Chandradeep Mitra
Guest Article

Dropping ‘the’ word – Fair or Unfair?: An analysis of HUL's move

Just changing the name barely cuts it, feels our guest writer. The company ought to stop production, apologise, he opines.

There seems to be a lot of media excitement, some mixed responses and mostly positive support from a lot of people regarding the recently announced decision of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) to remove the word 'Fair' from their blockbuster brand 'Fair & Lovely', subject to due trademark approval in the coming months.

Personally, I'm more ambivalent about this decision of HUL to suddenly wake up and choose to rename the brand. Let me explain.

Dropping ‘the’ word – Fair or Unfair?: An analysis of HUL's move

It’s undeniable that the company (and a large number of their competitors, both multinational and Indian) have consciously and thoroughly exploited and milked this racist and prejudicial trait among Indians for 45 years now (and in other countries too, including Asian and African nations). In spite of many years of being questioned and criticised, they didn't give up their golden geese, claiming they were simply offering what consumers wanted! All the while they explicitly promoted fairness, suggesting over the years that enhanced fairness leads to better matrimonial prospects, greater attention from the opposite gender, improved social confidence, growing self-esteem, superior career choices, empowerment of women... the list is endless! While many companies and brands have jumped on the brandwagon over the years, the trend was clearly created by HUL and Fair & Lovely in India many decades back, and this has helped create by far the largest segment among face creams, lotions and face washes in India.

The fact that it is one of their most profitable brands in India made them conveniently ignore and obfuscate the issue. It's unpardonable that they cunningly exploited a degrading, morally reprehensible, racist and colonial pre-existing social prejudice for profit, while further reinforcing this unfortunate stereotype. Through hundreds of ads and crores of media spending they convinced generations of Indian girls and women, also boys and men, that fairness is more desirable and a true symbol of beauty. In the process they strengthened the deep-rooted insecurity complex among millions of darker-skinned people of India (a vast majority of our population), while making thousands of crores of revenues. Imagine millions of dark-skinned youngsters growing up in India, taunted by friends and relatives, shunned by society, being peddled the hope of a solution to their ‘problem’ by a benevolent brand that actually perpetuated their insecurity and profited from it!

They even created a ‘Fair & Lovely Foundation’ aimed to empower and enhance self-esteem of young women in India (imagine a company selling guns using its CSR funds for a children’s essay competition on peace!). It is perhaps akin to profiting from the slave and opium trade (when they were legal) for years and then suddenly acting holier-than-thou. What’s interesting is that these companies that promote fairness products have also appointed themselves as cheerleaders of the growing fashionable concept of 'Brand Purpose'! Also, isn’t it ironical that the same global company that has for decades perpetuated systematic racial stereotyping through Fair & Lovely and toxic masculinity through Axe, then promotes inter-religious harmony through Surf Excel and Red Label, and the concept of ‘Real Beauty’ through Dove (which incidentally, was also pulled up for racial stereotyping and was forced to withdraw ads and publicly apologise)!

All along, they used every possible word from the thesaurus, including fairness, whiteness, lightness, brightness, clear, glow, shine, radiance, and even Hindi words like ‘Nikharapan’ (which they smartly coined when Doordarshan disallowed the use of the word 'Gorapan' or 'fairness' in their ads), in trying to circumvent mounting criticism, while clearly showing multiple shades of fairness in their ads! And what has helped them all these years is that most of us either actually supported and were complicit with them, or at least looked the other way, and dared not call the emperor naked!

No amount of whataboutery can defend this. Yes, India has had many long-standing and deep-rooted biases, some of which got accentuated during colonial rule. A lot of other systemic prejudices, like caste and class, are connected with the colour of one’s skin. Dark skin has often been connected with Dalits and tribals in our country. It’s true that other forms of popular culture, including pop lyrics, films, TV series and books have been guilty too, and contributed their fair share to this unfortunate social hierarchy based on skin tone. But brands can’t absolve themselves, especially because they reinforced these negative stereotypes, and then gleefully galloped to the banks with their ill-gotten profits.

Now, after all these years, when the public opinion and criticism due to Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racism protests are snowballing across the world, these great global and national companies are finally waking up (J&J was the first to wake up a few days back). I honestly think what they're doing now is too little, too late, and patently hypocritical!

In my view, the bare minimum that HUL (and other such companies selling fairness products) should do is perhaps the following:

1) Completely and immediately discontinue the brand, not just rebrand it and remove the word 'Fair' from it (while everyone already knows the brand and product, what's it's formulation, what it’s meant to do, and continue selling and profiting from it), while using another surrogate word like ‘Glow’ or ‘Radiance’ (and their vernacular equivalents) that everyone would easily understand. It’s not just the superficial naming of the brand, but the underlying product, formulation and core promise that is at the root of the larger problem.

2) Publicly own up and apologize for creating and selling these brands and variants all these years.

3) Contribute all the profits accumulated over all these years from these brands & variants to a publicly audited body like a respected non-profit that uses the money to fight this deep-rooted social injustice and prejudice.

4) Appoint a neutral and transparent ‘Marketing Ethics Advisory Board’ comprising of renowned and creditable outsiders including social, cultural, ethical and legal experts, activists, academicians and commentators, to provide honest feedback, criticism and guidance for their future Marketing activities that has to be publicly shared and acted upon.

What more should we expect from HUL and all the other companies and brands that have made unholy profits from fairness-mongering over decades? How many of us corporate leaders and managers have the courage to call this spade a mass murder weapon (think suicides and dowry deaths of dark-skinned women)?

Perhaps t’is time each of us faced the cracked mirror and asked ourselves, “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall...”!

(The author is a professor and teaches a number of Marketing Courses at IIM Calcutta, XLRI, SPJIMR and MICA, including pioneering courses like ‘Marketing with Responsibility’ and ‘Marketing Theory and Contemporary Issues’. He’s also the CEO of PipalMajik, Co-Founder of Meta4Sight, Mentor & Advisor at IIM Calcutta Innovation Park, and is a Leadership Coach, Corporate Master Trainer, Advisor to Entrepreneurs & Mentor to Social Enterprises. The views expressed here are entirely his own.)