India, Racism and the Multi-Crore Fairness Industry

Pick out any matrimonial ad in your newspaper- what does it say?

Do they want a fair, beautiful bride for their NRI son? Or do they want a fair and handsome boy for their very beautiful daughter?

In India, irrespective of your qualifications and achievements in life, you need to be fair-skinned to be worthy of anything really.

But where did this obsession with fair skin start from?

Recently, the leader of fairness products in India ‘Fair & Lovely’ decided to drop the word fair from its name. This decision came after it faced a lot of backlash from citizens over the recent row of racism globally.

The real question, however, is in a country where the majoritarian population is brown-skinned, how did we get so consumed by white skin?

The answer lies somewhere in the marketing strategy of these products.

The whole thing started with a brand called ‘Afghan Snow’, named after King Zahar of Afghanistan. Before ‘Afghan snow’, royal women would use pearl extracts on their face to get fair.

The advertisement for ‘Afghan Snow’ claimed to give women a ‘snowlike complexion’ and was even endorsed by a famous actress at the time.

Cut to 1975, Hindustan Unilever rolled out the game changer product ‘Fair & Lovely’.

Fair & Lovely currently holds 50-80% of the shares of the fairness market in India. Soon various other brands like Emami and Godrej jumped on the bandwagon.

All of these products had a similar advertising strategy point – marriage and scoring the guy of your dreams.

Each advertisement initially showed a dark-skinned girl, who was either rejected by the love of her life or was unable to get married, followed by the girl discovering the magic of fairness creams and either getting married or finding a nice suitable boy.

These women had 4-5 phases which went from dark to fair. The dark-skinned phase was always depicted with a frown while the white face phase was always depicted with a big smile, letting you know that you cannot be happy as a brown woman unless of course, you used their product to turn white.

Pond’s White Beauty cream's 5 series advertisement is the best example of this strategy. In this series of ads, Priyanka Chopra is abandoned by Saif Ali Khan because she is dark-skinned and he moves on to a fairer woman, who smiles all the time because she's white. However, Priyanka soon discovers the miracle of Pond's, becomes 'whiter' and wins her man back!

Soon the fairness brands realised that Indian women's sole ambition in life was not to catch the man of her dreams (Surprise, surprise). They realised that women could even say no to marriage proposals (!!!) and could in fact have successful jobs - but all this empowerment was brought only on one condition - fair skin of course!

In many years to come, white skin was advertised to be a symbol of confidence and success. Ads portrayed women suddenly realising their worth after using a fairness product. Turns out, all the confidence and self-esteem you need in life was hidden in that Rs 20 tube all long.

The infamous Fair & Lovely ad where Yami Gautam, after using the miraculous product, refuses to marry a man because they're not 'equal-equal' is a perfect example of this. This was followed by several ad posters depicting 'successful, working women' crediting their success to a fairness product.

This didn't stop here. Soon Fair & Lovely brought a 'fairness meter' in its ads. This meter was a scale of about 30 shades that progressed from brown to white. Fair & Lovely claimed that using their product could make you two shades whiter, and gave you their 'fairness meter' to check!

While other brands stuck to their marketing strategy of achieving glowing, bright, spotless skin by roping in any relevant Bollywood actress, Fair & Lovely kept bringing something new to its consumers. From a 5 crore ki shart to laser treatment to giving scholarships to women, they really did it all!

Due to its massive popularity, the fairness industry further branched out to selling products for men. The whole thing started with Emami's Fair And Handsome and further branched out with brands like Vaseline and Garnier joining in.

The target for marketing fairness products to men was obvious - masculinity.

Men who used women's creams were portrayed to be weak and not 'mard' enough and so if men wanted to be handsome, they could only use fairness products specially created for men.

This Emami ad is the perfect example of this - while telling you how easy they have made looking handsome for you, Shah Rukh Khan also warns you from ever using 'ladkiyo wali cream'.

After some movements like Kavitha Emmanuel's Dark is Beautiful, the fairness industry did face some retaliations but they again found a way out of it. Instead of explicitly selling white skin, they were now marketing 'nikhaar' (glow) and spotless skin while selling the exact same product.

At present, the fairness industry in India is valued to be somewhere around Rs 5,000 crore - Rs 10,000 crore and according to a WHO survey, 61% of Indian women regularly seek fairness creams.

Sure dropping the fair from 'Fair & Lovely' is an important and a major step, but is it enough? And more importantly, will it be able to reverse all those years of damage?