30 July 2005

Showing it like it is

If you travel to Goa and happen to stop by at one of the beaches there, you may witness an embarrassing scene: a white European or American woman sunbathing in her bikini, topless, and a gathering of Indian men hanging around, watching. There’s something real about this scene, no matter how revolting it is to our senses and our cultural values. And, that’s what I like about it.

I don’t mean the disgusting voyeurism of the Indian men; nor do I mean the shameless topless exhibitionism of the foreigner. I refer to the realism of it – something happening naturally before our eyes. Whether we like it or not, this is a slice of life from a beach in Goa, India. It is not staged; it is not scripted by the tourism department and enacted by paid artists for the tourists to see and enjoy.

However vile the scene is, it does not insulate tourists, like me, into an artificially-created environment, far removed from the reality of Goa. It is not a movie. It is Goa in full colour.

Compare this to the staged shows you see in other countries – actually paying ticket money to be entertained for a few hours. And, what do you get for it? An illusion created by lights, music, sound and commentary… with paid performers doing their bit to keep you entertained. You get a sleek artificially-created set of images replacing the authenticity of real life… which you ought to spend time seeing… on the streets or someplace else.

I can understand if the shows depicted historical events, where simulation and enactment play important roles. But in most cases, these shows are counterfeit versions of actual happenings, packaged for the tourists to see and enjoy.

So, here it is for you. Contemporary culture for the tourists in two basic forms: the awkward naturalness of the Indian experience; and the sleek package of paid entertainment. Which one would you choose for your next vacation?

29 July 2005

Counterfeit people

Bloggers happily consider themselves journalists. This goes much against the grain of old-school journalism which continues to stress the point that journalists are the original fact-finders, news-gatherers and reporters, not to mention editors of news; while bloggers are only commentators and/or reviewers of news. Journalists report real news, while bloggers simulate news stories.

Then, are bloggers really a tribe of counterfeit journalists? Do they ‘make news’ which really doesn’t exist? Is their writing fiction, as opposed to the clear nonfiction that journalists churn out everyday?

This distinction between journalists and bloggers had me thinking. Is this a unique phenomenon? Could there be another model or illustration in our lives from which we could draw a parallel? While these thoughts were crossing my mind back and forth, a friend happened to comment on a certain attractive model in Mumbai, who, of no great talent or genius, was seen in the celebrity pages of a leading publication on a continued basis. And he wondered why this was so. That’s what got me thinking about the distinction we make between heroes and celebrities.

If you’ve followed my blog through mid-June, discussing heroes and heroism in some detail, you would’ve learnt that heroes live for something bigger – willing to give up their lives for an ideal or a cause. They have values. They have morals. With celebrities, however, morality is of no consequence. Celebrities live for fame. It doesn’t matter what one’s claim to fame really is: heroism, achievement, good looks, talent or genius. So long fame is achieved, nothing else matters.

According to historian and author, Daniel Boorstin, a celebrity – roughly defined as a famous or well-publicised person – is "fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectation of human greatness… He is morally neutral... He is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous."

Boorstin had defined celebrities as counterfeit people – whose identities are staged and scripted to create illusions that may not have any bearing on real life. However, he had added, celebrities do have a role to play from a socio-cultural perspective. They satisfy a human need: a need to leave the mundane and the drudgery of real life and escape into a world of fiction… a simulated world.

This had me thinking again. Are bloggers counterfeit people too? What role do they play in our lives – and in history from a socio-cultural perspective?

26 July 2005

There is no news here

Why are you reading this blog? There is no news here.

This blog has been created by me using some free Web tools… and, believe it or not, some intellect and patience. The contents of this blog are my points of view on topics which interest me… seen and read recently or over the years… written, reported and published by many others… and presented here in, what I hope is an, easy-to-understand format.

There are no live reports of bombings or tsunamis here. No coverage of wars or train accidents. No news of political or sports events. Not even reviews of, or comments on, headlines from today’s newspapers. There is no, what you might say, editorial matter for you to chew on.

My blog is planned and planted by me. It is fabricated stuff. It has no connection to the reality outside this Websphere. Its raison d’etre is to engage you for a few minutes. Perhaps entertain you. Give you something to think about. For me, it’s nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you believe you’ve learnt something here, then you’ve been fooled. This is a blog. There is no news here. It’s all made up.

