For decades, woke millennials and activists in India have tried to get marketers of personal care products to withdraw or quit advertising regressive products such as ‘fairness’ and ‘whitening’ creams, lotions and other cosmetics—but it’s taken the threat of a new law and the global pressure of the Black Lives Matter movement to make one company re-examine its absurd notions of beauty. Hindustan Unilever has finally said that it plans to rename Fair & Lovely and remove words such as ‘fair/fairness’, ‘white/whitening’, and ‘light/lightening’ from packaging and brand communication to go beyond a singular idea of beauty.
Unilever has never shied away from equating fairness with not just beauty, but also confidence, professional success and marital prospects since it launched the product in 1975. It has been censured repeatedly by the Advertising Standards Council of India for misleading consumers. The new draft of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020, has proposed a hefty fine of ₹10 lakh and imprisonment for companies advertising products purported to make a person fairer, among other claims.
The move is welcome, but it has taken the threat of punitive action, possible lawsuits and a global movement for the company to re-brand a product that should never have existed. It is highly unfortunate that such creams are popular across South Asia, where complexionism is rampant. The real challenge, of course, is to uproot the deep-seated prejudices that companies that sell fairness creams have helped entrench in societies vulnerable to fake notions of superiority.