The many shades of fairness

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | February 24, 2010
As competition heats up in the skincare category, fairness is becoming a base virtue. And the advertising is getting more nuanced

Rarely has marketers' collective vocabulary been so sorely tested. With a whole bunch of them entering the Rs 2,100 crore (The Nielsen Company data) market for fairness products - tempting consumers with synonyms for fairness: skin brightening, skin lightening, skin whitening, pink glow, glowing skin, sparkling glow, white radiance - marketers are trying every nuance in a category that, in the last three decades, has been attacked by dermatologists, units like the Maharashtra FDA (Food and Drug Administration), the I&B Ministry, women's groups and anyone who finds the promotion of fair skin regressive. Yet, fairness products dominate the skincare products spectrum with a value share of 47 per cent of the skin care cream market.

The entry of global brands in the skincare space in recent times provides more testimony - today, a marketer may be selling a face cream or a facewash, but if he is to capture India, chances are you will find him attaching an element of fairness to the product. What was once restricted to creams is now a leverage point across the skincare board. Marketers have to use every route available to get to the fairness plank because the dominant segment in skincare is itself monopolised by a single brand: Hindustan Unilever's Fair & Lovely (FAL), which has a 53 per cent share in fairness products.

White, whiter, whitest

Developed in 1975, and marketed in 1978, FAL is the oldest fairness cream among major brands. To R Balakrishnan aka Balki, chairperson and chief creative officer, Lowe Lintas India (the agency on FAL since inception), "It isn't as though FAL created a new category, the fairness category has always existed except that it didn't really have a player in it." To decode, the need for fairness has always existed and people satisfied that by applying talcum powder but this had its limitations.

The earliest FAL advertising simply explained how it worked without harming the skin. Once that was established, FAL went on to the romance angle, which it dropped only about a decade ago. This was of the someone-rejecting-and-then-accepting-the-girl variety. Romance gave way to finding careers or shaping one's own destiny (the cricket commentator ad), and finally, affecting change (FAL Foundation is an effort towards that).

The turning point came with an ad that was released in the late '90s - Kaash Mera Beta Hota (where a father wishes that he had had a son rather than a daughter). Prior to this FAL ads were about romance and how being fair can help a dark-skinned girl get her love - treated in a light-hearted manner.

But the Kaash Mera Beta… ad turned into a 'social problem' for the makers - it was pulled off. In fact, FAL's ads have often run into trouble with women's groups for a regressive portrayal of women - an accusation that the brand contests by saying that it is merely mirroring reality. "If one shouldn't sell fairness creams, one shouldn't sell cars, jeans or anything that makes people aspire to something they want," says Balki.

FAL enjoyed a monopoly until CavinKare's Fairever decided to go national in 1999. It brought about an element of Ayurveda to its product and communication, which FAL countered with its own Ayurvedic range. In the next few years, a number of Indian brands appeared in the space including Godrej Group's FairGlow, Elder Pharmaceuticals' FairOne and Emami Group's Gold Turmeric and Naturally Fair.

Among the first companies to take fairness beyond creams was Godrej, with FairGlow being launched as a fairness soap first and a cream later. Other players quickly followed with fairness soap launches, and this snowballed into fairness facewashes, no marks creams, fairness winter creams and so on. Fairness slowly started seeping into the skincare kit in more ways than one.

If one thing didn't change, it was the formula-led advertising in the category: the before-after or cause-effect kind, the only addition being new tools such as skin tone measurement cards to substantiate claims.

Who is the fairest of them all?

A decade ago, international brands like L'Oreal, Garnier and Olay flocked to India with global expertise in skincare problems, ranging from ageing to drying and acne. It took these companies a while to realise that if they were to truly capture India, niche probably wasn't the smartest way to go. For wider appeal, nothing beats fairness.

As Naresh Gupta, until recently the national planning head at Publicis India, puts it, "You can either take the high ground by basing yourself on a scientific, international plank or become value based and expand usage by promising that you understand the Indian skincare market."

As none of these companies are global experts in fairness (western markets don't need such products), they trod the safe route: they didn't claim FAL's territory directly. Instead, they threw in an element of fairness in their international skincare products, and even localised some of their products to suit Indian skin textures.

"Indian society is variegated in its colour profiles, and this yen and craving for fairness exists everywhere, almost like a disease," says Harish Bijoor, brand strategy specialist and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults, musing that perhaps fairness is in fact sought after by Indians at large.

So, on the one hand, while FAL is adding other skincare products to its fairness portfolio, other brands are adding fairness to their existing skincare portfolio. The aim for both is to widen their fish-net. "And suddenly, fairness isn't 'regressive' anymore, it is fashionable and upmarket," Balki muses, and has turned into a base virtue in the skincare category now.

