A few days ago, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) announced that it would drop the word ‘fair’ from its popular fairness cream product, Fair & Lovely. The company also stated that it would diversify the skin tones it represents and its skin care line would “reflect the new vision of beauty”.
The move comes 40 years after the product was launched. For all those years, Fair & Lovely made money exploiting India’s obsession with fair skin.
It took a worldwide movement against systemic racism and outrage against hypocritical brands to bring about the change. Various petitions, campaigns, years of activism and movements like ‘Dark is Beautiful’ and #UnfairandLovely – it seems none of that was enough to spark a conscious rebranding.
Nevertheless, it’s a huge win for global activism that a corporate giant like HUL decided to make this move – some steps in the right direction are better than none. Yet, we must ask ourselves how much we ought to ‘celebrate’ such a move.
The legacy of Fair & Lovely is not simply linked to its name, but the product itself and what it stands for. The brand’s equation of being fair with being lovely will not go away with a simple rebrand. A rebrand will not change the product’s formulation of melanin suppressants. Those who want to buy the product will continue to buy it.
But let’s not forget that many of these buyers believe they need these products because Fair & Lovely and society told them they did.
Sunny Jain, the president of beauty and personal care at HUL, stated that words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty. However, that is not the only message that the product line propagates.
Fair & Lovely’s messaging has always perpetuated skin colour as a measure of a woman’s worth. Its advertisements over the years have heavily implied that being fair unlocks unbounded professional success and male attention. HUL sold the cream by selling this ideal, targeting young girls who had most likely never consciously paid attention to their skin colour till then. They also perpetuated the notion of fair privilege, which has existed in Indian society for centuries.
That’s not to mention the years of trauma that products like Fair & Lovely have caused. Many girls with darker skin tones are made to understand at a young age that their skin colour is an affliction, an object of scrutiny and pity for anyone they come across.
“Don’t go outside to play, you’ll tan.”
“Don’t wear this colour, don’t wear this kind of makeup, it won’t suit you.”
“She’s pretty, but she’s so dark.”
“Have you tried ‘xyz’ fairness product, home remedy, Ayurverdic solution?”
For us, this seemingly innocuous tube of cream came to represent the material effects of fair privilege, as loved ones gifted it to us under the guise of care and concern.
The rebranding, therefore, is tokenistic because HUL is merely indulging in some damage control after a vociferous backlash from people across the world. It’s not like HUL has had a sudden realisation that such a change was needed. Over the last few years, we have seen how the the product’s messaging pivoted from ‘fairer’ skin to ‘glowing’ skin. In fact, last year, the company finally removed before-and-after images and shade cards from its packaging.
Many other brands have products that use similar words to fly under the radar. Words like ‘radiance’, ‘spotless’, and ‘bright’ make their way into ads. Dark skin is replaced with ‘dull’ skin. However, the template remains the same: the commercials feature before and after clips with a visibly lightened face and noticeably happier model. The association of fairer skin and happiness is thus reinforced time and time again.
In India, the obsession with fair skin is a systemic problem. Colourism is undoubtedly related with class and caste-based discrimination, and false notions of purity and dirt. It’s also inextricably linked to India’s status as a postcolonial nation. The stigma around darker skin is much older than the advent of Fair & Lovely. At the same time, fairness products like it promoted and profited off such stereotypes, instead of using their platform to disseminate progressive ideas and inclusivity. The problem with the brand recall is that the damage has already been done and sustained.
HUL could have learned from Johnson & Johnson, which retracted two of its skin whitening products sold in India. Notably, those two product lines made up less than 1% of their global beauty sales last year. It is, admittedly, a drop in the ocean as the global skin lightening industry could be worth $31.2 billion by 2024. However, Johnson & Johnson must be commended for setting the right precedent.
So why didn’t HUL consider even a reformulation, if not an entire recall of the Fair & Lovely line?
The answer is: Fair & Lovely is a moneymaker.
Fair and Lovely holds around 50 to 70% of the skin whitening market in India. Last year, sales of the product brought in more than $500 million. Rebranding allows the brand to lap up brownie points for being more progressive and inclusive, while continuing to sell the product and profiting off of young girls’ insecurities. Not to mention all the free positive publicity that comes with the announcement to change the name.
HUL’s move to change the name of its flagship fairness product must be called out for what it is – just not enough. Do better, HUL. You owe it to the thousands of young girls and women who have felt inadequate because of your product.
Nishtha Jaiswal is pursuing masters in media and cultural studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Featured image credit: Reuters