25 July 2005

Making news

There has to be news in the morning papers. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When we pick up a copy of the newspaper in the morning, we expect to see news. We expect to read about – and see pictures of – something momentous that has happened around the world, between the time we got the last bit of news the night before and the next morning. We actually demand it from our newspapers. If there’s no news, there’s no point in reading the newspaper.

But, what if there was no news? What if nothing momentous happened around the world that required our attention first thing in the morning? Would the news reporters then not report news? Or, would they make some up to keep us happy… and keep their jobs in the process?

If nothing much happened around the world – no news to report for days or months together – would the newspapers, radios, TV channels have to fabricate news to please us? Would they give us unimportant bits of information because we demand it? Would they manipulate non-newsworthy facts to plan and plant stories in their publications – or stage shows on their channels – so we have something to read and watch?

After all, it would mean their survival. If there’s no one to read newspapers, there would be no advertising support for the newspapers. No revenues, no profits. Would the newspapers then resort to ‘making’ news? To ensure there is an audience – and, in turn, revenues and profits? Would the media then step in to create a parallel reality for us?

Whose interest is it anyway to ensure there is news in our lives everyday?

24 July 2005

Junk or journalism

Bloggers seem to be taking a lot of flak from journalists. The bone of contention being, blogging is not journalism: Bloggers are not trained reporters. They don’t do the original fact finding and reporting as journalists do. They have no professional journalistic standards – their reports are not sieved through an editor for what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s significant. They don’t do the truth-telling which journalists do. They are unknown entities whose reputations cannot be trusted.

More than flak, these are serious accusations… categorising blogs as nothing more than junk. Going by some of the blogs I’ve read, I have to agree with these accusations. At least, to some degree. I wonder at some of the blogs I’ve read… finding them totally meaningless. Some of them are so personal and naïve that they actually make me feel foolish. Some don’t even have a sense of spelling or grammar. No way would I consider them as journalism.

Ours being a democracy, we have the right to say what we want… or publish our thoughts unhindered on the world wide web. Blogging is self-expression and everyone has a right to it… whether he or she is a trained journalist or not. Then again, Rebecca Blood has a point: “I have no desire to conform my weblog to journalistic standards, or to remake journalism in my image. I want to find ways to leverage the strengths of both worlds to the mutual benefit of both.”

Leaving aside facts such as many journalists are bloggers and many bloggers are some of the best journalists in the world, I really wonder why we are fighting in the very first place. How does it matter if bloggers aren’t journalists? Can’t there be a world where journalists and bloggers co-exist? Perhaps there’s room for both journalists and bloggers in this ever-expanding world of media.

Happily, there are voices on the world wide web which support my thoughts. In fact, they’ve been there much before me.

One of them, Scott Rosenberg, managing editor of Salon and a technology-aware writer, said it back in 2002: “The rise of blogs does not equal the death of professional journalism. The media world is not a zero-sum game. Increasingly, in fact, the Internet is turning it into a symbiotic ecosystem – in which the different parts feed off one another and the whole thing grows.”

Another is writer, blogger and Web philosopher Mitch Ratcliffe: “The point of innovation in media is to expand, not simply to displace, the voices that existed before.”

So, there is hope.

[Citation: PRESSthink, Jay Rosen]

22 July 2005

It's a responsibility

I am not a media critic, nor an observer of journalism. I’m just trying to make sense of the world. The media interests me. Ever since it became a business – commercialising everything, from news to entertainment, bringing in new technology to increase reach and frequency – I got interested in it. And ever since I began blogging (only recently), it has taken on another form and almost engulfed me.

As a blogger, I’m now a part of the media. My blog is my editorial vehicle and I use it to publish my thoughts to whoever may read it – and comment on it. So now, I’ve become a writer, an editor, a publisher and an opinion leader of sorts. Naturally, my involvement with, and my ideas about, the media are changing.

I can publish my views on a right and a wrong for the world to read. I can give others the ability to see the difference between a right and a wrong by influencing them… No matter how right or wrong I am. Suddenly, my world has expanded. I’m excited by it… and a bit scared. Can I handle this responsibility?

I’m not sure if I can answer this question right away – or answer it at all. But, I realise that this change is happening not just to me, but all around me.