Most of the international entrants are making use of words such as skin-lightening/ brightening/ whitening or pink glow, instead of the old-fashioned 'fairness'. Could this be because of the negative connotation associated with that word over the years? "It is about differentiation. Global brands have realised that plain vanilla fairness won't work anymore, and that is why such terms are emerging," says Sumanto Chattopadhyay, ECD, Ogilvy South Asia, who works on Pond's.

Some feel skin-lightening could be what a brand resorts to when it is unable to fully meet the requirements to make a full-fledged fairness claim. In a similar vein, dark skin is being masked with terms such as 'my summer look' or 'the tan look' or 'an uneven skin tone'. Branding experts feel this could be because evolved women don't want to be talked down to anymore or be told that dark is ugly, even as they continue to crave fairness.

Marketers however, don't concede that they are using 'surrogate' terminology, instead, it is the logical next step, they say. Garnier Light, for instance, is positioned as a brand that gives its user a glowing skin. "Our research has shown that a woman today isn't looking for plain gorapan, she wants something more that tackles dark spots, the dullness of her skin or her uneven skin texture. So 'glowing skin' is a holistic halo of which fairness is a part," explains Richa Singh, marketing manager, Garnier India, clarifying that the aim is not to shy away from fairness. "If I have a moisturiser and combine it with a whitening property, I don't have anything to lose, it is my consumer who will gain."

This kind of convergence of product benefits is similar to some other product categories: for instance, a coffee mix that combines instant coffee powder, milk and sugar in a sachet, shampoo with hair conditioner. It is vital to note, however, that it is not likely that one fairness product can replace the need for another, for instance, a fairness facewash won't do away with the need for a fairness cream, instead it will simply cater to a new need. If a few years ago, a woman were to use one cream, today, with better economic conditions, it is a plethora of products that she would like to use.

The user of fairness products is more evolved than before. But the traditional fairness cream still has its loyalists amongst the lower SECs. South India is the largest market for fairness with a 36 per cent share, North and West have 23 per cent each while the East is at 18 per cent. Whether it is fair or not, fairness products and their communication will continue to tempt marketers to try and get as many consumers as possible.

(Based on interviews with Devdutt Pattanaik, author, mythologist and chief belief officer, Future Group, Harish Bijoor, brand strategy specialist and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults, Naresh Gupta, until recently the national planning head at Publicis India, R Balakrishnan, chairperson and chief creative officer, Lowe Lintas India, Richa Singh, marketing manager, Garnier India, Sumanto Chattopadhyay, ECD, Ogilvy South Asia and inputs from The Nielsen Company).

(The Players in the Game*)
Brand Name Products
Chambor White Clarifying softener, crystal whitening essence cream, gel mask, moisturiser, UV protector cream
Everyuth Naturals Cream
Fair & Lovely Antimarks cream, ayurvedic cream, multi-vitamin cream, winter cream
Fairever (CavinKare) Fruit fairness crème, regular fairness cream
FairGlow (Godrej) Soap
FairOne (Elder Pharmaceuticals) Cream, face mask, scrub
Garnier Light Cream, facewash, undereye roll-on
Himalaya Herbals Cream
Kaya Skin Clinic Cleanser, day cream, night cream
L'Oreal Paris White Perfect Day cream, double eye zone brightener, double essence cream, facial foam, moisturiser, night cream, toner
Maybelline White Stay UV base, UV fairness compact powder
Neutrogena Fine Fairness Cleanser, moisturiser, whitening mask, toner
No Marks (Ozone Ayurvedics) Cream, face wash gel, fruit face pack, lip balm, lotion, scrub, soap
Olay Natural White Cream
Pond's Flawless White Anti-spot intensive whitening serum, daily cream, daily lotion, facial foam (cleanser), re-brightening night treatment cream, two-way foundation powder, under-eye cream, vitamin soak lightening mask
Pond's White Beauty Spotless lightening cream, spotless lightening facial foam, spotless lightening lotion
Revlon Skinlights Eye gloss, face lotion, loose powder
Uveda (Dabur) Cream, moisturiser
Vaseline Healthy White Moisturising lotion
VLCC Face cream, face pack, massage gel
*List incomplete


In India, the fascination with fair skin has its roots in ancient folklore and cultural beliefs. There's one school of thought that traces this back to our caste system called the Varnashrama Dharma, where the word Varna in Sanskrit implies colour. Another set believes that since Sanskrit words are not literal and have varied meanings, this may not hold water.

As author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik (who is also chief belief officer at Future Group) puts it, black has traditionally stood for inauspicious, dark and violent in India, and hence isn't desirable. There are dark and fair gods in India, but one always talks of dark gods as the aggressive ones - for instance, Krishna (the name means black in Sanskrit) is associated with the Mahabharata. As a society, we are more accepting of an unnatural blue skin for Krishna but not a natural black one for him. What's more, all the protagonists in the Amar Chitra Katha stories are blue or fair, barring the demons who are black. "We don't realise that the child reading it is being shaped by that photograph," observes Pattanaik. "Why should fairness creams be attacked for simply riding the traditional wave?" While some products may be politically incorrect in stating what they do, perhaps they ought not to be held responsible for shaping the age-old truth.

