J&J sets aside fairness business to stand with #BlackLivesMatter movement

Fair & Lovely, Garnier Light, and Fair & Handsome are big advertisers in the category
For the lucrative market for fairness creams in India, stereotypes have never been a problem. For years, the advertising narrative has used fairness as a stand-in for beauty and confidence with great efficiency and impact; fuelling the desire for lighter skin tones and creating a thriving market for fairness creams, estimated at nearly Rs 5,000 crore in size.

Both men and women, say experts, are equal users of fairness creams in India, with most personal care majors rushing to cash in on the fever. Some of the country's top players in the fairness category include names such as Emami, Hindustan Unilever (HUL), Proctor & Gamble, Nivea, L'Oreal, Himalaya and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) among others. Now with J&J taking its brand out of the game, these brands have a larger slice of the pie to carve out, but is there a risk in doing that? Especially as the global narrative on skin colour and fairness moves away from the norms that defined the market thus far. 

Alpana Parida, managing director, DY Works, a Mumbai-based brand and design consultancy, says, “It is time fairness creams desist from  feeding the myth that fair is beautiful, directly or indirectly. Advertising today is about realism and people are celebrating real people in right earnest. Capturing them just the way they are. Jewellery, apparel and lifestyle brands are using darker models and celebrating the dark skin tone.”

Brands such as Tanishq and fashion labels such as Sabyasachi have taken the lead to address this ‘woke generation’, featuring dark models in their campaigns over the last few years. On Monday, J&J joined the effort, when it said it had no intention of highlighting claims that showed fairness as better than any other skin tone. “We've made the business decision to no longer sell the Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness product lines,” a company spokesperson said.

Both men and women, say experts, are equal users of fairness creams in India

J&J was influenced by the #BlackLivesMatter movement raging in the US and other parts of the world. It is not the only company paying heed to the sentiment, however. Last week, oral care major Colgate said it would review a top-selling Chinese brand called Darlie, whose name translates to mean ‘black person toothpaste’. And food and beverage major PepsiCo said it would rebrand its 130-year-old syrup called Aunt Jemima in the US, intending to move away from its racial history.In India, however, brands have still to acknowledge the issue, say brand experts. Marketers are coy about undertaking reviews of their fairness cream products, a highly lucrative business that continues to boom. Estimates by industry experts suggest that the market for fairness and lightening products in India has been growing at a steady clip of about 5-6 per cent per annum. 

These are brands that have done very well, despite the changing notions around skin colour, because they are what we call closet brands that employ subterfuge, in the advertising and in the way they are consumed, said a senior advertising professional. There is a shift in the narrative with fair skin that was once considered to be a marriage requisite for women being amended to imply smooth, beautiful and even skin tones, as a former creative director with an ad agency says. And consumers continue to buy them, even as they denounce the racial implications of such a product.

Ambi Parameswaran, founder, Brand-building.com, endorses this view. “We may see surrogate advertising of fairness, like we see in the alcohol business. The shift from fairness to confidence has already been made by HUL. That may be the way for all brands to go.” The shift from fairness to confidence has also happened in part by the decision of the Indian Health Ministry this year to slap hefty penalties on marketers making misleading claims including a fine of Rs 50 lakh and a prison-term of five years.

KS Chakravarthy, co-founder and chief creative officer, Tidal7 Brand and Digital, says that painting the entire category with a broad brush would be unfair. “All business has been created to address a need. Yes, fairness cream makers have to be sensitive to where the world is headed and how you communicate to the audience of today. But painting the category as immoral is incorrect,” he says. For J&J however, there are no moral ambiguities in standing against the category.

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