Interestingly, I’m not the only one who feels this. Much of what I’ve been thinking and talking about in the last couple of days has been the point of discussion around the world for a couple of years now. So, I turned to Rebecca Blood, the person who (correctly, whose writing) inspired me to start blogging a few months ago. Here is an article, "A Few Thoughts On Journalism and What Can Weblogs Do About It", from her weblog archives which deals with thoughts similar to mine.

Rebecca Blood’s article also connected me to Jay Rosen, professor of Journalism at New York University, and an article from his blog, "Brain Food for BloggerCon", which was a mind-opener.

21 July 2005

Rise of the bloggers

The days of the editors with their op-ed pages ruling the world of public opinion are not as strong as they used to be. That domain now includes bloggers – with their ability to generate and encourage public dialogue. Bloggers have made news interactive… feeding the public, collecting feedback, and sharing. Today, opinion can come from anyone, from any direction. The newspaper’s one-to-many broadcast domain has been challenged by blogging’s many-to-many online space.

Technology has made a great contribution here. Telecommunications and the Internet with its many-to-many paradigm have entirely changed the function of broadcast media. Look at the options before us: Besides the press, television and radio, we have mobilephones, mobilephones with picture-taking ability, email, chat, websites, blogs.

With these tools, the power of opinion has shifted from the hands of the news servers (editors and journalists) to the news consumers (the public) themselves. The coverage of the tsunami disaster and the London bombing are testimony to this. Using easy-to-use Web publishing tools and Internet connection, as well as increasingly powerful mobile devices, the blogger has become an active participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information. And, of opinion.

This means the media has become more democratic – challenging the traditional models of news creation and delivery systems. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the days of the op-ed pages and the news editors are over. Newspaper editors – and their ideas – still have influence. But they don’t rule that domain anymore. Today, they share that space with bloggers.

19 July 2005

Media for profit

Sex and violence on TV and in movies. Provocative music videos, not just on TV, but also on large screens in shopping malls. Music lyrics replete with f****** expletives. What are the moral values of the men and women who control our TV, film and music industries? Ever wonder about that?

As if entertainment wasn’t enough, even news reporting is influenced by the media’s desire to make a profit. After all, most media outlets are owned by corporations whose primary interest is to make money for their shareholders. And, the corporates and other advertisers are pretty much lined up to ensure this happens. The question is: How much can we trust the entertainment and news media we are exposed to everyday?

According to FAIR’s "What’s Wrong With The News?" (see my post of 17 July), "Independent, aggressive and critical media are essential to an informed democracy. But mainstream media are increasingly cozy with the economic and political powers they should be watchdogging. Mergers in the news industry have accelerated, further limiting the spectrum of viewpoints that have access to mass media. With U.S. media outlets overwhelmingly owned by for-profit conglomerates and supported by corporate advertisers, independent journalism is compromised."

The U.S. media outlets are not alone here. What about the Indian for-profit media conglomerates like the Times of India group or the STAR network in India? Is all of this happening in India as well?

If this thought is worrisome, here’s something (also from FAIR) even more scary: "Most of the income of for-profit media outlets comes not from their audiences, but from commercial advertisers who are interested in selling products to that audience. Although people sometimes defend commercial media by arguing that the market gives people what they want, the fact is that the most important transaction in the media marketplace – the only transaction, in the case of broadcast television and radio – does not involve media companies selling content to audiences, but rather media companies selling audiences to sponsors."

Guess that means the media has roped in you and me as well. One solution is to create your own medium – like this blog – tipping the balance of power to the content provider. But, that’s a pretty big job.

17 July 2005

What's wrong with the news?

Almost 40 years ago, Marshall McLuhan concluded, “the medium is the message.” In his famous book, Understanding Media, he talked at length about the effects media has on society and culture. He defined media as technological extensions of the body, including both the physical senses and the psychological dimension, and to the extent to which we depend on them.

He argued that, what’s important is not what we read in the newspapers or watch on TV (though that has its consequences), but rather that we read newspapers and watch TV. Because of our dependence on the media, the media is capable of imposing its own assumptions on our psyche.

