It all ads up

Published: 11 November, 2019 07:00 IST | Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

A historian's lecture today will focus on how advertisements for medicines in colonial Bombay reflect prevalent societal attitudes of the time

An advertisement for an infant food product that appeared in Journal of the Association of Medical Women in India
An advertisement for an infant food product that appeared in Journal of the Association of Medical Women in India

If you look at a printed condom ad today, the photo in it will typically be of a semi-naked couple in a state of sexual ecstasy. Similarly, an ad for a deodorant might have imagery where the intimate relationship between a man and a woman isn't veiled behind a cloak of secrecy. We are a lot more accepting these days when it comes to accepting direct messages from brands looking to sell their products. We like to clearly see what's on the label. But that's not how it was in the colonial era. People were a lot coyer when it came to discussing such issues. And a lecture at a SoBo venue today will shed light on how advertisements during the British Raj reflected the life and times of the citizenry in that age.

A present-day ad for a condom company, which is overtly sexual in nature

Dr Mridula Ramanna, former Head of Department (History) at SIES College, Sion, will conduct the talk. She will focus mainly on ads on medicines and toiletries that appeared in Bombay newspapers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ramannan tells us that the content in these was a lot more euphemistic than what you'd find today. She says, "I looked at it as what I call a non-conventional source. Normally, our sources of history in the colonial era would be records and biographies, and in the ancient times, it would be inscriptions, coins and things like that. So, I thought why not look at ads and read into them, examining the copy for the content and images. And what I found was that they are not overt. The language is more euphemistic, which kind of reflects the societal thinking of that time."

 Dr Mridula Ramanna

She adds that that's the reason why a tonic that was meant to promote virility would use the word "vigour" instead in its advertisement. "I have also looked at infant foods, and noticed that there is a move to push certain items. But they do say that you can use these foods if the mother is unable to feed the baby. So they do promote breastfeeding. But there is obviously a systematic effort to sell the product as well, and I'll be talking about many companies that we are familiar with even
today, such as Glaxo and Nestle," Ramanna reveals.

An ad from the colonial era for a soap brand

At the same time, though, she says that she came across ads for sanitary towels, which you wouldn't think would be promoted so brazenly at a time when the women's lib movement was still some decades away. "But I must clarify that since the ads I examined were in English, a lot of them were geared towards the expat community. Interestingly, though, the content in these wasn't too different from the ones that appeared in The Bombay Chronicle, which was a newspaper for the modern Indian nationalist."

The point thus remains that a study of ads in that era reflects societal thought processes. Ramannan says that, yes, there were ads on birth control. But the content in these was a lot subtler than what you will find today. "It's not like the overtly sexual condom ads you will see on TV today. So to that extent, I do think that the ones from back then make for apt subjects for a study into societal thinking," she signs off.

ON Today, 6 pm onwards
AT Dr Sir JJ Modi Memorial Hall, KR Cama Oriental Institute, 136 Bombay Samachar Marg, opposite Lion Gate, Fort.
CALL 22843893

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