Hindustan Unilever (HUL) announced that it will be rebranding its popular fairness cream ’Fair & Lovely’ by dropping the use of the word ‘Fair’ because of the ongoing anti-racism and anti-color movement in the United States and around the world, the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement has led to the revival of talks on the role of India in promulgating colourism within its borders. Amidst the demonstrations there were several online petitions demanding for a ban on the fairness cream brands like Fair & Lovely. One of the petitions on Change.org required HUL to take accountability for the brand which, it claims, is the “expression of colorism and anti-blackness.”
Instead of “fairness, whiteness and lightness,” the company cites using words like “ glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance” as a sign of its commitment to “celebrate all skin tones.” The Company said that by dropping the word fair from the brand name it is taking forward the brand’s journey towards a more inclusive vision of beauty.
Move by other Brands
The Black Lives Matter movement has gathered momentum globally. It has forced companies to reassess their businesses and marketing for signs of discrimination. Earlier, amid the campaigns of ‘The Black Lives Matter,’ Johnson & Johnson, the US health and FMCG giant, decided to discontinue its skin-whitening creams.
J&J said that it will stop the sale of Clean & Clear Fairness product line, which is available in India. The company stopped its Neutrogen Fine Fairness line in Asia earlier this month.
The normalization of fair skin through Bollywood and Indian regional cinema is rampant. It has led to an almost national preference for light skin in other streams of life, such as marriage. After a petition signed by more than 1,600 people, India’s popular marriage website, shaadi.com, removed the color filter overnight on its website, calling it a ‘blind spot.’
The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020
The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020 tried to make deceptive advertisements that advertise fair creams, weight reducing tablets, etc. punishable by statute. Yet the catch here is that companies have not avoided advertising for perfect and fair skin.
Not only does this advertising gimmick make people think that they will end up with better skin, but they also seek anxiety in someone who hears the ringing tales of “fairer skin.” That job, the companion you like, is all created by “fairer” skin.
Previous case on Emami
In the case of M/S Emami Ltd. vs Nikhil Jain, Paras Jain received R 15 lakhs from India’s biggest fairness cream brand Emami. This was because of the allegedly false claims of fairness that created psychological difficulties for his brother Nikhil Jain. Jain had sued Emami at the consumer court for unfair trade practices. He contended that the advertisement claimed that the cream fair and handsome would make the customer’s skin tone lighter within four weeks. But, there was no change in his skin tone.
Emami argued that its product seeks to enhance the skin’s safety and consistency by and preserving the skin on its face and back. Besides, the Court dismissed Emami ‘s contentions. The Court observed that it was contrary to its advertised claim for assured fairness. It was thus “misrepresentation.” The Court also prohibited fairness cream ads from showing darker-complexioned people as unhappy.
Yet, nothing seems to have changed from this case. This is because still fairness and colorism exists in India promoted by these fairness creams. Is it enough to drop the word “fair” to fight fair and lovely bias?
Colourism in India
India ‘s struggle with colourism goes deeper than the mechanics of a fairness cream industry. Lighter skin has historically been equated to an indicator of power, wealth and privilege in India. Unilever’s Fair & Lovely brand based on deeply developed beauty ideals in India. India is the second largest market for the business, where darker skin is viewed as undesirable. In India’s largest magazines, matrimonial advertisements are regularly specifying the need for a ‘fair’ bride.
Diverse Portrayal of Beauty
Hindustan Unilever Chairman Sanjiv Mehta announced that this move aims “to make skincare portfolio more inclusive” and celebrate “a more diverse portrait of beauty.” But, the change remains at the level of branding. Besides, the product details on the website of the company are still targeted at ‘fairness problems such as darkness.’ A melanin suppressant melanin listed among the ingredients. It is uncertain whether the renamed cream aims to treat skin differently from the old tubes of Fair and Lovely. This is because there are pictures contrasting a glum dark face with a beaming paler face.
So far, there is no evidence that Unilever or Shaadi.com inspired by anything other than the need to keep up with changing popular culture and usage. In major parts of India, fairness might be fetishized – for years, ads have encouraged prospective brides to use fairness creams to find a good match. The cream packaging may have modified but not it’s, in essence, content.
It is unclear about how the dropping of the word would change the purpose of the product, which is, in essence, a fairness cream. Unilever is coming out, seeking to undo an error it started 45 years ago. But, can systemic racism with which we grew up and lived all our lives be erased by eradicating ‘fair’ from ‘Fair & Lovely? Simply renaming the brand is not enough especially if the product continues to serve the same bias.
Campaigns such as Dark is beautiful in recent years have challenged Indian’s obsession with light skin. Currently, Bollywood stars and famous beauty pageants have been called up in social media by urban educated women for promoting colorism. But these campaigns have had very little impact. The popularity of the fairness creams has not diluted with the demand continuing to rise.
This move by Unilever to drop the word Fair from ‘Fair & Lovely’ is a step towards inclusion. But, it a very small step of a much larger fight to end colourism. This archaic idea of colourism has benefitted many classes of people. Groups such as the entertainment industry, media conglomerates and whitening companies have spent billions of dollars to create an image that is very false, hierarchical, and racist. fair skin is the only type of skin worthy.
Thus, without an aggressive effort from corporations, media, and entertainment industries to tear down their underlying values, the cycle of colourism cannot be broken. Although this is a step in the right direction, even more work needs to be undertaken. How Unilever carries out its rebranding plan and new advertisement campaigns will highlight their true intentions.
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