Sociological studies indicate that in India, dark skin, by default, is associated with menial labour while fairness implies a well-to-do existence. A pale woman is seen as one who doesn't need to work and is not a commoner. That the ruling classes in India including the Aryans, the British and others, were all fair, may just have reinforced whiteness as aspirational. Fairness, as a by and large metric for the popularity of Bollywood heroines, too, has a lot to do with shaping the 'wannabe' white skin pop culture.

Beyond Indian shores

Like it or not, white skin excites Indians. But in all 'fairness', it isn't only India that is caught up in this frenzy for light skin. Several Asian, African and South American markets are big on fairness products.

One of FAL's biggest markets after India is Japan. In China, white skin symbolises royalty. Popular belief is that the Indonesian and Malaysian markets mirror the Indian one for fairness products.

In a majority of markets including India, the need for whiteness products is rooted in hierarchy, as popular studies suggest. It's not really about colour, it's about one's need to climb up the social ladder, and lighter gradations of skin tone are just a means to get there, a measure, so to speak, just as money is a measure for it. "And since we don't particularly like our reality, we make fairness products the butt of our attacks," deduces Pattanaik.

(Legal guidelines for Fairness Products' Communication)

  • There is no law banning advertisements of fairness creams.
  • Claims made regarding fairness transformation have to be scientifically proved. Complaints against such ads have been upheld in the past on the basis of them being misleading by exaggeration.
  • The ASCI Code in Chapter 1.5 stipulates that 'special care and restraint has to be exercised in advertisements addressed to those suffering from perceived inadequacy of a physical attribute' that is, the colour of the skin which could be objectionable to a large number of women in India.
  • Some fairness cream ads have shown a dark skinned woman being at a disadvantage with respect to marriage suitors. The ASCI's Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) has upheld such complaints as they tend to deride colour and portray a situation which is unacceptable to society at large.
  • Ads including those of fairness creams should not, in the generally prevailing standards of decency and propriety, cause grave or widespread offence.

Courtesy: Advertising Standards Council of India, ASCI

(Some complaints upheld by the ASCI in the past)
Brand Description Complaint Action
Fair & Lovely fairness soap (Year: 2004) Print ad that claimed, 'Presenting a breakthrough innovation in fairness - a beautiful speckled soap with fairness vitamins you can actually see. Every time you bathe with the new FAL fairness soap, you get your daily dose of fairness. Not just that, its proven double action sunscreen system helps to protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays'. Is there something like 'fairness vitamins' and can they be seen? How can a soap film, which is washed off, provide protection from UV rays? How is this action proven? What are the details of the methodology? Claims inadequately substantiated. Ad misleading by exaggeration of the product actions as cited in the complaint, and hence, ad discontinued.
L'Oreal White Perfect Whitening Range (Year: 2005) Print ad that claimed, 'L'Oreal patented BHA: gently exfoliates dark, dead cells', 'Breakthrough in whitening: melanin-block reduces melanin production'. Claim could be ambiguous, and therefore, misleading. Claims needs to be substantiated with technical information, tests or trials reports from an independent recognised testing institution. Claims not adequately substantiated and misleading by ambiguity and exaggeration, and hence, ad discontinued.
FairOne cream (Year: 2005) Print ad shows visual of a girl's face being used (by implication) as a source of brightness to see an X-Ray film. Ad is ambiguous and misleading in the absence of any apparent mention or relevance to the product promoted - FairOne cream. Visual depiction without any mention or relevance to the product promoted - FairOne cream, misleading by ambiguity, and hence, ad withdrawn.
Godrej FairGlow soap (Year: 2006) TVC shows parents of the girl as dark skinned, with their names as 'Mr Kale and Mrs. Kale' and the daughter is shown as fair because she has used Godrej FairGlow soap. Ad is offensive. Visual depicted was discriminatory in its implication. Ad considered to be repulsive and likely to give rise to widespread offence, particularly amongst women. The ad campaign was pulled off.
Roop Amrit fairness cream (Year: 2007) TVC claims dark skinned people will become fair skinned after using Roop Amrit fairness cream; People with dark skin will not succeed in life and will suffer a lot. These claims are not only racial but they are totally baseless. This commercial demeans people with black or dark skin and promotes low self-esteem among dark skinned people. Ex parte (absence of comments from the advertiser). Claims were not substantiated. Ad was discriminatory in its implication, and hence, TVC was withdrawn, while the advertiser assured that the claims will not be repeated in future ads.

© 2010 afaqs!