cultures and to understand more about the key issues to tackle in India to promote equality, an understanding of the kinds of advertising likely to be seen by children and adolescents in the country is needed.

The process of gender socialization means expected gender roles are learned from birth and intensified throughout childhood and adolescence with messages received from society, including from the marketing and advertising they see around them. Negative gender norms and stereotypes influence children’s self-perception and contribute to shaping different pathways for their future. Addressing negative gender socialization is critical to achieving gender equality.

Societies around the world are becoming more and more sensitive to how gender roles are portrayed and the world of advertising is a powerful agent for change. Achieving gender equality is about breaking down negative gender stereotypes and realizing equal rights for women and girls – and gender positive advertising is a confirmation of these rights. Positive gender norms in marketing and advertising exposes children and adolescents to a concept of gender parity and encourages a way of thinking that includes the perspectives of all, leading to better outcomes for everyone.


UNICEF in India contributes to national efforts to enable all children, especially the most disadvantaged and excluded, to have their rights progressively fulfilled and to develop their full potential in an inclusive and protected society. Equity, including gender equality, is at the core of the Country Programme. Gender based programming, with a focus on increasing the value of the girl child one of the key strategies of UNICEF’s strategic plan 2018-2022.

Gender equality in India has made gains as a result of legislative and policy measures, social-protection schemes for girls and adolescents and gender sensitive budgets over past years. India has attained gender parity in primary enrolment and boosted female literacy from 54 per cent (2001) to 66 per cent (2011). Gender-based discrimination and normalization of violence continues to be a challenge. India ranks 108th out of 153 countries in the global gender inequality index in 2020, an increase since 2015 when it was ranked 130th out of 155 countries. India is among one of the few countries where under-5 mortality rates among girls is higher than boys. Many women face overlapping social, emotional, physical, economic, cultural and caste related deprivations. Adolescent girls face vulnerabilities, including poor nutritional status, increased burden of care, early marriage and early pregnancy, and issues related to reproductive health and empowerment while 56 per cent are anemic.

One of UNICEF India’s overall priorities, in line with UNICEF’s regional vision, is to address system-wide bottle-necks that impede children’s rights by strengthening gender-informed and gender-responsive programming in all areas. Priority results and strategies include:


This study systematically analyzes gender representations in ads in India and will serve as a benchmark for making advertising more gender sensitive in the country, as well as providing an evidence-based approach for highlighting key areas for action.

Globally, research increasingly finds that consumers are rejecting stereotypes in advertising and respond better to balanced, representative and positive portrayals of gender roles. With a deeper understanding of how gender is represented in Indian advertising, UNICEF can contribute to enabling the marketing and advertising industry to both deconstruct harmful gender stereotypes and promote empowering gender norms and attitudes by highlighting areas for action and advocating for evidence-based change for positive gender portrayals in advertising.

With a clearer understanding of the way gender is portrayed in advertising across India, UNICEF can use the results to influence how it can communicate around its own programme priorities to advance gender equality. This research gives insights and concrete measurements on how the advertising and marketing environment portrays women and girls, which helps to enable design of effective interventions and strengthen gender-informed and responsive programming.

The results of this research project have important implications for UNICEF’s work in India across a number of programme priorities. Below are highlighted some of the key findings in terms of how they are linked to UNICEF’s work in addressing gender stereotyping in India and promoting gender equitable practices.


While the research finds women are well represented in the most viewed Indian advertisements during 2019, with equal screen presence and in fact more speaking time than men, they are still stereotyped in potentially harmful ways, with women more likely to be portrayed as young and attractive in terms of traditional beauty norms and/or caretakers and parents, mainly seen in private, rather than public spaces. Female characters in ads are more likely to be shown in revealing clothing, depicted as partially nude or sexually objectified compared with male characters. Almost all the detergent and food commercials depicted a woman caretaking for her family who speaks directly to women viewers about caring for their families. This means that female characters are plentiful in Indian advertising, but mostly in ways that uphold traditional gender roles for women. Girls are less likely to be shown in adverts as boys, meaning young girls are less likely to see themselves as present, and important, in society.

There was little representation of child marriage, or violence found in ads included in the study. Given this is a key issue in Indian society and considering COVID-19’s disproportionately negative impact on women in terms of loss of employment and increases in domestic violence, there may be an opportunity for advertisers to address these issues through advertising campaigns and narratives.


According to the findings, women are less likely to be shown in public spaces, in paid employment, as leaders or making decisions about their futures. These representations bolster traditional gender norms that girls and women belong in the domestic sphere as parents and caretakers, and boys and men get to dream about and plan their futures and reinforce sexist notions that women are less intelligent and humorous than men.


In the world of advertising in India, one of the drivers of female presence is depictions of female characters selling domestic products. Female characters are plentiful in Indian advertising, but mostly in ways that uphold traditional gender roles for women: men and boys are much less likely to be shown shopping, cooking or being involved with household decisions. Women are firmly placed as the primary – and best – caregiver, while men and boys are not expected to be responsible for choices made around nutrition.

To drive gender equity in the home and in purchasing decisions, men and boys could be shown as sharing household tasks, including cooking, cleaning and caring for others. Involving men in the purchase and preparation of meals shows all that everyone should participate in nutrition choices.

In terms of healthy bodies, female characters are invariably thin but male characters appear with a variety of body sizes in Indian advertising. This reinforces the idea that girls and women are supposed to take up less space physically and figuratively.


Women and girls are much more likely to be show undertaking or being responsible for care work/childcare or normative gender roles such as shopping as well as being responsible for hygiene decisions. For example, almost all the detergent and food commercials depicted a woman caretaking for her family who speaks to women about caring for their families.

There is also a need for more advertisements promoting menstrual health and busting taboo around the issue: Almost 50 percent of adolescent girls in India did not know about menstruation until the first time they got their period and hardly one-third (36 per cent) of menstruating women use sanitary napkins.4 Among the 1,000 advertisements analyzed, none related to menstrual health.


The research highlights some problematic issues in advertising around colourism in India, with advertising presenting characters with lighter skin as more physically attractive than characters with darker skin. The findings of the study show colorism is starkly reflected in Indian advertising in ways that reinforce discriminatory social arrangements.

Colourism is also gendered, affecting Indian women more than men. We also find that characters with light skin tones are presented as more physically attractive than characters with darker skin tones and more likely to be represented as middle and upper class.


Please see the full report for the detailed findings of this study.


While it is heartening to see that women and girls have achieved or exceeded parity of representation in terms of presence and voice, deeper analysis shows that the quality of this representation is problematic and there is enormous room for improvement by the advertising community in India to address the issues of gender stereotyping in Indian marketing to help drive gender equality. The research also highlights issues particularly pertinent to address and includes some recommendation on interventions for advertisers and content creators including but not limited to:

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