It was a dark & lovely night

Unilever is dropping "fair" from the name of a "fairness cream". Yes, that's right.

Indians are obsessed with fairness. We are talking about skin colour here. Light skin is good, dark is bad. Matrimonial advertisements routinely seek “fair skinned brides and grooms”. Pregnant women eat stones in the belief that it will help them deliver fairer babies.

On shaadi.com, one of India’s largest matrimonial websites, it was, until recently, possible to filter potential matches by their skin tone. It took a recent campaign in the wake of Black Lives Matter to put an end to that.

Cricketers Abhinav Mukund and Dodda Ganesh, both of whom have played Test matches for India, recently spoke about being taunted on account of their dark skin. Darren Sammy, a St. Lucian cricketer who used to be captain of the West Indies cricket team, recently spoke of being addressed by a racist nickname (which translates to “blackie”) when he played in the Indian Premier League.

Given India’s obsession with fair skin, it was no surprise that in 1975, Unilever’s India unit launched a fairness cream. It was a massive success. The messaging around this product made no bones of the concept that fair skin was desirable, and could even be a path to professional success. Check out this advertisement, for example.

In the 2000s, Emami, an Indian consumer goods brand, did some smart market research that told them that a large number of buyers of Fair & Lovely were men. In 2005, they launched a men’s fairness cream. They called it “Fair and Handsome”.

Emami entered the men's fairness cream segment in 2005 with the launch of Fair & Handsome, which still dominates the space with close to 70 per cent share. In 2007, Hindustan Unilever launched Fair & Lovely Menz Active but it could not gather much share.

From Emami’s own website:

In 2005, the company forayed into the men’s fairness category, which was a first for any FMCG company in India at that time. Emami created Fair and Handsome, a marketing history in the category of men’s fairness creams.

Today we are the largest brand in the Men’s Fairness category and second largest in overall fairness category in India. With the launch of Fair and Handsome, fairness no longer remained exclusive for the eves of the country and provided the men an opportunity to break free from being the closet users of women’s fairness creams, and still look fair. The launch of Fair and Handsome was based on researches that found that the texture of man’s skin is different from that of a woman and needs a product designed exclusively for them.

So why are we telling you this story now? Because the market for fairness creams in India is undergoing an upheaval now. In the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests, Johnson & Johnson decided to withdraw their Neutrogena and Clean & Clear fairness creams.

Unilever has now followed. It’s not discontinuing Fair & Lovely - the brand brings in an estimated ₹41 billion ($550 million) a year. However, the word “Fair” is going to be knocked off its name. So we will have a fairness cream that will not be called “fair”.

Unilever has denied that this change of branding has anything to do with Black Lives Matter, and J&J’s announcement. From the Economic Times:

The timing of the rebranding was “purely coincidental”, [Chairman Sanjiv] Mehta said, when asked why did HUL react to an incident in distant US to make this change and not when the civil society in India expressed outrage over the positioning of the brand. 

He said the company had moved the brand’s positioning from fairness to glow, radiance and healthy skin last year itself, when it removed the cameo with two faces as well as the shade guides from its packaging. “We always believe in social justice as an organisation. But this is something which we have been planning and we have done a huge amount of research on. These are not changes that you do immediately,” Mehta told ET. 

Elsewhere in the same Economic Times article:

HUL’s Fair and Lovely, which has an annual revenue of over 3,000 crore, is sold in more than a dozen markets, primarily in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Pakistan, but India remains its biggest market. 

Chairman Sanjiv Mehta told ET that the name change had been in the works since last year and that the company had applied for a new trademark a few months ago. According to an information on the website of India’s Trade Marks Registry, HUL had applied for a new brand, ‘Glow & Lovely’, on June 17, 2020

(emphases ours)

So it seems like it will be “Glow & Lovely” and not just “Lovely”. Lovely.

To be fair, while there is outrage on social media against the fairness creams, that there exists a market for these is clear. In fact, some commentators have claimed that withdrawing these products due to newfound political correctness is not fair (no pun intended) to customers.

“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.

[…]

“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. 

Before we continue, check out this superb video by TED on skin colour.


Fair & Lovely has had its share of controversy before. In 2014, the Advertising Standards Council of India, an industry body, had issued guidelines in terms of how fairness products should be advertised.

ASCI code’s Chapter III 1 b already states that advertisements should not deride race, caste, color, creed or nationality. Yet given how widespread the advertising for fairness and skin lightening products is and the concerns of different stakeholders in society, ASCI therefore felt a need to frame specific guidelines for this product category.

The campaigns that led to this change in self-regulation were led by an organisation called “Women of worth” which took out a “dark is beautiful” campaign. The campaign was helmed by Nandita Das, an actress known for her dark skin colour (described as “dusky” in film literature).

Hindustan Unilever had changed the way it advertised Fair & Lovely in the wake of these guidelines. The “shade card”, which was a staple of fairness cream advertising was done away with. In its place, ads started emphasising “glow” (now you know why they’re going for “Glow & Lovely”?).

Here are “before” and “after” pictures side by side. We’re talking about Unilever’s communication.

Prior to these guidelines, it was common for advertisers to show that dark skin is inferior.

For years, advertisers of skin-lightening creams and other products have shown people — mostly women — with dark skin as having problems when it comes to finding jobs, getting married and generally being accepted by society. The makers of these ads include behemoths like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and P&G. The so-called “fairness” cream industry in India was estimated at $432 million a year and growing by 18 percent annually in 2010, by AC Nielsen.

Regardless of what Unilever’s Sanjiv Mehta says, it is interesting that it took events in far away United States to prompt both J&J and Unilever in India to take action on their fairness products in India. This excellent paper by economists Shruti Rajagopalan and Alex Tabarrok helps to explain why.

While the paper is focussed on public policy, one of the ideas it mentions is that elites in India take their cues from Western Elites. In this context, because race and skin colour and Black Lives Matters are a thing in the West now, Indian elites are drawn to skin colour based activism. And that can explain J&J’s withdrawal of their fairness products and Unilever’s sudden discovery of social justice.

And while Black Lives Matters might be fashionable among Bollywood actors now, the list of actors who have endorsed fairness products in the past is, well, “interesting”. This graphic from the Economic Times offers a good summary.

We will leave you with some of the most “legendary” Fair & Lovely advertisements.

And this is something they made after they changed the messaging to “Glow” (it’s interesting that this was posted on Youtube by Fair & Lovely Sri Lanka)