Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Is it fair to ask cosmetics companies to withdraw fairness products?

After Johnson & Johnson withdrew its fairness products sold under the Neutrogena and Clean & Clear brands in Asia, there was immense pressure on other large multinational consumer packaged goods companies such as Unilever and L’Oréal Group to announce similar measures.

J&J’s move came after other American brands removed racist images from their products in response to the worldwide debate around racial discrimination. The discussion started following the murder of African-American George Floyd in the US, which reignited the Black Lives Matter movement.

With global brands such as Netflix, Google, Twitter, Citigroup, Nike and Reebok standing in support of the movement, it put the spotlight back on conversations around skin colour.

Last week, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) announced that it will drop the word “fair" from its skincare product Fair & Lovely, which originated in India more than 40 years ago. Not just that, the company’s chairman Sanjiv Mehta said words like skin-lightening, whitening or fairness will not be used in any of its other brands. Soon after, French cosmetics maker L’Oréal Group said that it will do away with words such as white or whitening, fair or fairness, light or lightening from its skincare products.

But Twitter activists were not satisfied. On social media, people asked for a ban on products that advocate and equate light skin with beauty.

However, consumer behaviour specialists and brand experts were not convinced. Sanjay Sarma, founder, SSARMA Consults, a boutique branding and communication advisory, said it certainly was not ‘fair’ to ban a product—if it was good to manufacture, and good to sell. “Banning any product only creates a spike in demand, encourages black marketing and hurts the formal economy," he said. Brand strategy expert Harish Bijoor, too, shared similar views. “An innocent looking ‘Fair & Lovely’ that sits on retail shelves is hardly the promoter of racist sentiments in anyone. The link is rather tenuous and lives more in the imagination of those who want to search it out in the product," he said.

Sarma could not agree more. The creation of the ‘fairness’ category in India has a deep-rooted cultural context and unless “we clear our minds of the prevailing social prejudices, things aren’t going to change, either by banning or by changing names", he said.

Independent consumer behaviour expert and clinical psychologist Sraboni Bhaduri, who conducted research for a rival fairness cream brand a few years ago, insisted that advertising only picks on a consumer’s desire and magnifies it. The premium on light skin in India is unquestioned and fairness is a culturally held idea of beauty. “You can say that the companies exploited this idea or need. But they did not implant the idea," she said.

During the survey, she found that people used Fair & Lovely for instant gratification to give a matte finish to their oily skin. Since it was affordable, they used it every time they washed their face, she added. To be sure, in the absence of creams, consumers will fall back on home remedies for glowing skin and to look fair. “Fair & Lovely is just a by-product of our sociocultural imperfections. It fills a need gap, and is a classic brand case study," Sarma said.

Many others argued that there was nothing wrong in wanting a light skin, long hair or blue eyes since these were matters of personal choice. “I am all for the anti-colour bias movement, but still feel this cannot be a mandated change. It is a societal and cultural legacy. A deep-rooted malaise which cannot be eradicated by a brand name change alone," said Sandeep Goyal, chairman, Mogae Media, a Mumbai-based marketing and communication agency.

Bhaduri said the inferiority complex around dark skin cuts across social classes and, even among her patients, she has seen some of the successful and affluent women suffering from it. She thinks a change is only possible if the conversations begin at home. They should start with little children in schools who often suffer discrimination and are teased for their dark skin. “Ordinary citizens cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility in this case. It is lazy activism to hold the corporates responsible," she said.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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