Recently, the ad campaign for Nivea titled “White is purity” rightfully met with a public uproar. Nivea finally had to tender an apology and withdraw the campaign. I wonder when the Indian beauty industry will meet a similar uproar.
On my visit to India this time, as I flip through the TV channels and skim over newspapers, I notice something strange. While before there were just one of two fairness cream products, now every big beauty brand has a product that has a ‘white’ or its equivalent in its prefix. Fair and lovely, White vaseline, Neutrogena Fine Fairness, L’Oreal Paris White Perfect Laser Day Cream, Garnier Skin Naturals White Complete Multi Action Fairness Cream, Pond’s White Beauty, Olay White radiance vie for consumer dollars. Not wanting to leave the men behind in this craze, there is now Fair and handsome, Garnier Men Power Light, Pond’s Men Oil Control Fairness Moisturizer and so on.
There is an unhealthy obsession with white skin in India. It is like a hidden disease. It infects everyone, is largely undiagnosed and by the looks of will remain uncured for a long time. Brides are selected for so-called high-demand eligible bachelors based on the degree of fairness of their skin. The color of skin is supposed to be a filter of sorts for identifying beauty, class, and prestige. You will hear people describe someone favorably as being so ‘fair and beautiful’. One word is synonymous to another. A dark-skinned person may have “good features” but can never aspire to rise to the same standards of beauty perceived popularly. The word ‘gori’ meaning fair in Hindi has inundated Bollywood songs and merchandise. It is a complex observed in a lot of Asian countries and the roots of it are disputed. It could be the Aryan influx, the class system, the colonization. Regardless, it is a problem deep set in the culture today. Unfortunately, the over $400M skin whitening industry in India seems only too eager to play on people’s ignorance and prejudice so it can increase its line of products and profits. In 2010, AC Nielson had reported that this industry was growing annually at the rate of 18%.
Marketing can be a great tool for social change. Indian ad creatives are amazing. Some of them are witty, some emotional and some very bravely compel you to think and question status quo. Some companies are using it in the right way. See the latest vics ad, for example, relating a heartwarming story of a transgender mother and thus bringing it up as a conversation point for us to discuss and build awareness about.
At a time where we are having critical conversations about tolerance, integration, and multiculturalism, this growth of the skin whitening industry is a disturbing trend. We need strong social messaging, a conscious move by thinkers and leaders to gently move people away from this thinking. It is not impossible. But it does need all of us to come together and resist.