Ad rules are clear — a little social good campaigning is fine, but for brands, you have to be practical.
Jun 28, 2020, 10.01 AM ISTGetty Images
By Paromita Vohra
In the early 1980s, my father was posted to Baghdad as an air-force trainer and I met Pakistanis for the first time — as their air force officers were also deputed as trainers there. I became fast friends with three sisters in one of the Pakistani families — but once we returned there was no way to keep in touch — until 1999, when I, magically, crossed the border to Lahore in connection with a film I had written.
I sought out the family, found them addicted to Balaji soaps. One of the sisters told me how Uncle (we are joined by calling other people’s dads Uncle) had gone to India last year and couldn’t locate us. “But he brought back all the Indian cosmetics we’ve seen in the Indian ads!” That cosmetic was Fair and Lovely. I was incredulous, not least because my friends were in fact very gori-chitti (fair and unblemished) as we say in Punjabi. Apparently, you can never be fair enough, when the shared twin histories of colonial racism and caste undergird our divided present.
Fair and Lovely may say it is unfair to blame it for colour bias, with its long and complicated history. But they would be disingenuous. Fair and Lovely was developed by Unilever’s Indian subsidiary Hindustan Lever for the Indian market in 1975, though it’s popular in many countries now.
Where Fair and Lovely led, many have followed, but it has always remained the leader, penetrating ever deeper and poorer markets with its sachets and its mindset. Colourism in India is complicated because multiple shades of brown from pale beige to rich cocoa can be found across caste and communities and even within families.
Therefore, skin colour gets used with great flexibility to denote inferiority at multiple levels. It is used by North Indians to stigmatise South Indians, by upper castes to promote distaste and discrimination against lower castes, and within the same caste to create hierarchies between women, much more than men, hinging their marriageability and employability on it. Fair and Lovely, conflating fairness with beauty in its very name, subsumes the many social discriminations that affect individual progress, emphasising appearance, while distracting us from its political meanings. It is a kind of chemical warfare on the soul of people in a war of social hierarchy, offering a distraction from the root causes of inequality — while adding to them. Fair and Lovely advertisements have consistently mirrored this by linking fairness with acceptance — matrimonial, professional, social.
The presence of a Fair and Handsome cream for men, considered downmarket, reveals the diverse nature of inequality. But that the fairness debate remains linked to women in popular consciousness actually cleverly serves to deflect from these intersectional realities at the heart of most discrimination. Acknowledging skin colour issues can sometimes be a way to signal one’s progressiveness without seriously addressing other fundamental inequalities.
This history of skin colour in Hindi cinema is a case in point. Mainstream Hindi cinema has had hardly any dusky stars — Rekha and Deepika Padukone are notable exceptions, and the former has worked to progressively present as lighter skinned. But parallel cinema, Bollywood’s liberal other, accommodates “unconventional” women — dark skinned beauties among them.
In doing this it endorses the convention, for the darker skinned woman comes bundled with other reformist ideals, all of which are cordoned off in the hatke section. We see a similar narrative bouquet in advertising also. For instance, Titan got some social cred for featuring the dusky Priyanka Bose in one advertisement.
But it came along with some more exceptionalism — progressive ideals of remarriage and a benevolent “cool” man who was alright with accepting such a non-ideal woman. It may promote some new thinking, but it does not really mix it up with the old thinking.
Subsequent skin colour campaigns which also restrict themselves to women, like the Dark and Beautiful campaign, while well-intentioned, maintain this status quo of liberal appeal for elite women. Their successors, like the video India’s Got Colour, do feature different genders — though not transgender performers — but don’t quite transcend generalised diversity politics. By making everyone the same — all dressed identically in black with a bhadralok aesthetic — they also don’t provide an exuberant and visceral imagery of transformation, joyful assertion and affective diversity.
If you don’t see colour — what do you see? If you see colour only as colour, what have you really seen? Unilever has apparently responded to the way in which the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the fore the cultural hierarchies that sustain social discrimination and violence. Their move feels merely pre-emptive. Here’s why.
Fair and Lovely has had lots of chances to change, after all. Yet, with each critique all they have done is shuffle in cosmetic degrees, like those overlapping profiles of fairer shades in their ads, to terms like brightening, glowing and multivitamin. These are all dog-whistle terms for fairness now, and other brands use these as well. The reports of caste murders, dowry deaths and so on have never propelled any soul-searching — does the product contribute to and promote dangerous cultures of discrimination in the country of their birth?
So, what will their new name be? Bright and Lovely? Smart and Lovely? Plump and Lovely? Professional and Lovely? Inner Glow and Lovely? Good Personality and Lovely? Just, Oh So Lovely? What will lovely mean? There will be a model to show us that, of course. I wonder what she will look like. No Marks, for guessing.
After all, what will change besides the name? Let’s not blame Fair and Lovely alone for colourism — that’s on the whole of corporate advertising and other image-producing cultures tied to consumerism especially. In a relentless stream of visual messaging, fair skinned, straight-haired, thin, upper class people epitomise success, desirability, sweetness and aspirationality whether we are talking sanitary napkins or cars.
Maybe Unilever will change the name and even the advertising of this one product. Will it change the advertising and representation for its many other products? Anyone in advertising will tell you, that in board rooms they are told that a little social good campaigning is fine, but for brands, aka “real life” you have to be racist/casteist/sexist/classist, sorry, I meant, practical about “prime-time faces”. If that’s how it stays, then changing names is just white lies for brownie points.