Vikas Mehta
Guest Article

"Privilege of being fair created fairness cream market, not the cream"

An analysis of HUL's move to drop 'Fair' from Fair & Lovely - this time, from the lens of society and culture.

From what I understand, Unilever (UL) had done detailed research about consumer thoughts vis-à-vis fairness a few years back and they found that in almost all of the brand’s global markets the sentiment and aspiration for fairness was still huge. So the brand continued. But I guess, HUL being a typical MNC, a detailed immediately execution-able strategy and plan was kept ready for a “dark” scenario. This would have included, new positioning, name, communication, packaging, etc. What they did do at that time was remove the two faces mnemonic and the 'shade card' from the packs.

So when shit hit the ceiling with 'black lives matter', London must have decided to execute the new strategy for FAL (Fair & Lovely).

I have no clue what is the new thinking but I doubt that it will be something totally different. The one thing UL and HUL lack in their portfolio is a global herbal or natural brand. Could the new avatar of FAL be that? Maybe. But my bet is that it will still be about fairness.

Is that wrong? That’s what the world and every expert says. But I think it is wrong to attack the symptom and not the cause. Whether right or wrong let’s accept that 'white is superior' is hardwired into our brain. It’s not just from a skin viewpoint but it envelops us everywhere. Darkness is scary, black is unlucky, beautiful colours are VIBGYOR, white is cooling, soothing, black is only a night party colour, black is not to be worn in day during heat... Yes, black is classy but it is also temptation, seduction... So, by default, dark skin is not only not seen as beautiful but it is also seen as bad.

And cultural references abound. One of the abiding memories of a bhajan being sung in a Krishna temple I remember was 'Yashomati Maiya se bole nandlala, Radha kyon gori, main kyon kala' That was also a big hit Hindi film song.

In small town India, this hardwiring is a lot deeper. It’s not even frowned upon. The negativity associated with black is huge. Ask any retailer how many black dresses for women are sold vis-à-vis white? Embroidery or lace is mostly in white. Try giving a black dress as a birthday present. How many Indian brand packs are black in colour? Even Maa Kaali is the goddess of death and destruction. We rarely find its statues in our homes. So isn’t black the villain in the consumer mind?

My point is simple, till we believe that white is good, it is superior, there will be a demand for white skin products. If we believe that white is a privilege, then why will it not be in demand. As someone said, it was the privilege of being fair which created the fairness cream market, not the cream.

Now, a lot of people say that the FAL advertising exploited this weakness. But that’s the job of advertising. It exploits human needs, wants, desires and uncertainty.

Isn’t Santoor exploiting the woman’s fear that after marriage she may become undesirable? Isn't Cadbury Dairy Milk exploiting the human sweet tooth habit with 'kuch meetha ho jaye'? Some cynics at that time did say that the advertising will increase dental problems and that it should be relooked.

And I am not even getting into the argument about how fairness creams are better than bleach based creams which were in vogue before FAL came on the scene. Why do you think were they in demand?

What we need to attack is not the product but our underlying beliefs. But that is not easy. Because we will never tell our children that darkness or night is better than day. Because the hard wiring in our brain will not disappear. Because people will continue to prefer white to black.

Even in matters related to skin. And skin related business.

(The author is an ad-man turned consultant with three decades of industry experience under his belt.)