New Delhi: The modern Indian woman is independent, in charge—and does not have to live with her dark skin.
That is the message from a growing number of global cosmetics and skin-care companies, which are expanding their product lines and advertising budgets in India to capitalize on growth in women’s disposable income. A common thread involves creams and soaps that are said to lighten skin tone. Often they are peddled with a “power” message about taking charge or getting ahead.
Avon, L’Oreal, Ponds, Garnier, the Body Shop and Jolen are selling lightening products, and all of them face stiff competition from Fair and Lovely, a product of local giant Hindustan Lever Ltd, Unilever’s Indian arm, that has dominated the market for decades.
Fair and Lovely, with packaging that shows a dark-skinned unhappy woman morphing into a light-skinned smiling one, once focused its advertising on the problems a dark-skinned woman might face finding romance. In a sign of the times, its ads now show lighter skin conferring a different advantage: helping a woman land a job normally held by men, like an announcer at cricket matches. “Fair and Lovely: The Power of Beauty,” is the tagline on its newest ad.
Not surprisingly, the rush to sell skin-lightening products has drawn some criticism, with people saying that the products are at best unsavoury and that they reinforce dangerous prejudices.
When Unilever markets Fair and Lovely, it “doesn’t cause bias,” but it does make use of it, said Aneel G. Karnani, a professor with the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan who earned a business degree in India.
Global cosmetics companies—which also sell skin-lightening products throughout Asia and in the US, where they are marketed as spot or blemish removers—argue that they are just giving Indian women what they want.
Taking offence at the products is “a very Western way of looking at the world,” said Ashok Venkatramani, who is in charge of the skin-care category at Hindustan Lever. “The definition of beauty in the Western world is linked to anti-aging,” he said. “In Asia, it’s all about being two shades lighter. Sales of Fair and Lovely have been growing 15-20% year over year,” Venkatramani said.
Skin-lightening products are by far the most popular product in India’s fast-growing skin-care market, so manufacturers say they ignore them at their peril. The $318 million (Rs1,272 crore) market for skin care has grown by 42.7% since 2001, says Euromonitor International, a research firm.
“Half of the skin-care market in India is fairness creams,” said Didier Villanueva, country manager for L’Oreal India, and 60-65% of Indian women use these products daily. L’Oreal entered this specific market four years ago with Garnier and L’Oreal products, but so far has a small market share, he said. The idea of “glowing fairness” has nothing to do with colonialism, or idealization of European looks, Villanueva said. “It’s as old as India,” he said, and “deeply rooted in the culture.”
There’s no denying that the notion of “fairness,” as light skin is known in India, is heavily ingrained in the culture. Nearly all of Bollywood’s top actresses have quite pale skin, despite the range of skin tones in India’s population of more than a billion people.
Lightening products can damage the skin if they are overused, dermatologists say, particularly if they contain hydroquinone. The compound reduces melanin but can leave permanent dark spots in high doses.
Deeply-rooted ideas about women’s roles are slowly shifting in India. The percentage of women married before the age of 19, for example, has dropped sharply. Advertising and marketing gurus are aiming at young, urban Indian women, who are earning their own money and are potential customers for a host of products, including branded clothes, cosmetics and new cars.
India is hardly alone in its pursuit of “fairness.” Korea, Japan and China are big markets for skin-whitening products. And the US is not exempt. Ebony magazine ran similar ads relating to full-face “skin brightening” or “skin whitening” creams aiming at black consumers through the 1950s and 1960s, said Jeanine Collins, communications director for Ebony. Those ads changed their message during the 1970s and the 1980s to talk about removing spots or blemishes, she said.
In India, advertisements for L’Oreal-branded products and the company’s Garnier line generally feature a pale model and focus on the ingredients in the product, using take-action language like “YES to fairer and younger looking skin” or “Against inside cell damages.”
L’Oreal’s super-high-end Vichy line is more direct: The main advertising image in Asia shows a woman unzipping her blemished, darker face to reveal a light, even-toned one within. “We have never had any complaints about the ad’s social implications,” said Nitin Mehta, India general manager of the active cosmetics division of L’Oreal, which makes Vichy products.
Unilever’s Fair and Lovely brand has drawn particular scrutiny because of its market dominance, its ads and the parent company’s image. Unilever also makes Dove products, whose “Real Beauty” campaign encourages women in the US and Europe to embrace the way they look. This month, Unilever said it would ban super-skinny modelsfrom ads.
The All India Democratic Women’s Association has been monitoring advertisements since the 1990s and gets particularly angry with ads that convey the message “if she is not fair in colour, she won’t get married or won’t get promoted,” said Manjeet Rathee, a spokeswoman for the association’s media group. The current crop of television ads for fairness creams is “not as demeaning” as ones in the past, she said.
In a twist that makes it difficult for critics to accuse Unilever of stoking just women’s insecurities, the company has begun to advertise a Fair and Lovely product for men.