Shefaly Yogendra

Fair is lovely, or is it?

by Shefaly on March 23, 2010

Another day, another article in the press about India’s obsession with fair or white skin. The Indian market for fairness creams is apparently growing at 18% per annum.

The colour of vanity is not really unique, as I have written before. After Coco Chanel popularised tanning in the 1920s, a tanned skin is seen amongst white people as shorthand for being wealthy and hence being able to afford a holiday in the sun. But since not everyone is rich, or able to take holidays in the sun, there is a booming market for fake tanning products. Of course, the tanned look is only cool and glamorous if you are otherwise pale and white.

Just to keep the cosmic balance (!), born-brown people in India are obsessed with fair and light skins. Because darker skins indicate that a person has a job working in the sun, perhaps manual labour and heaven forbid, is from a low caste.

Unilever’s Fair and Lovely has long been a ‘fairness’ cream selling in India. ‘Since 1975′ as its own web site boasts! Many others have got in on the act. And now products are on offer for men to become fairer. After all, what’s sauce for the goose etc applies.

Outside India, Unilever, of course is the same firm that promotes Dove for ‘real women’. But in India, as an avant garde purveyor of many things FMCG, Unilever has also without compunctions exploited this prejudice to rake in profits.

But here is something that fascinates the strategist in me even more. The label ‘fairness cream’ simply exploits a well-entrenched social prejudice. But the real positive effect – that of a sunscreen and goodness knows, with its abundant sunshine, India necessitates its use – is unarticulated. Is this the only instance of its kind where in promoting a product, its real benefit is secondary to pandering to social prejudices?

I know this will be disputed by some, but until 1994, there was no sunscreen product in the Indian market. Lakme, a then homegrown cosmetics company, now owned by Unilever, launched its Maximum sunscreen that year with a pitiful SPF 4. But the positioning of ‘sunscreen’ was theirs for the taking, seeing as Unilever had chosen to stick with the social prejudice meme for selling their Fair And Lovely cream.

In a stroke of ironic genius, Unilever now has a Fair and Lovely Foundation in India. To further education, careers and entrepreneurial skill development in women.

All along however the Fair and Lovely ads tell you despite her education and her career prospects, such a woman won’t even get access to a templeget a glamorous job or any dream job etc if she is dark.  (The links are to ads; each one worse than the next).

Fair? Hardly.

Lovely? I don’t think so.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Fëanor March 23, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Similar dynamic operating in the US – fairness for the black and Hispanic woman. There appear to be serious health consequences (see here). Not sure if the same chemicals are used in the Indian product.

It’s always struck me as a remarkable aspect of human nature that people want to look like other people. The dark-skinned want to be fair, the white-skinned want to be tanned.

Vicki March 23, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Thanks for posting about this. I knew about these creams but not about their real use as sunblock. I went to a lecture a couple years ago by Nina Jablonski at my alma mater Penn State (it turns out she’s now giving talks at TED! http://www.ted.com/talks/nina_jablonski_breaks_the_illusion_of_skin_color.html) about skin which was pretty fascinating and which talks about how most people don’t realize that their skin color is a result of whatever helps them the most biologically in the climate that they’re born.

Reema March 23, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Now men are also being made targets. They are being to believe that they should be “Fair and Handsome!! ” The carrot being girls like fair men :roll:

Nita April 4, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I can confirm that there was no sunscreen product earlier. I have searched very hard for one as I used to be in the sun quite a lot. But I do think that Unilever tends to hype up the fairness thing if they believe it affects the job market. Yes, in tv serials, movies, airlines, and hotel jobs or receptionist jobs the fairness aspect is thought to be important. Fair is equated with beauty and it doesn’t matter if you are ugly.
As for unilever, they are raking it in, and other marketers have jumped on to the bandwagon, including as Reema says, companies targeting men. Famous actors are promoting the fairness creams.
But the latest I heard from the sales guys whom I know is that the male fairness creams are not selling too well because men prefer to buy the one meant for the ladies!! They want to use it on the sly! :)

Sandeep August 26, 2010 at 5:24 am

Heyy Congrats!!!!…. One small victory over Unilever!!!! They have taken off the “Vaseline Men Be Prepared” app from facebook, finally!!! yayyy!!! now only if we could get them to stop their racist advertisments in Asia and Africa………… and stop marketing their con products that claim to whiten skin!!! Most of all, if people could stop thinking their skin color makes them different!!!! :)

Pls join the campaign: http://www.change.org/petitions/view/unilever_please_stop_marketing_racist_products

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