If you think about it, most of what we know is actually second-hand knowledge – information and insight that we obtain from others. What we read in the newspapers or watch on TV, we actually believe to be true. But in most (if not in all) cases, the news is filtered and tuned by the media-source which disseminates it to us. It carries the media-source’s standpoint, and therefore, is not really an accurate report of the news.

For instance, BBC is anti-war, Fox is pro-Republican. Even sources inside Times of India, in Mumbai, tell me that the directive is not to carry ‘ugly’ news in their morning papers… to avoid upsetting their readers’ moods first thing in the morning. Strange, stupid or simply thoughtful, the news which emanates from these news channels is likely to carry their bias and not report news accurately. Is that fair to us?

So, who decides which news is accurate and whether it is fair to serve it to us the way these news channels feel it should be? In India, there doesn’t seem to be any recognized body or media watch group – private or government-sponsored – carrying this responsibility. However, in the U.S. there are several media watch groups. One such is Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, or FAIR. According to their website:

“FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. As an anti-censorship organization, we expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled. As a progressive group, FAIR believes that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information.”

It may not be everything, but it’s a start. Wonder when India will catch up.

16 July 2005

Culture jamming

“The really important battle of the future might not be over race or gender or the environment, and it certainly wouldn’t be that old left/right opposition. What it might be, instead, [is a] fight to control the culture.”

These words from Kalle Lasn are profound in today’s world, even in India. Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine (http://
www.adbusters.org), founder of Media Foundation and Powershift Advertising Agency, is out to change the world. And, given a little media space and time, he just might do it.

Lasn’s work is a fight against corporate control, not only of politics, but also of our hearts and minds. He and his fellow adbusters make no bones about their mission: “to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the twenty-first century.” Is he nuts! How does he intend to achieve this?

Lasn lays out his strategy in his book “Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge – And Why We Must”. In the book he describes in detail how we can go about ‘uncooling’ brands, ‘demarketing’ fashions, and breaking free of our ‘media trance’. A ‘culture jammer’ himself, he has launched social marketing campaigns and won several international awards.

“We’ve been reduced to spectators, consumers,” he says. “We’re just supposed to listen and watch, and then to buy… The mass media keep us in a trance by dispensing a kind of Huxleyan ‘soma’ that drives us to conform and consume: to buy the best cars, to wear the trendiest fashions, to be ‘cool’… We’ve been so deeply manipulated; our emotions, personalities, and core values have become programmed.”

What’s Lasn’s answer to this mind control by the media? He uses ‘culture jamming’, a term he picked up from an audio-collage band Negativland, to jam signals that put us ‘in this trance’ in the first place. Culture jamming creates cognitive dissonance, disseminating seeds of truth to people as a sort of wake-up call.

Over the years, Lasn and Adbusters have produced dozens of spoof ads – print subvertisements and TV uncommercials. I’ve seen some of them. One shows a male model holding out the elastic waistband of his underwear to peer down at his genitals, with the caption “Obsession for Men”. In another, a battered child is seen through a vodka bottle, with the caption “Wipe That Smirkoff”.

Adbusters, described by its editors as an “ecological magazine”, is dedicated to examining the relationship between human beings and their physical and mental environments. “We want folks to get mad about corporate disinformation, injustices in the global economy, and any industry that pollutes our physical or mental commons.”

Can you beat that?

15 July 2005

Can trust be nurtured via media?

While working on a project for the Ministry of Tourism, I ran into some shameful comments on the Indian tourism industry. Tourists returning from India commented negatively on the glossy ads and brochures which were used to sell India as a tourist destination. The tourists not only decried India’s lack of infrastructure to support tourism, but also spoke disparagingly about the sites and services. They said it was bad public relations.

One tourist commented, "They showed us a picture of the Taj Mahal with descriptions of crystal clear blue waters flowing by, and all we got to see is a dirty grey river flowing next to it." Another remarked, "They said, in India, the guest is God; but believe me, their cabs are god-awful." A third tourist talked about a visit to a temple which was described on the Internet as "the perfect place for meditation… but an actual visit revealed a coterie of touts asking for money, squabbling auto-rickshaw drivers and beggars."

This tourism episode is not a stray example. And, these responses from angry tourists are not uncommon. There’s a bigger discussion here. Everyday we are exposed to advertising messages which promise us the world, only to leave us in the lurch in the most trying moments. Haven’t you fallen for that TV commercial or that print ad which promised ‘more car per car’? Only it turned out to be more car trouble per car… after you bought it. As it stands, few advertising messages measure up to customer trust.

