Beyond Unilever's cosmetic renaming of Fair & Lovely, brand must redress years of profiting off India's dark skin stigma
Let’s seize the opportunity to get Fair & Lovely to repair the damage it has caused, writes Anuradha SenGupta
As someone firmly on the far dark side of that shade card that comes with skin fairness products, the announcement by Hindustan Unilever (HUL) earlier this week left my mind boggled. Of course it was good news, long overdue but good news. But how was it even going to be possible? After all Fair & Lovely (FAL) had spent decades and tons of money pandering to and perpetuating the premium Indians have put on fair skin.
Fairness and skin lightening products — and FAL as the market leader — have blatantly and for long tapped into one of the most pernicious attributes of being Indian: The slavish appreciation of and aspiration for fair skin. Most Indians associate being fair-skinned not only with being beautiful but also with being rich, successful, from a higher caste, and — wait for this — being honest!
Many years ago when I was running Storyboard, a market research veteran told me how qualitative studies had shown that most Indians perceived fair-skinned people as being more honest. So, let’s say someone’s pocket has been picked and there are two likely suspects, the first inclination would be to believe the darker-skinned person did it. It sounds incredible but you have got to admit it rings true.
Even though this is a country that worships the blue-black Krishna, being dark is a handicap at best and a curse at worst. The bias against dark skin is always present, manifesting itself in the most unexpected and unlikely ways, but unfailingly and always. It cuts across gender, but for women — like it is in everything else — the wound is deeper, drawing more blood.
I was fortunate not to have been brought up to believe my face "was my fortune" or that I would have to rely on how I look to get by professionally or personally, but I did occasionally hear my mother sound impressed by some fair beauty. It was fleeting and never directed against me but you always know when you have come up just that little bit short.
Growing up, I never heard anyone talk admiringly about my skin colour.
I didn’t see too many dark movie stars. I heard comments about good looking people being let down by their dark skin. My direct brush with the bias towards fair skin came when I first started anchoring. I noticed makeup artists, men, trying to make me look fairer by using a lighter makeup base. Luckily I could put a stop to that pretty quickly.
But few people have that kind of control or the thick skin needed to deflect centuries of social conditioning reinforced by multimillion dollar advertising. For most people, ads like the tons FAL has run over the years — and remember, consumer goods advertising is about frequency — has only abraded self-confidence.
Things were so bad that six years ago the ad industry’s self-regulatory body ASCI had to create guidelines specifically for ‘skin lightening or fairness improvement products’. As part of the four-member group that drafted these rules, I still remember feeling stunned by the relentless brazenness of the ads we reviewed. All of them were feeding into and off our skin insecurity. One of the rules had to explicitly state that these ads would have to ensure that expressions of the models in both real and graphical representations, before product use "should not be negative in a way that’s widely seen as unattractive, unhappy, depressed or concerned". Yes, we had to spell it out.
We need to accept that like racism is institutionalised in the US, bias against dark skin is institutionalised in India.
The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement propelled by ordinary Americans has resonated across countries that have multi-racial populations. In India the support for it has been scarce, and the little that there has been, hijacked by social media storms of little consequence. There was never any question of street protests, not because of the restrictions and anxieties around COVID-19 , but because most of us don’t really believe Black lives, and in our case, dark-skinned lives matter. We have a long history of openly discriminating against dark-skinned people and that’s been intertwined with geography, caste, wealth and opportunity.
It’s not like HUL hasn’t countered the strident criticism against one of its most successful brands in the past. It started the Fair & Lovely Career Foundation in 2003 that to date provides scholarships, career counselling and vocational skills to women precisely for this. It also pivoted the brand into a tool for self-empowerment some years ago. The ads became about women shifting focus from seeking male admiration and matrimony to those fashioning themselves careers and being independent.
The route to the new outcome though was the old one: Lighter skin. The results were muddled, offensive and cringe inducing.
In his expansive interview on my show The Media Dialogues on CNBC-TV18, (two days before the FAL announcement), HUL's chairman and MD Sanjiv Mehta called innovation the lifeblood of an FMCG company saying, "If we have to make our brands contemporary then we have to keep innovating and renovating them."
For FAL that renovation will have to mean demolition and rebuilding. How else can it walk the talk? In its 25 June announcement Unilever said, “We recognise that the use of the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right, and we want to address this.” It also said ads will "feature women of different skin tones, representative of the variety of beauty across India and other countries". For this to be true, all future FAL communication will have to be radical and new. Everything it does henceforth will necessarily mean rewriting the past.
Many people are cynical about Unilever’s announcement and don’t think it will amount to more than a cosmetic name change, calling out the multinational for being motivated by concern about its global image in the era of Black Lives Matter, rather than any genuine concern for what it’s done to the Indian psyche. On social media many have said this means nothing if the product remains. To the latter, I would say products and brands last as long as they are legal and there’s a market for them. It would be naïve and unfair even, to expect a for profit-corporation to take the higher moral ground when the society it serves doesn’t.
To others, I would say let’s seize the opportunity to get FAL to repair the damage it has caused.
I don’t care what brought about this change of heart, I would rather just pounce on the opportunity it presents. We must get Unilever to invest all the creativity at its command and the hundreds of crores of rupees at the disposal of FAL to popularise and spread images and ideas that reflect and celebrate the way Indians actually look. The starting point on this long journey will have to be destigmatising dark skin.
Let’s use this moment to seek reparation. Can the brand perhaps rub a little something on itself, like all those down in the mouth, darkened models it had featured in iteration after iteration of its advertising, and voila, miraculously become many shades fairer? In this case, "fair" as in just and equitable, and not light or white. Unilever can certainly make it happen. We must ensure that it does.
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