A few semesters ago, one of Jayanthi Rajan’s marketing students had her mind blown while working on a senior project at Albright College. As this American student compared the cultural messages in advertising from different countries, she was stunned to see a demeaning commercial for “skin whitening” creams sold in South Asia.
“Professor, you have to see this ad,” the student told Rajan. “It’s about a guy who breaks up with a girl because she’s dark. And then she uses the cream and they get back together!”
After working for nearly a decade in India’s advertising industry before teaching in the U.S., Rajan wasn’t surprised. Ads for skin-whitening creams are ubiquitous in India and many Asian countries, and many promote that same before-and-after story line: Make your skin fair, and you’ll be beautiful and successful, but stay as dark as you really are and you’ll get nowhere in life or love.
“The so-called ‘fairness cream’ market is huge in India,” Rajan says, and many ads depict “before-after scenarios of dark-to-fair transitions resulting in success.”
So she sees an important victory in the new guidelines announced by the Advertising Standards Council of India on Aug. 14. The guidelines state that ads in India can no longer depict people with darker shades of skin as less successful, less happy, less appealing to potential mates, or otherwise in worse situations than fairer-skinned people.
India’s standards council is an ad industry organization, not a government agency that can legally enforce its guidelines. But in the past, it’s had high rates of compliance when calling for ads it has deemed false or offensive to be removed from TV airwaves or not to be printed.
The council announced that it hopes these new rules will “go a long way in ensuring that advertisements of products in this category do not depict people with dark skin as somehow inferior to those who are fairer.”
Rajan hopes the council is right, but she’s realistic: You can’t sell “fairness creams” like India’s popular Fair & Lovely without promoting the idea that lighter skin is better than darker skin. Beauty advertising is only the beginning of India’s deeply divided class divisions and the entrenched cultural beliefs regarding light skin.
At best, this ruling will force advertisers to step back from blatantly stating that lighter skin is the only road to success and happiness.
That implicit connection can still have an impact on the lives of darker-skinned people, says Harlan Spotts, a professor of marketing at Western New England University. “Even subtle cues can be quite powerfully transmitted through repeated exposure,” he says.
But Spotts points out that just as American tobacco companies were forced to stop touting the supposed health benefits of cigarettes a half century ago, these companies are finally being told to stop drawing an explicit connection between fair skin and success.
They’re also beginning to face pressure because of globalization and social media. Decades ago, multinational companies could hide from their Western customers that they sold products with blatantly bigoted messages in Asian countries. Today people are hearing about these products, seeing the way they’re sold, and sharing these offensive ads online.
At the Facebook page for Dark Is Beautiful, a campaign launched five years ago by the India-based organization Women of Worth, ads for “fairness creams” are posted, discussed, and shared. Supporters can also see ads created by Dark Is Beautiful, including some featuring Bollywood actor Nandita Das.
“Look anywhere and everywhere,” reads the tagline in an ad featuring Das. “There are blatant and subtle reinforcements that only fair is lovely. So much pressure and so little public debate around it!”
Whether or not advertisers like it, that public debate has begun. Fueled by social media and shaped by rules that call out discrimination, it’s likely to grow.