Once again, this advertising message about ‘more car per car’ has not been singled out for criticism, but only to illustrate a point. The point being, both advertisers and the media carry a responsibility of trust – a trust between a brand, a via media and a customer. This trust ought to be nurtured – not wasted, nor eroded or destroyed. Advertisers know that the media is a powerful tool in the process of communication and building trust. They should think about how well the content of their messages responds to customer demand for honesty and impartiality.

Perhaps then, we’ll be able to market our country as a superior travel destination to the outside world, without any feelings of shame.

14 July 2005

Staying Alive

[No, this is not about a hit song by the Bee Gees… it’s much more.]

There is a serious concern that our youth are growing up in an environment saturated with exploitative messages, many of which are concocted for marketing reasons. And that, this generation of youngsters neither has the maturity, nor the ability to make distinctions between the good and the bad messages they are exposed to. Thereby, endangering their minds and their future.

However, while talking to some of these youngsters, I gathered that they don’t feel there is a problem at all. They don’t feel that advertising messages are evil, or that there’s some kind of invasion on their sensibilities, or that there’s a breakdown of morals, or that culture and society have taken a nose-dive. On the contrary, these youngsters feel that the global media and the advertisers are actually doing a lot of good for society.

In an echo of similar voices I had heard before, these youngsters pointed out to me that, in India, as in many Asian and African countries, there is a discomfort with sexuality – that accurate (and they emphasised the word ‘accurate’) information on this subject is scarce. That taboos on sexuality impede open communication – particularly between children and parents. For teenagers, as the desire for sexual knowledge is strong, they have to rely on TV, books, films, the Internet and each other.

Other topics such as personal relationships, religion, war, the environment, racial discrimination, and technology were top-of-mind as well. These youngsters felt that the media can explain and involve the youth in such universal topics and help deal with emotions, understanding and responsibility. And, contrary to endangering minds as their parents believed, these youngsters were certain that the media can actually build them. And, build a better world.

On taking a cue from these youngsters, I surfed on the Internet and discovered The 2002 MTV Staying Alive Campaign – an MTV global campaign on HIV/AIDS prevention. And, on reading about it, was amazed at how this campaign was implemented, although I cannot comment on its success. I’ve provided a brief description of this campaign below:

The 2002 Staying Alive campaign was the largest, most ambitious HIV/AIDS media effort ever attempted, reaching a potential of almost 800 million homes, 64 percent of total television households worldwide. The campaign was aired in nearly 100 countries, including 44 of the 50 countries most affected by HIV/AIDS…

The 2002 campaign primarily targeted young people with access to television, but it expanded the reach of the programming by adapting it for radio stations, the Internet, and other types of activities in selected countries. The campaign had three goals: to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and encourage prevention behavior, to reduce HIV-related stigma and discrimination, and to empower youth to take action…

The analysis provided further evidence that a global youth culture exists and can be reached by cross-cultural messages…

I was quite taken in by the Indian youth’s enthusiasm for global media and its benefits. But I was also saddened to find that universal topics such as poverty, hunger, illiteracy and health (which are serious issues in India and the world) were not top-of-mind for them… even when Live8 concerts had cornered the global media in the last couple of weeks.

I guess there’s more work to be done.

13 July 2005

The sweet spot

Grabbing a chunk of the youth mind and market is what many advertisers are putting their money on. From media channels like MTV to apparel brands like Levi’s to soft drinks like Coke to personal care products like Whisper Ultra to retail food chains like McDonald’s. Some advertisers just can’t get away from targeting this youth market.

Not just multinational brands like the ones I’ve mentioned, but local Indian brands are also in this fray. There are too many to name, but here are a few you would have heard about and seen: IT institutes like NIIT and Aptech, channels like B4U and Zoom, 2-wheelers like Bajaj Pulsar and TVS Scooty, apparel brands like Park Avenue and Wills Lifestyle, personal accessories like Titan Fast Track, and retail chains like Planet M, Barista and Café Coffee Day.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of these brands and I know for certain that their target is ideally between the ages of 18 and 24. Given a little leverage it extends between 16 and 28 years. It’s what’s called the demographic sweet spot (an American term for sure) – and advertisers want their campaigns to hit this strike zone. Here’s what an advertiser for a well-known youth brand had to say about the sweet spot (can’t name him, sorry):

“That is thought to be the age at which young people have a lot of disposable income and they’re also brand-sensitive. They haven’t quite made up their minds yet about from which brands they are going to spend the rest of their buying. And there’s a certain amount of research which suggests that, if you get the young person at that age when their minds are still unformed commercially, you can brand them, as it were, and then have their allegiance for the rest of their consuming lifetimes.”

