One of my previous bosses wouldn’t work on cigarette or alcohol brands. It was put down in his contract and everything. When I first heard of it, I decided that I must also draw the line somewhere. So I decided to never work on fairness brands.
Except young writers don’t have the luxury of just putting up their hands and saying nope, I’m not taking that brief, I HAVE PRINCIPLES, DAMMIT! I’d have been stuck writing leaflets and kicking myself for passing up a chance to do a TVC. Or maybe I was just too chicken to say ‘no’. Either way, I ended up working on not one, but two fairness brands. And this is what I found out.
First of all, the Indian obsession with fairness didn’t start with the Raj. It started in feudal India, where the ladies of the manor were restrained to the confines of said manor. Working class women would toil away in fields and farms, under the harsh glare of the sun. They’d get a tan, while their better-off sisters stayed within the shaded walls of their mansions. And so a fairer complexion came to be equated with a higher socio- economic class. When the Brits came with their white skin and fork-and-spoon dining, they only intensified a belief that already existed.
So basically, fairness creams are not the reason behind our fairness obsession. If tomorrow the Government put a ban on all fairness products, Indian mothers will happily push their dusky daughters into tubs of besan, raw milk, turmeric, industrial bleach and who knows what.
Fairness creams are merely the packaged equivalent of that tub of muck.
And why shouldn’t they be? When manufacturers see a need in the market, they make products to fulfill that need. And Indian women want to be fair. They don’t just want to lose their tans, they want to be FAIR. Aishwarya Rai fair. Kareena Kapoor fair. This isn’t empty talk – I’ve been to a dozen focus groups where all the aunties wanted ‘Katrina jaisi fairness’ and put all kinds of crap on their faces to get it.
Advertising fairness products isn’t intensifying their light-skin fixation, it’s merely… feeding it. That’s like saying it’s not murder, it’s manslaughter. But there IS a difference and it exists.
Now to be fair (ah, the joy of an inadvertent pun!), fairness product advertising has come a long way. We are thankfully past the “I wish I was fairer so that boy would marry me” period, to the much more positive “This cream will give me the confidence to realize my potential” space. It’s not going to do anything of the sort, of course, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
My point is, we’ve finally stopped attacking women’s self esteem through fairness advertising. And that’s fantastic. So why are we still sneering at those of us whose job it is to sell skin-lightening products?
Are WE using dusky models to advertise skin products that aren’t fairness related? Are we using dusky models AT ALL? When we do use them, have we stopped lightening their faces in post-production? Judging from the way Bipasha Basu and Kajol look in commercials, I think not.
It’s bad enough that the models in fairness commercials are either Asian or Photoshopped to corpse-like whiteness. And there’s nothing we can do about it, because it’s what the category demands.
But for products that have nothing to do with fair skin, why aren’t we showing a gorgeous, glowing caramel complexion? Why aren’t we showing golden tans and gleaming chocolate skin? Why haven’t we seen a thousand different versions of that stunning World Gold Council commercial featuring Sheetal Mallar?
It’s easy to think that when you have the chance to advertise a fairness product, you’ll do things right. Then you meet the client and it all goes to pot. No, if you want to make a difference, it’s not going to happen by sitting back and saying, “Sheesh, who MAKES these terrible fairness commercials?”
It’ll happen when someone takes Indian consumers gently by the hand and tells them how fair skin is more prone to age lines and wrinkles, more susceptible to skin cancer, how acne spots stand out more on fair skin than dark skin, how anywhere outside of India an olive complexion is considered exotic and terribly sexy and how many foreigners spend how many hours under the sun or on a tanning bed to get the exact shade of brown we see in our mirrors every day.
Let’s make bronze skin sexy first. The rest will follow.
Vedashree Khambete is an ACD with Mudra, a writer at heart and a coffee-addict by vocation.