Lakshmipathy Bhat

Debate around fairness creams: room for grey areas

Loss of revenue for the company and its negative impact on jobs, the incomes of those in the distribution chain are factors to be considered seriously.

Recently, on the back of the Black Lives Matter campaign, Unilever India came under the microscope regarding its skin lightening cream Fair & Lovely. Online petitions urged the company to take corrective action to stop promoting fairness as an ideal state of beauty. The company decided to drop the word ‘Fair’ in the brand to change it to ‘Glow & Lovely’. They have also said they will stop using words like ‘fair, fairness’, ‘white, whitening’ and ‘light, lightening’ in its skincare products’ packs and communication. L’Oréal Group also announced plans to drop such words from its products. J&J has gone one step further and said it will stop selling the Clean & Clear and Neutrogena Fairness line of products.

Such moves have been welcomed by activists and media. However, some have called the move to just re-name Fair & Lovely as mere tokenism and have called for a complete withdrawal of such brands from the market. Professionals in the marketing industry have gone on to say that the profits from Fair & Lovely should be donated to a worthy cause through an NGO.

Who is the fairest of them all?

Fair & Lovely, launched in 1975, is a hugely successful brand in the reportedly $450mn market for fairness creams in India. Ads as far back as 19th century and over the decades have promoted skin lightening even in western countries. According to this article, India got its first commercial fairness cream in Afghan Snow in 1919. Several global majors and Indian corporates have brands which promise whitening as a benefit: Olay, Neutrogena, Garnier, Pond’s to name a few.

Even before the Black Lives Matter campaign the promotion of such fairness creams, especially that of the market leader Fair & Lovely has come under criticism by activists and a section of the media for creating discrimination by being racist, promoting only fairness as a measure of ideal beauty.

In my view, a market & industry leader (from a trendsetter point of view) like Unilever acknowledging that things need to change is a welcome development. Yes, changing the brand name and dropping key words which promote a discriminatory view in packaging (and communication to follow I presume) is only a cosmetic change – the easiest and least risky of the options available for the brand.

However, the call to discontinue the brand is easy to make from the sidelines. But loss of revenue for the company and its negative impact on jobs, the incomes of those in the distribution chain are factors to be considered seriously by the company and can’t just be a snap decision.

Of course, Unilever and other companies who rode on the fairness & whitening wave were definitely opportunistic. There’s no way that the core team would not be aware that they are promoting a notion that is simply wasn’t the right thing to do. They even created the Fair & Lovely Foundation (a Unilever initiative to empower 5 million women across Asia and Africa through career guidance, skills for jobs and job opportunities) to perhaps imbue the brand with a ‘do-good’ perception.

But let’s pull back a bit.

Brands fuel inherent human needs, not create them

‘Advertising makes us buy things we don’t need’ is a popular belief in society. The industry doesn’t enjoy a great reputation as a profession and is considered to be full of snake oil salesmen in shiny suits. But can advertising advertising create a need which did not exist in humans? That’s a bit far fetched, attaching too much importance to advertising. Advertising can certainly create desire. It can fuel, promote an inherent need which is either apparent or deep down in our instincts.

An ad about advertising by the American Association of Advertising Agencies
An ad about advertising by the American Association of Advertising Agencies

The bias towards fair skin was not triggered entirely by advertising. Our society displayed that behaviour for ages – advertising tapped into that behaviour. Even prior to the launch of Fair & Lovely, our movies – which arguably have far stronger influence than advertising, played up being fair as a ‘desired’ state. Ads as far back as the previous century and 1930s have promised skin whitening as a benefit even in western countries.

Marketers tapping into such needs could be seen as morally wrong by some and they are justified in feeling so. But then all marketing & advertising is about understanding our innate needs, crafting products and services based on them. If there was no real need for a product, at the right time, no amount of good advertising will be able to convince someone to buy it.

Sugared carbonated fizzy drinks wouldn’t be so popular if consumers didn’t place taste above health.

Vanity could be the deep-down instinct that fuels sales of many cosmetic products, hair dyes and pushes people to take selfies (often causing death).

Ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat packaged food fulfils the need for convenience among time-poor families.

Regular 3-ply or cloth face masks do an adequate job of protection during the current COVID-19 pandemic. But there is a demand for ‘matching’ or designer masks too as it fulfils another need of having to look fashionable.

The need to show one’s life in positive light and comment on every topic under the sun, fuels our presence in social media.

There are several categories which may leave us wondering why they even exist. For example, who’d have thought that there would be a market for beard oils and beard grooming products one day? The trend of men sporting beards (triggered by celebrities perhaps) resulted in a product that sought to meet a need.

I’d also like to point out that several factors come into play when it comes to success of a product category: genuine need felt by consumers, a sizeable market (‘there may be a gap in the market but is there a market in the gap?’), an acceptable price-value equation and timing. In an episode of Silicon Valley, the lead character Richard says ‘face it, Jared, being too early is the same as being wrong’. There have been countless products & brands which were considered ahead of their time – when a combination of ‘need’ and market conditions weren’t conducive. For example, vegetable wash products were available prior to the COVID-19 crisis too, but have become popular because of the heightened need now.

Opportunity and opportunism in business

Entrepreneurs and enterprises tap into what they see as market opportunities to make a profit. In the current COVID-19 pandemic, depending on how you see it, brands have both taken advantage of and ‘exploited’ the situation. Hospitals offering video-calling consultations with doctors, automobile brands placing a plastic shield between the front & back seats, immunity-boosting tonics and other food products, food aggregator apps re-assuring customers of their safety standards could fall into the former category. And then there are COVID-19 resistant shirts which could be seen as low on credibility by some.

An anti Covid-19 shirt
An anti Covid-19 shirt

External developments and pressure from certain lobbies (as with the Fair & Lovely case) has always urged enterprises to take corrective measures. In 2004, Unilever’s brand Dove launched the hugely popular ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ which was aimed to build self esteem in women. In 2013, ‘Dove Real Beauty Sketches’ meant to convey that women are overly critical of themselves when it comes to looks, went viral.

Ironically, the same group was promoting blatantly sexist imagery and objectifying women in the communication mix for Axe (know as Lynx in some countries) during the same period. The brand briefly transitioned into the category of ‘confidence to face your Susan Glenn‘ (a reference to the ‘the one that got away‘). After backlash, the positioning and imagery of Axe has now been changed.

Beyond advertising, we need to examine the impact of popular culture led by movies and celebrities who are famous for being famous on impressionable minds. I feel such powerful forces amplified by media and social media platforms change mindsets and set trends on notions of fashion & beauty, in a relatively bigger way, compared to advertising.

We live in a world where brands are under the microscope all the time. Consumers will call out empty claims from brands if not backed with action. Enterprises talking of a lofty brand purpose have also realised that such positions have to be backed by action. It is unfortunate that a public outcry after an unfortunate incident forced change for good from Unilever. As far as the brand ‘Glow & Lovely’ is concerned, I am sure a new positioning and core brand promise will be worked out and the brand will thrive – if it meets a genuine consumer need again.

(The author is a former ad-man, who is currently heading marketing communications for Robosoft Technologies, a digital experiences and mobility solutions partner.)

Have news to share? Write to us