And, there you have it.

11 July 2005

The media buy

Young people in urban India now have access to media that cater specifically to their tastes and preferences. They are no longer limited to the few newspapers, magazines and Doordarshan like their parents, but watch over 50 satellite television channels, skim through youth magazines and tabloids, surf the Internet, chat on ‘messengers’, and communicate with their friends through text as well as picture messages on their mobilephones.

Change is easier for them. They have less to unlearn when it comes to the old ways of doing things. They are quicker than their parents in handling new gadgets: anything from the TV remote to the DVD player to computers and mobilephones. They try out the latest in fashion and in cuisine. They know where the new shopping malls are and which movies are playing in the multiplexes.

They admire capitalism – which brings all this to them.

Naturally, the Indian youth are a target for the global media. Not only because they are at the cutting edge of fashion, technology and ideas; but also because many of them have substantial discretionary spending power. Today, the media are stretching themselves to tailor different kinds of products, programming and content to satisfy this audience: a new generation of sophisticated consumers… raring to go and spend.

The influence is Western, there’s no doubt about it – bringing with it a global culture. The Indian youth are assuming habits, styles of behaviour and dress which are replicas of their counterparts in Western countries. In fact, this process is also natural. “Youth are seen as the part of society that is most likely to engage in a process of cultural borrowing that is disruptive of the reproduction of traditional cultural practices,” explain Cara Heaven and Matthew Tubridy in a report by the International Youth Parliament on the impact of globalisation on young people, sponsored by Oxfam International.

Although global media have contributed to broadening the worldview and deepening the understanding of young people in India – creating awareness about poverty, literacy, environmental concerns, women’s rights, HIV, etc. – some fear that the Western media are promoting materialism to young people and serving to homogenise culture rather than celebrate the diversity which India is known for.

Will India follow this path set by global media? Will India choose her own course? Only time will tell.

09 July 2005

The best of both worlds

Although my last few posts have described a socio-cultural shift in the urban woman in India, prototyping the young in particular, this change has grown into a national phenomenon – and includes the male urban population as well. The fact that today’s youth are having an enormous impact on our culture and our economy is now undisputed – and may become a force to reckon with in the years to come.

Unlike their previous generation (which includes oldies like me), who have been somewhat insular and obedient, these teenagers and young adults today are confident, ambitious and technology-oriented. They are transformed by what they see on cable television and the Internet. They are more concerned with their career than their caste. They applaud free enterprise and the concept of making money.

They are perfectly happy wearing salwar-kameezes or trousers and a shirt, drinking lassi, then switching to jeans and T-shirts, drinking Coke or Pepsi, and watching MTV. They feel being Indian is a badge of honour, proudly participating in world music, fashion, literary and political circles. They proudly mix Indian values with Western packaging.

No matter how much their parents deride this behaviour, criticising the manipulative powers of advertising and the media, the youth today feel this international exposure has given them the power to adapt to Western influences – which they feel is just the right input in turning them into global citizens, giving them equality and freedom.

How long has this been going on? Have we been caught unawares by our own children? Interestingly, in an article in BusinessWeek going back almost six years to October 1999, Manjeet Kripalani gives us a fascinating commentary on this particular socio-cultural shift. Below, I’ve included excerpts from that article, but you can read it in entirety here:

This generational shift in attitudes is all the more important because this group is growing so rapidly. Some 47% of India's current 1 billion population is under the age of 20, and teenagers among them number about 160 million. Already, they wield $2.8 billion worth of discretionary income, and their families spend an additional $3.7 billion on them every year. By 2015, Indians under 20 will make up 55% of the population – and wield proportionately higher spending power…

