Cosmetic changes

Black Lives Matter has had global reverberations, including in India, provoking responses from three multinational cosmetic brands: Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Hindustan Unilever (HUL), and L’Oreal. J&J has discontinued its Neutrogena and Clean & Clear products, which were advertised as removers of dark spots, in Asia; HUL has responded by announcing that it would rebrand its Rs 2,000-crore best-selling “Fair & Lovely” by dropping the term “fair” from the label and product literature; now L’Oreal has said it would remove the terms “whitening” and “fairness” from its skincare products. These are certainly the right signals to send in a country where societal racism is rife. But it is regrettable that it required eloquent activism from across the oceans to prompt change. It is also worth wondering whether these corporations are making a virtue out of a contingency. For one, the febrile debate on racism that has spread across the world on social media platforms has certainly made cosmetic manufacturers more conscious of the reputational damage involved in promoting fairness products. For another, this lucrative business also faces an uncertain future, given that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s plan to crack down on advertisements that promote fairness creams through an amendment to the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Bill, 2020. In J&J’s case, this was an opportune mo­m­ent to discontinue a category that was fairly small for the company in any case.

The question is how far a name change will make a difference towards reshaping a retrograde societal attitude. The Asian predilection for fair skin predates these fairness products by centuries. In India, this preference is particularly toxic because the issue overlaps with casteism (since, against all evidence, Brahmins and upper castes are considered fair) and deeply flawed notions about Aryanism. But purveyors of these products and the celebrities who endorse them have indubitably played a stellar role in perpetuating these attitudes. HUL’s own advertisements, year after year, have portrayed dark-skinned women as failures or underachievers. A particularly notorious commercial some years ago showed a dark woman achieving her dream of becoming a cricket commentator after she became several shades fairer after the regular application of Fair & Lovely. The ad had to be canned after an upsurge of protest, not least among professional women. But the basic selling proposition of making dark people fairer in a matter of weeks has endured and even encouraged Kolkata-based Emami to ride the wave by offering a range of skincare products for the fast-growing male cosmetics market with Fair & Handsome.

This raises the related question whether the lead taken by the three multinationals will be replicated by others. The market for fairness products — creams, face washes, deodorants, shaving products, and so on — is worth over Rs 4,000 crore and remains a racehorse in the cosmetics market in India. A wide range of Indian majors and multinationals offer fairness products — Garnier, Nivea, and Body Shop, for example — and have not announced similar plans yet. How HUL handles the transition will offer some clues. To be sure, a wholesale retreat by cosmetics brands from hard-selling “fairness” as a beauty proposition is unlikely to alter the reg­ressive deep-seated racism — only education can do that. But manufacturers can, at the very least, congratulate themselves on not promoting these attitudes, either.

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