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The dark politics of fairness products in India

Fair & Lovely is getting rebranded and Johnson & Johnson has pulled its fairness products off the market. But is bad advertising the real problem or the product?

Actor Yami Gautam in a Fair & Lovely ad, looking for ‘nikhaar’.
Actor Yami Gautam in a Fair & Lovely ad, looking for ‘nikhaar’.

On Thursday, 25 June, FMCG giant Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) announced that it was rebranding its face cream Fair & Lovely, a best-selling product since its introduction to the Indian market in 1975, by removing the word ‘Fair’ from its brand name. “We’re committed to a skin care portfolio that’s inclusive of all skin tones, celebrating the diversity of beauty. That’s why we’re removing the words ‘fairness’, ‘whitening’ & ‘lightening’ from products, and changing the Fair & Lovely brand name," a release from Unilever, HUL’s parent company, announced. Over the past week, the politics of skin lightening products have trended worldwide following the news that American multinational Johnson & Johnson will stop selling these products (under its Clean & Clear and Neutrogena brands) in India and the Middle East. The American media, especially, was all over it—from The New York Times to The Cut—either reporting the development or having a take on it.

The fairness creams market in India is estimated to be worth nearly 5,000 crore—since most industry reports only take into account “fairness creams & bleach" as a category, it is not immediately apparent what the total size of the market would be if one includes other fairness products like face washes and face masks.

Fair & Lovely has been the undisputed market leader, with a nearly 70% share and a loyal consumer base, and HUL has made a smart move by rebranding instead of pulling the plug on the face cream. It is unclear if the actual product and its active ingredients will change. For Johnson & Johnson, however, the “clear fairness" range that came under fire is a minor category— and it was perhaps easier and more expedient to jettison it.

Some branding and marketing experts, however, think the campaign against fairness creams is a case of misplaced anger. “Instead of going after bad communication, people are going after the product. The product exists because people want that choice. If, as a dark-skinned south Indian woman, I want to lighten my skin tone, how is it anybody’s business?" says marketing strategy consultant Rama Bijapurkar, author of We Are Like That Only: Understanding The Logic Of Consumer India (Penguin, 2007) and A Never-Before World: Tracking The Evolution Of Consumer India (Penguin, 2013). “Cosmetic ads tell me I won’t be attractive unless I paint my face, gyms and slimming products tell me I need to be thin otherwise I am lazy, so why target fairness products alone? I don’t see what the selective outrage is about," she says. She is asking an uncomfortable question: what if consumers want to lighten their skin tone?

In recent years, activism around fairness products in India, such as actor Nandita Das’ Dark Is Beautiful campaign, has pushed brands to tweak their marketing and advertising: Recent ads of Fair & Lovely no longer showed young women (who have been visibly made-up to look darker in the “before" pictures) achieving success only when their skin tone becomes several shades lighter. Instead, they harp on words like nikhaar (glow) and the products’ “anti-pollution", “oil-control" properties, while other brands use “dark spot removal" as a popular euphemism.

“The context of Johnson & Johnson’s decision could be the Black Lives Matter movement. The context of the discussion (about fairness products) here is not the same. Can you give customers the courtesy of choice?" asks Bijapurkar.

It can, however, be argued that there’s precious little choice involved in a culture where fair skin is sold as a desirable attribute to every little girl. This messy debate was, perhaps, necessary.

(This story has been updated following the announcement that HUL was rebranding Fair & Lovely).

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