Can Advertising Change India's Obsession With Fair Skin?

In a country where dark women are referred to as "blacky" at work, one actress takes on a massive skin-bleaching industry.

A fairness skincare product (Emami ad screenshot)

In India, a country where the majority of the population is dark-skinned, there is a widely held belief that dark complexions are inferior to fair ones. This prejudice manifests itself in everything from hiring practices that favor light-skinned employees to matrimonial ads that list fairness as a non-negotiable characteristic of the future bride or groom. In the media, light-skinned actors and models are in high demand, while dark-skinned performers are rarely seen on screen. The message is clear: fair skin represents beauty and success, and as a result Indians are keen consumers of products that promise to lighten skin.

This uncomfortable fact has spawned dueling ad campaigns on the skin-bleaching front. In March of this year, an organization called Women of Worth launched a "Dark is Beautiful" campaign to draw attention to the effects of racial prejudice in India. The print ad features the actress Nandita Das urging women to throw out their fairness creams and abandon the belief that dark skin is ugly. Meanwhile, in early July, the cosmetics company Emami released a competing television ad starring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. In the ad, Khan tosses a tube of fairness cream to a young fan, telling him that fairness is the secret to success in life. In response, the "Dark is Beautiful" campaign filed a petition on asking Emami to suspend the ad on the grounds that it is discriminatory.

The advertising war over discrimination highlights the distinctly modern way that racism is unfolding in India. While racism runs deep in India's history, its roots intertwined with caste and colonialism, in today's India, it finds expression in consumer behavior and corporate advertising. When I spoke to Nandita Das last week, she argued that India's history of racism is not central to the discussion, because the prejudice against dark skin has taken on new forms in the modern world. "I don't believe we have to keep going back into history," says Das. "We're not just a product of our traditions: we're also part of the globalized world. Today, the fact that such discrimination continues to exist is a function of consumerism. The market is waiting to cash in on people's hidden aspirations."

As India's economy continues to boom, the market appears to be a driving force behind the discrimination against dark skin. The fairness industry first evolved as a response to consumer demand. For centuries Indians used natural ingredients, such as lemon or turmeric, to lighten their skin. In 1975, Unilever launched a commercial skin lightening cream called "Fair and Lovely," and other companies quickly followed suit with their own products. The creams were originally targeted at women, but over time products emerged for men as well. In 2005, Emami launched the "Fair and Handsome" cream with Shah Rukh Khan as its brand ambassador and it is now a market leader. Fairness products are sold at every price point, from inexpensive packets of lotion to high-end luxury creams, making them accessible to every socioeconomic class. Today, their sale generates over $400 million in revenue a year in India, which is more than all other skincare products combined. In fact, the sale of fairness products surpasses the sale of Coca-Cola and tea in India.

While fairness creams were developed to fill a specific demand in the Indian market, the survival of the industry now depends on ensuring that consumers continue to want fair skin. This means perpetuating the belief that fair skin is desirable and that dark skin is a problem to be corrected, a message the advertising industry has effectively been able to broadcast. Cosmetic companies also amplify this sentiment by enlisting India's most popular actors as spokespeople for their fairness products.

On television and film sets, there is already an explicit preference for light-skinned actors, so the partnership between the cosmetics and entertainment industries comes naturally. Nandita Das, who has starred in over 30 movies, has been repeatedly asked to alter her dark skin. "When I am on a film set playing an educated upper-middle-class character, the crew will tell me, 'I know you don't like to wear makeup to lighten your skin, but this is an educated girl you are playing, so it would be appropriate for you to look fair,' But what does that say about me?" Das asks. "I'm educated and I'm dark." It is as if filmmakers cannot wrap their heads around the possibility that dark skin can be associated with success, even when it is embodied for them in the very person with whom they are speaking.

Nandita Das (Vidhi Thakur)

Yet, Das does not think that directors and producers have a racist agenda. "I cannot believe that they are not aware of the repercussions of what they are doing," says Das, "but I don't think it is personal. They are not horrible to me because I am dark. It just has to do with what works. People prefer fair skin. It is an unspoken understanding." In other words, filmmakers simply feature the kind of actors that audiences want to see, again reflecting consumer demand.

What will it take to change India's aesthetic sensibilities? There needs to be an alternative stream of messaging in the Indian media that associates dark skin with notions of beauty, strength and success. Activists have tried to do this with campaigns like "Dark is Beautiful," but they face a herculean task because their efforts are not backed by the advertising budgets of the cosmetics and film industries. The ad featuring Nandita Das has appeared in print and has been shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, but it will never be as visible as the ads for fairness creams that literally surround the Indian population in magazines, billboards, web banners, and on television.

Ultimately, significant change will only occur when these powerful industries feel pressure to present more inclusive notions of beauty in their advertising, thereby helping to recalibrate consumer preferences from the top down. The current "Dark is Beautiful" petition against Emami is a small step in this direction. However, while the petition has garnered thousands of signatures in a matter of days, it is unlikely to convince Emami to withdraw its ad or change its approach.

Nonetheless, Das' campaign has made progress in other ways. It has given people a platform to vent their frustrations. On the "Dark is Beautiful" blog, women have started to openly discuss how they feel when their fathers put pressure on them to lighten their skin or when colleagues think it is acceptable to call them names like "blacky." Men have started to contribute to the discussion as well, expressing the need for dark-skinned role models who represent success and masculinity. Several actors and directors have even come forward to show Das their support.

Das acknowledges her uphill battle, and she worries that the effects of the campaign will be short-lived. "I don't want to be cynical but I know that the media just wants new things to talk about," she says. "I have doubts about whether this interest will be sustained or whether the campaign will have a significant impact. But at the same time, I want to believe that every little drop fills the ocean. At the very least, this campaign is triggering some thought."