As this group, with its more materialist, more globally informed opinions, comes into its own, sociologists predict India will gradually abandon the austere ways and restricted markets that have kept it an economic backwater. These youth will demand a more cosmopolitan society that is a full-fledged member of the global economy. They will start their own businesses and contribute to a more vibrant economy. They also are likely to demand more accountability from their politicians…

What the new generation does like is money. According to a survey conducted by Coca-Cola the primary ambition of young Indians from the smallest villages to the largest cities is to “become rich.” Young people hope to achieve this goal through enterprise and education…

That’s a big change. For years, the most highly regarded careers were in civil service, engineering, and medicine. Now, high-paying jobs in high tech and the media are where it’s at. Liberalisation has created a “new social contract in which making money is respectable,” says author [Gurcharan] Das. Young Indians endorse it heartily…

Tradition still dictates much of daily life. But progressive influences are everywhere. Take the tradition of arranged marriages, where parents chose children’s spouses, often without their consent. Now young people want to marry for love – but also want parents’ approval.

And, that’s how it is. Our children seem to be enjoying the best of both worlds.

08 July 2005

A generational issue

The title of this post is not mine. I’ve borrowed it, without permission, from an anonymous visitor to my blog whose comments to my last post carried this phrase. So, dear ‘anonymous’, thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments. Please forgive me for this open plagiarism. If you are reading this post now, then welcome to my blog.

I’m no trend-watcher, nor an anthropologist. And, although I’m not a social commentator by profession, I’ve become one – at least at an amateur level – by virtue of this blog. What gives me this confidence to comment on socio-cultural issues such as the one I wrote about two days ago? Nothing in particular, except that, as a marketing professional, I do keep an eye on changing consumer behaviour – some of which accurately reflect present-day socio-cultural patterns.

But, I’m not alone here. Even the media, including the Internet, post reports similar to the observations I’ve made. Youth Radio has a story here which will give you a glimpse of how young urban women feel today. Yes, the face of the young urban woman is certainly changing. And, we better take notice of it.

Moreover, in this case, the girls I spoke to categorically told me so. Of course, whether a sample of the size I interviewed is representative of the entire universe can always be debated. However, I do concede that suggesting a ‘downward spiral’ in the morals of these young urban women was judgemental. Hence, I apologise.

Perhaps, like my anonymous visitor commented, I suffer from ‘a generational issue’ that colours our thinking. Every generation comments negatively on the next generation, suggesting a downward spiral in standards, morals and cultural purity. As if, the value systems of our civilisations have always been on a decline. If this is true, I wonder how it was when civilisation began – or how it will be 1,000 years from now.

Still, I must clarify: My post of 6 July was not a comment focused on the downward spiral of morals of young urban women. Rather, it was a comment on the influence of advertising and media on these women… Leading to their attraction for – and affinity towards – a Western lifestyle… As if these young urban women were being brainwashed without their knowledge. That, I believe, is a matter of great concern.

06 July 2005

"We have a mind of our own."

Is there a downward spiral in the young urban female population, and society as a whole?

There’s a new dress-code ruling the young urban woman today: low-hung jeans, skimpy body-hugging tops, mostly unkempt hair, a sense of abandonment. Vocabulary is more explicit. Drinking and smoking on the rise. Sexual activity, more frequent. Who or what is responsible for this?

There’s a constant influx of messages, images and information on youth channels like MTV and Channel [V] which promote this new culture. Not just the music videos. The presentation format has a lot to contribute. And, the advertising as well. In fact, much of the advertising on satellite television is targeted at the urban youth, telling them “this is who you are… this is what you should be doing.”

As a generation, are these women asking for more explicit material? Or, are the brands and advertisers ‘pushing’ a culture of a different set of morals?

“I don’t think you can escape it... It’s very hard to escape all the advertising,” confessed a girl to me, sporting a pair of low-cut Levi’s, a pink top, Nike shoes and the latest Samsung mobilephone. Her friend, looking gorgeous in the trendiest upmarket labels, told me, “Ads don’t make me buy something… They’re more for name recognition.” Later, she added with confidence, “Ads don’t sell me a product, only the name… And whether I go out and buy that or not doesn’t really matter. What I do… It’s my own choice still.”

“Do you ever think that maybe it’s not your choice? That maybe you’re just being programmed in some way?” I asked.

