How Should Advertisers Respond to Consumer Demand for Whiter Skin?

Skin-lightening creams are a fast-growing market in India. Rohit Deshpandé explores what firms should do when a product is decidedly popular—but may be promoting discrimination.
by Dina Gerdeman

In India, where many people consider fair skin more desirable than dark, the cosmetics industry has responded by producing a wide range of skin-lightening products—and with great success.

But, when these companies pitch their creams in ads that seem to portray fair-skinned people as somehow superior to those with darker skin colors, are marketers crossing a line?

Cream makers say they are merely meeting a market need, but social activists argue that these companies have an ethical responsibility to avoid marketing products in a way that could perpetuate a skin color bias.

Where does a company’s obligation lie?

The struggle over the advertising of India’s fairness creams is the centerpiece of a March 2016 case “Fair & Lovely vs. Dark Is Beautiful,” which was written by Rohit Deshpandé, Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School, and researcher Saloni Chaturvedi of the School’s India Research Center.

“These products have really grown in the last 15 to 20 years, and I was interested in looking at how they have been marketed,” says Deshpandé, who says the case generated a lively debate among business leaders in his Executive Education course. “If you think of the role of advertising as providing primes that are psychological in nature as a means of persuasion, you can take something that exists in society—a consumer preference for fair skin—and leverage it for good or for bad.”

Advertisements under fire

As Deshpandé and Chaturvedi detail in the case, lighter-skinned women have been favored in India’s ads. Advertisements in the 1980s told stories of dark-skinned women unable to find husbands until they applied fairness creams. Later, skin lightening brand Fair & Lovely linked lighter skin with success, including a TV commercial showing a young woman able to secure a job as a sports broadcaster only after applying the product. And several famous actors have endorsed skin-whitening products.

Although men share this desire for fair skin and sometimes dip into similar creams marketed to men (or use their wives’ products), the case explains, the prejudice seems to have a deeper impact on women, whose worth is more often judged by society on their appearance. (This is obvious from matrimonial ads that seek brides who are “fair and beautiful.”)

Founders of Women of Worth (WOW), a nonprofit organization established in 2008 to promote women empowerment, decided to take on the issue by launching a “Dark Is Beautiful” campaign, partly to pressure advertisers to stop portraying lighter-skinned people as superior.

“If you look at whether it’s done anything to affect the sales of the product category, the answer is no”

Actor and director Nandita Das became its unofficial brand ambassador, speaking out against skin color discrimination (or “colorism”) and refusing to be air brushed or lightened for her film roles. The campaign was designed to get attention, and that it did. A picture of Das—accompanied by her quote, “Stay unfair. Stay beautiful”—went viral on social media in 2013. (See illustration below)

Campaign ad featuring Indian actress Nandita Das
protesting skin-lightening creams. Source: Women of Worth,
courtesy Rohit Deshpandé

Fair skin part of India’s psyche

Despite high-profile opposition, sales of fairness creams have remained brisk. By 2015, facial care was a $1 billion market in India, and skin lighteners represented almost half that market size. The facial care market is expected to grow to $1.96 billion—nearly doubling in size—by 2019.

“The campaign has helped a lot in raising public awareness,” Deshpandé says. “But if you look at whether it’s done anything to affect the sales of the product category, the answer is no. This is a big market by any standards, and it’s growing exponentially.”

After all, the country’s preference for fair skin has deep roots—possibly tracing back to the lighter-skinned Aryans invading India from the north and conquering the darker-skinned native Dravidians.

The first fairness cream, Afghan Snow, hit the Indian market in 1919, although home remedies had been passed down even earlier from generation to generation. In 1975, Fair & Lovely was launched by Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of the multinational company Unilever—and sales skyrocketed, leading other companies to quickly follow with their own products.

Skincare products are regulated under India’s Drugs & Cosmetics Act of 1945, although most creams and lotions are defined as cosmetics rather than drugs, which means companies don’t have to provide strict data about whether fairness creams actually work. Many of the lotions inhibit melanin production, but some dermatologists say that when the cream wears off, melanin production returns to typical levels.

Advertising guidelines are merely “suggestions”

Stepping into the controversy, the Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory body for the ad industry, in 2014 issued guidelines about the advertising of skin-whitening products, saying ads should not show people with dark skin as “unattractive, unhappy, depressed, or concerned.” But these standards are merely guidelines, not laws. “These are not really regulations,” Deshpandé says. “They’re suggestions.”

That leaves WOW organizers concerned that cream manufacturers can use questionable marketing tactics to profit off of the consumer’s complexion complex. And with fair-skinned famous actors appearing in these ads, the push for lighter skin can have potent effects. “Bollywood is a very powerful industry,” Deshpandé says. “These actors are role models, and the majority of them use these creams.”

WOW founder Kavitha Emmanuel is particularly concerned about how the ads may affect the perceptions of young consumers. “The advertising industry has to stand up for what is right,” she says in the case. “Our young people are already being bombarded with several messages that cause self-doubt in their impressionable minds.”

“There is a need in our society for fairness creams, so we are meeting that need”

In January 2014, Emmanuel delivered a petition with 30,000 signatures to Emami’s Fair & Handsome, asking the brand to withdraw an ad that featured actor Shahrukh Khan tossing a cream to an aspiring actor who wanted to be like him. The company refused, saying, “There is a need in our society for fairness creams, so we are meeting that need.”

The view from business

The cosmetic company's position drew support from many of the 150 business executives in Deshpandé’s Leadership and Corporate Accountability course. Their argument: The government has no business interfering with products that aren’t breaking laws and, more importantly, are clearly meeting a real consumer need.

“It was a powerful argument that played out strongly,” Deshpandé says of the discussion among the executives, who had come from at least 20 different countries and had worked an average of 12 to 15 years in a variety of industries. “Consumers vote with their pocketbooks, and they’re saying they want this product. It makes the consumer feel beautiful. Who is the government or an activist organization to regulate or constrain consumer demand? Let the market speak.”

For others in the course, however, it mattered how cosmetic firms were actually encouraging the demand, Deshpandé says.

“If it’s through making consumers feel concerned about themselves, about their bodies and skin color, (they questioned) if you psychologically manipulate that, is it appropriate and ethical? What are the responsibilities that an organization has to its consumers?”

The discussion drifted beyond the boundaries of India, touching on different views about skin color around the world. In Vietnam, some women wear long gloves and hats to protect their skin from the sun to appear fairer, while many European and American women prefer a dark tan.

“This is an issue that manifests in many different societies,” Deshpandé says. “Although this case study originated in India, the issues it deals with are universal issues that business leaders have to reflect on regardless of where they’re based.”

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About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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