Skin whitening is a controversial topic the world over, in some Asian cultures it is even a norm, but in India, while it is big business for brands, the context behind the idolization of fairness remains fraught with tension.
India's obsession with fair skin can be traced back to British rule when supremacy, or rule, could be assumed on the basis of skin colour. From that point on, the idea that fairness meant higher worth prevailed and it continued into Bollywood (India's film industry) influence.
In 1975, Hindustan Unilever launched a fairness cream called Fair and Lovely which currently holds a 50-70% share of the skin whitening market in India, a market that is valued at over $200m. Fair and Lovely recently entered the INR 2000 crore club, which emphasizes the fact that the fairness appeal cuts across regions and cultures in India.
Currently, there are numerous skin whitening creams available in India and not only for women but men too. There is intense pressure from the society too, as for women to look fair means less dowry during marriage.
According to Mintel’s GMN report, in 2012 skin whiteners and lighteners made up the largest segment of the facial care market in India. It was worth INR 23.3bn (£233.2 million) and accounted for 46% of the retail facial care market.
Alyque Padamsee, is the former chief of Lintas India and has launched over hundred brands, including the successful fairness cream for men, Fair & Handsome. He says: "Basically it's ingrained in all of us Indians, this fairness thing, and so it kind of markets itself. In India, right from the Ramayana and Mahabharata to English literature. Doesn't the Queen in Snow White and Seven Dwarfs say, 'Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?' She doesn't say most beautiful, even Shakespeare does that for all his heroines."
He further adds: "For that matter, even in China there is a great demand for fairness creams. Fairness creams will almost always market themselves globally, as it is a very common phenomenon from Africa to the Americas."
Sanjay Sayani, founder and director of rebootplus, a branding and marketing agency, says: "The success of Fair and Lovely cream in India and the fact that it is one of the mainstays of Hindustan Unilever (HUL) itself is a pointer to the fact that fairness creams don't need any special marketing techniques, region or otherwise."
However, to curb what maybe be referred as a cultural problem, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) rolled out a charter in 2014 which prohibited cosmetic brands from communicating any discrimination based on skin colour through advertising. The guidelines further stated that no brands can use post-production visual effects to exaggerate product efficacy as well.
Partha Rakshit, former chairman of ASCI, said at the time: “Setting up these new guidelines for the skin lightening and fairness products will help advertisers comply with ASCI code’s Chapter III 1 b which states that advertisements should not deride any race, caste, colour, creed or nationality.
Given how widespread the advertising for fairness and skin lightening products is and the concerns of different stakeholders in society, ASCI saw the need to set up specific guidelines for this product category. As a self-regulating body, it is important to have the advertisers’ buy-in to the guidelines, and we are happy to note that both the industry and the consumer activists’ groups have welcomed these guidelines.”
The Drum also spoke with Nitin Passi, director of India's cosmetic brand Lotus Herbals, which has products such as Lotus Whitening, a skin whitening and brightening gel creme, as to what it takes to market its skin whitening products in India.
He says, "Marketing whitening products especially in India is a challenge due to increase sensitivity towards how some sections of media and society perceive such products. Human beings' obsession with a desirable change in their skin colour is centuries old. Most Asian cultures have a fascination with ‘white or fairer’ skin as most of their royalty or colonial powers had skin colour whiter than the common people."
"While on the other hand most Caucasians spend billions annually on skin tan products and tanning salons as historically only the well off in their society could afford a sun-tan-induced beach holiday in exotic locales away from the cold weather at home. Also in many western societies a pale white skin is considered to be unhealthy and wanting for healthy food/drink. A healthy glowing olive colour skin is considered healthy and exotic."
The social and cultural sensitivities to whitening products will differ from market to market, with some markets and brands less willing to heed rules around deriding against skin colour than others. In India, even with stricter rules around how these products are marketed, it's a booming part of the cosmetics industry.