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.

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