“No, no way,” came the straight answer. “We’re independent girls… forward-thinking. We have a mind of our own.”

“But I can see that whatever you’re wearing now is a well-known brand… a brand that is constantly advertised,” I pursued. “Why don’t you buy something without a known brand name?”

“What’s the point,” another girl answered, who was quiet all this while. “There are so many branded products to choose from. Why should I buy something without a name?”

Good point.

“We can buy whatever we want to,” the first girl added. “Do things that our parents haven’t done.”

“And, isn’t that the way to go?” asked the gorgeous one. “People want to see new things.”

Of course. At least, I knew, my years in advertising and marketing hadn’t been wasted.

02 July 2005

Women and home

If you read my post yesterday, you would have got a glimpse of how women are changing in the workplace in India – and, in the process, changing India’s work culture. This change, happily, at least for women at large, has been so intrinsic to the woman’s role and self-worth, that it has entered and impacted the woman’s home as well.

For instance, it has given the woman a sense of choice. No longer does she feel the need to follow rules laid out by her parents or tradition – rather deciding to create a few rules of her own to improve her circumstances. The urban woman today weighs her options independently – like a man – or, at best, along with her peer group.

Choice of education or employment is one thing, choosing a life partner is another. Today, increasingly, women are getting married by personal choice rather than through arranged marriages. They are entering into inter-caste and inter-religion marriages by choosing their own partners, rather than relying on their parents’ whims or methods of selection and approval. Even what they consider “marriageable age” seems to have moved up the timeline to the 26-30 years of age group, sometimes even later, from the traditional concept of the bride under 25 years of age.

Still, women feel there is much room for improvement. Married women are conditioned by their parents and society to accept their roles as subordinates to their husbands, their home and their children. Women still find it difficult to shed their role as housewife or mother because “the primary duty of the woman is her home.” Married working women carry a dual responsibility of employee and housewife – rushing home to cook dinner for the waiting family.

Unmarried women are better off as their responsibilities at home are less binding. However, they still have to break through constraints against dress codes or socialising freely in the company of their own choice. Bringing home a male friend, for instance, is still considered taboo in most families. Sometimes, so is something as simple as speaking freely in an open forum. Parents – and brothers – at home may accept this show of independence, but what will the neighbours think?

Mind you, all of what I’ve described so far is really a reflection of women from the upper and upper-middle class urban families. The acceptance of modern, Western norms of behaviour in the Indian woman becomes less visible as you go down the socio-economic strata. In lower income groups it gets tougher for women to break through existing societal patterns. But times are changing, and we can all feel the waves catching up. Who knows what will happen next!

01 July 2005

A new wave

There’s a change happening around us and it’s taking the country almost by storm. I noticed it first when I was in college, way back in the 1980’s, when I could feel the first waves. And today, I’m amazed at the progress it has made. It has to do with women – and it has a lot of men sitting up in their seats.

Women have become vocal, more assertive. And, though you may call me a MCP, in some cases, much to my dismay, aggressive. But, whatever I may say, the end-result is fantastic. More and more women are thinking on their feet. They are taking up academic and career-oriented programmes to seek employment. And, they are taking up jobs which were earlier in the hands of men.

The preference for traditional jobs like teaching or secretarial work has shifted to advertising, media, marketing, finance, human resources, information technology, and even sales – moving the women into the corporate world, which has always been the domain of men. Today, more women apply to and graduate from MBA programmes than ever before – entering the corporate world thereafter and increasing their share of the gender ratio in their respective organisations.

Not only that, women are entering their new professions as employees equal to men, moving away from traditional stereotyped roles and low-paid jobs. For these women, many of them first-generation earners, financial independence is a key motive to work. They work as well as their male counterparts, asking for equal pay plus privileges, and are forging ahead despite work and societal pressures.

What has brought this change? I really don’t know for sure, but I do have a pet theory: In the middle, upper-middle and upper class families, the father has been a supporter and a facilitator for this change for the past quarter of a century. He has given his daughters a sense of independence and self-worth – giving them a sort of nudge to become equal to the sons in the family… Watching his daughters’ progress with pride.

This may seem an anti-feminist point of view, but you can’t deny the fact that women in India are creating an identity – and a life-space – for themselves. And, there are many men who are cheering them on from their seats.