Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice
Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 30, 2007
In a previous post, “Black History is Now,” Jon Hanson & Michael McCann discussed how shades of skin color play a surprisingly significant role in how we assess ourselves and others. As they described, studies have found, for instance, that dark-skinned Blacks are more than ten times more likely to experience frequent racial discrimination than their light-skinned counterparts and “dark-skinned Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans continue to face higher levels of discrimination in the labor market.”
Of course, because there is money to be made in exploiting such stereotypes and prejudices, the invisible hand of the market finds ways to do so (as we have highlighted in posts such as “Womens’ Situation in Economics” and “Survival of the Cutest.” And as we have also noted in a previous post, a favorite way for marketers to manipulate the typical consumer (who wants to believe that she or he is in control and acts according to her or his own preferences) is to tell her or him that such a person would want their product. That is, marketers commonly exploit the gap between who we are in fact (situational characters) and who we like to believe we are (dispositional choosers) by assuring us that, with their product, we will be the latter. In doing so, they typically reinforce the same stereotypes and prejudices that their techniques tap into, further enhancing their situational grip.
Today’s New York Times has an article by Heather Timmons entitled, Telling India’s Modern Women They Have Power, Even Over Their Skin Tone, that brings all of those themes together. We have excerpted portions of her article below and inserted videos of advertisements for some of the skin-lightening products discussed in the article.
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The modern Indian woman is independent, in charge — and does not have to live with her dark skin.
That is the message from a growing number of global cosmetics and skin care companies, which are expanding their product lines and advertising budgets in India to capitalize on growth in women’s disposable income. A common thread involves creams and soaps that are said to lighten skin tone. Often they are peddled with a “power” message about taking charge or getting ahead.
Avon, L’Oréal, Ponds, Garnier, the Body Shop and Jolen are selling lightening products and all of them face stiff competition from a local giant, Fair and Lovely, a Unilever product that has dominated the market for decades.
Fair and Lovely, with packaging that shows a dark-skinned unhappy woman morphing into a light-skinned smiling one, once focused its advertising on the problems a dark-skinned woman might face finding romance. In a sign of the times, the company’s ads now show lighter skin conferring a different advantage: helping a woman land a job normally held by men, like announcer at cricket matches. “Fair and Lovely: The Power of Beauty,” is the tagline on the company’s newest ad.
Not surprisingly, the rush to sell skin-lightening products has drawn some criticism, with people saying that the products are at best unsavory and that they reinforce dangerous prejudices.
When Unilever markets Fair and Lovely, it “doesn’t cause bias,” but it does make use of it, said Aneel G. Karnani, a professor with the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan who earned a business degree in India.
Global cosmetics companies — which also sell skin-lightening products throughout Asia and in the United States, where they are marketed as spot or blemish removers — argue that they are just giving Indian women what they want.
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Sales of Fair and Lovely have been growing 15 to 20 percent year over year, Mr. Venkatramani said.
Skin-lightening products are by far the most popular product in India’s fast-growing skin care market, so manufacturers say they ignore them at their peril. The $318 million market for skin care has grown by 42.7 percent since 2001, says Euromonitor International, a research firm.
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There’s no denying that the notion of “fairness,” as light skin is known in India, is heavily ingrained in the culture. Nearly all of Bollywood’s top actresses have quite pale skin, despite the range of skin tones in India’s population of more than a billion people.
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India is hardly alone in its pursuit of “fairness.” Korea, Japan and China are big markets for skin-whitening products. And the United States is not exempt. Ebony magazine ran similar ads relating to full-face “skin brightening” or “skin whitening” creams aiming at African-American consumers through the 1950s and 1960s, said Jeanine Collins, communications director for Ebony. Those ads changed their message during the 1970s and 1980s to talk about removing spots or blemishes, she said.
In India, advertisements for L’Oréal-branded products and the company’s Garnier line generally feature a pale model, and focus on the ingredients in the product, using take-action language like “YES to fairer and younger looking skin” or “Against inside cell damages.”
L’Oréal’s super-high-end Vichy line is more direct: the main advertising image in Asia shows a woman unzipping her blemished, darker face to reveal a light, even-toned one within.
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To read the entire article, click here. For an interesting, recent article in The Guardian on the marketing of skin-lightening products, click here. And for a hard-hitting critique (from 2005) of skin-lightening marketing, click here.
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Update 6/6/2007: For a fascinating analysis of New Jersey’s “vanity tax,” which is a tax aimed at those who undergo medical procedures to improve their appearance, see Frank Pasquale’s excellent post on Concurring Opinions.