On 25th June, Hindustan Unilever announced that they are finally dropping the term “fair” from their popular Skin care product brand name “Fair and Lovely”.
The reason stated by them is that they do not want to promote a singular standard of beauty and want to be more inclusive of all “skin tones”.
Sunny Jain, President of Beauty and personal care branch of Unilever stated that, the efforts to reinvent fair and lovely has been happening since 2014 as they aimed to spread the message of Women empowerment.
In 2019, Jain stated that the company had removed the ridiculous shade card (resembling that of a wall paints company colour palette) and the fair and lovely before and after transformation images (which you can find outside a plastic surgeon’s clinic) from the packaging. He also stated that bleach was never a part of fair and lovely ingredients.
In this article, we will look at the problematic “advertising” strategies fair and lovely has used and try to understand why a simple name change will not suffice if fair and lovely really wants to redeem itself and communicate with their audience in a progressive manner.
The Unfair ‘Fair’:
It all began in 1975 when this “skin-lightening” product was introduced into the Indian market by Hindustan Unilever. By 2012 Fair & Lovely held 80% in the entire skin-lightening market of India and became one of the most successful cosmetic lines of Unilever. Unilever has profited off of productising and deepening the social stigma associated with Dark Skin in Indian society through Fair and Lovely.
Fair and lovely was a hit when it was introduced in the Indian marketing as it turned expensive skin lightening treatments into a widely available low-cost cream (also available in smaller packs and tubes).
From a product development and marketing perspective, this is amazing. You take an existing problem, understand the pain points, create an affordable product, reinforce the problem through advertising, provide the solution widely and create a new revenue stream and then expand it even into a new category like fair and handsome.
Fair and lovely always preyed on low self-esteem and pretended to empower women by selling a fairness cream.
Fair and lovely is the most problematic cosmetic product. Their advertisements propagate how a simple change in skin tone, can change the lives of women/men for better. Its television advertisements have followed a similar format and targeted young women (and later men too). You might have watched any fair and lovely ad depicting the following:
- A girl gets rejected by a boy or an interviewer because she is dark and under confident. Later she uses fair and lovely which lightens her skin tone, becomes magically confident and wins over everyone’s heart.
- A successful woman recommends fair and lovely to other women who wish to be like her and are inspired by her.
- To reach her goals (to become a lawyer for example) a girl needs to use fair and lovely.
- A dark girl loses an opportunity even though she is talented and qualified because of her skin tone.
- A man feels low because he is not fair and cannot impress girls, a Bollywood actor comes to his rescue and asks him to use fair and lovely for men.
- A man is ridiculed for using a woman’s fairness cream and is asked to use fair and lovely for men.
You can see for yourself, how problematic these ads were. These ads included popular celebrities and specifically targeted a young impressionable audience. If you watch a fair and lovely ad it outrightly states that fair skin is ideal and that women and men can get “Visibly white skin” in a matter of weeks.
Let’s Talk about Fair and Lovely Foundation:
Just like Mr. Jain pointed out, I did observe from the past 3-4 years that fair and lovely has been endorsing their Fair and Lovely career foundation more on TV and has taken a real step towards women empowerment.
Their website provides Career Guidance and offers free e-learning courses to women on English, Beauty and wellness and Media and Entertainment. They also have a resume builder on their website, which looks decent and helpful.
This initiative shows that Fair and Lovely acknowledged the negativity associated with its products and tried to pose as a women empowerment brand from a women degrading one. While the act seems noble, there was no change in the intent and the objective was to grow the brand and increase revenues.
Why did this change happen?
Right after Fair & lovely decided to remove “fair”, L’Oréal too decided to remove its “whitening”, “lightening” and “fairness” products.
This change is much needed and has for sure been triggered by the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests after the brutal killing of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020.
The Black Lives moment started in 2013, after Trayvon Martin a 17-year old African-American high school was shot by George Zimmerman. The essence of the Black Lives Movement is to highlight police brutality against African Americans.
The newfound resurgence in 2020 post the George Floyd’s murder by police is huge because of the level of exposure. As said by actor Will Smith, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed”. In the age of social media and online news, people are realising what’s going wrong faster and the movement is becoming stronger.
Apart from public, the movement is backed by celebrities as well, be it rappers releasing songs in protests or attending the protests or major award functions like BET making this step against racism it’s the main theme for its ceremony in 2020, it’s clear that people are becoming aware and have no intention to back down.
In India, dark skin is also associated with Hindu Gods such as Vishnu, Rama and Krishna. Thus, unlike western world where dark skinned people are perceived as inferior by some, in India dark skin is simply seen as undesirable.
Both problems fall under the same umbrella, in that they discriminate a person based on a physical attribute, which is skin tone, but there is a significant degree of difference.
The Black Lives Movement is a revolutionary step against racism, which has existed for generations in America. It is delightful to see that Black Lives Matter has hit Unilever which is unilaterally focused on making more money to re-assess what they are doing.
Glow and Lovely:
On 2nd July, Hindustan Unilever stated that Fair and lovely will now be re-branded as ‘Glow & Lovely” for women and the men’s products have been renamed “Glow and Handsome”. This announcement started an endless series of memes. The brand name “Glow and Lovely” is criticised for being “grammatically incorrect”
A change of packaging unfortunately does not change the years of “fairness” endorsements associated with the present day “Glow & Lovely”. It is as if you did not like the color of your laptop/mobile screensaver and you changed it. Re-packaging will not solve the underlying issues with their product.
I would have respected fair and lovely had it come up with a new formula or completely abandoned the “skin-care” façade they have been running. They should have switched to producing makeup products and done some market research on the kind of products women may need. Though removal of the terms “fair” and “whitening” from a brand which monetised on colorism is a huge step, it is just not enough.
To conclude, In India there are not many advocates for the Black Lives Movement, yet Unilever has taken a step against their own brand fair and lovely, which is commendable. However, ‘Glow and lovely’ is an epic PR and rebranding pretension. When the product itself is not getting scrapped off, a less tone deaf brand name is never going to bring the needed change. Unilever – please know that you have make a real effort to value skin-tone diversity through your products.