Will New Ad Guidelines Change India’s Light-Skin Obsession?
By Shanoor Seervai
A young woman in an Indian television commercial airing now is reluctant to be caught on camera as her fair-skinned friends take selfies at a café.
“In a moment, I’ll be photo ready,” says the woman, shown applying Procter & Gamble Co.’s Olay Natural White cream. The announcer intones: “From the first use, get an instant glow. With seven fairness benefits.”
Ads for skin-lightening cosmetics have for years played on some Indians’ insecurities about their skin tone, helping create a $600-million-year-business in the South Asian country.
Some of the most cringe-worthy commercials, however, may soon be disappearing. India’s ad watchdog this week issued new guidelines barring spots that portray dark-skinned people negatively.
The Advertising Standards Council of India says people with dark skin shouldn’t be shown as “unsuccessful in any aspect of life,” especially “in relation to being attractive to the opposite sex, matrimony, job placement, promotions and other prospects.”
“Because of the proliferation of products — more than a dozen brands and even for men — there was a need to say something specific about ads not being disparaging to people with darker skin,” said Partha Rakshit, the ad council’s chairman.
Mr. Rakshit said ads by the big consumer-products firms, including Hindustan Unilever, had become less pointed lately. But problems with some advertisers and a rising number of complaints by offended consumers prompted the new guidelines.
Procter & Gamble said it agrees with and will comply with the new guidelines.
Hindustan Unilever, 52%-owned by Unilever PLC, said it was consulted in the creation of the new guidelines and will comply with them. The company sells skin lighteners under its Fair & Lovely brand. “We are fully committed to these guidelines,” a company spokesman said.
Advertisers that fail to comply with the guidelines can be forced to take commercials off cable television under India’s cable-TV rules. The new guidelines apply to regular advertisements and infomercials, which critics say are more likely to offer negative portrayals of darker-skinned people.
So-called fairness creams, skin bleaches and lotions have flourished in India. Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and cricket heartthrob Virat Kohli are both big promoters of men’s fairness products.
An Indian pharmaceutical company even markets a feminine hygiene product called Clean & Dry Intimate Wash, which it says “restores discolored skin, giving it a fair, glowing look.”
A commercial for that product depicts a woman being ignored by a man. But after she starts using the wash — the results of which are illustrated with a drawing showing shadows disappearing from a woman’s crotch — he can’t keep his hands off her.
A spokesman for the company declined to comment on whether the product whitens skin.
The preference for lighter skin leads men and women to boast of fair skin in matrimonial ads in the hope of securing a match. “V. fair handsome govt. doctor seeks suitable bride” and “slim and fair bride wanted” are some recent examples in ads in the Hindu newspaper.
Nandita Das, a Bollywood actress who is the face of the Dark Is Beautiful campaign that battles prejudice against people with dark skin, says the new ad guidelines are a step in the right direction to rein in an industry that has created a “dark-skin complex” to make money.
“Too many young girls and now boys are losing their confidence,” because Indian society and advertising glorifies lighter skin tones, she said in an emailed statement.
Advertising executives say that the new guidelines aren’t likely to hurt sales of whitening products.
“I have always believed you can sell a beauty product to a woman without making her feel less beautiful,” said Zenobia Pithawalla, executive creative director at advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather. “When you sell a fairness product, what you are really selling is hope.”
Ms. Pithawalla said the guidelines say that dark skin shouldn’t be shown as a problem. “However nothing stops a brand from making ‘skin darkening’ a concern,” she said, referring to darkening from sun exposure or pollution.
In a 2010 ad for Hindustan Unilever’s Fair & Lovely, a young woman looks dejected after losing out in a dance audition. Her victorious — and fair-complexioned — rival offers some advice: Use skin-whitening cream.
“You’re so talented, why should you be behind the curtain?” the winning dancer says in the commercial from 2010, handing over a tube of Fair & Lovely lotion. “Here, take this.”
Corrections and Amplifications: A previous version of this article said the new guidelines for fairness ads do not apply to infomercials. On Thursday the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting told broadcasters they would apply to infomercials as well.