Cultural Norms: Fair & Lovely and Advertising
Fair & Lovely, a branded product of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL – formerly called Hindustan Lever), is touted
as a cosmetic that lightens skin colour. On its website (www.hul.co.in) the company called its product, ‘the miracle
worker’, which is ‘proven to deliver one to three shades of change’.While tanning is the rage in Western countries,
skin lightening treatments are popular in Asia.
According to industry sources, the top-selling skin lightening cream in India is Fair & Lovely from Hindustan
Unilever, followed by CavinKare’s Fairever brands. HUL’s Fair & Lovely brand was the undisputed monarch of
the market with a 90 per cent share until CavinKare Ltd (CKL) launched Fairever. In just two years, the Fairever
brand gained an impressive 15 per cent market share. HUL’s shareof market for the Fair & Lovely line generates
about $60 million annually. The product sells for about 23 rupees ($0.29) for a 25-gram tube of cream.
The rapid growth of CavinKare’s Fairever (www.cavinkare.com) brand prompted HUL to increase its advertising
effort and to launch a series of ads depicting a ‘fairer girl gets the boy’ theme. One advertisement featured a
financially strapped father lamenting his fate, saying, ‘If only I had ason’, while his dark-skinned daughter looks
on, helpless and demoralised because she can’t bear the financial responsibility of her family. Fast-forward and
Plain Jane has been transformed into a gorgeous light-skinned woman throughthe use of a ‘fairness cream’, Fair &
Lovely. Now clad in a miniskirt, the woman is a successful flight attendant andcan take her father to dine at a fivestar
hotel. She’s happy and so is her father.
In another ad two attractive young women are sitting in a bedroom; one has a boyfriend and, consequently, is
happy. The darker-skinned woman, lacking a boyfriend, is not happy. Her friend’s advice? Use a bar of soap to
wash away the dark skin that’s keeping men from flocking to her.
HUL’s series of ads provoked CavinKare Ltd to counter with an ad that takes a dig at HUL’s Fair & Lovely ad.
CavinKare’s ad has a father-daughter duo as the protagonists, with the father shown encouraging the daughter to
be an achiever irrespective of her complexion. CavinKare maintained that the objective of its new commercial is
not to take a dig at Fair & Lovely but to ‘reinforce Fairever’s
‘We have noticed attempts by Fair & Lovely to blur our positioning by changing its communication platform from
“wanting to get married” to “achievement”, the principal Fairever theme. Since we don’t have the spending power
to match HUL, a tactical way for us to respond is to reinforce our brand positioning and the commercial will be
aired until the company’s “objective” is achieved,’ a CavinKare official said.
Skin colour is a powerful theme in India as well as much of Asia where a lighter colour represents a higher status.
While Americans and Europeans flock to tanning salons, many across Asia seek ways to have ‘fair’ complexions.
Culturally, fair skin is associated with positive values that relate to class and beauty. One Indian lady commented
that when she was growing up, her mother forbade her to go outdoors. She was not trying to keep her daughter out
of trouble but was trying to keep her skin from getting dark. Brahmins, the priestly caste at the top of the social
hierarchy, are considered fair because they traditionally stayed inside, poring over books. The undercaste at the
bottom of the ladder are regarded as the darkest people because they customarily worked in the searing sun.
Ancient Hindu scriptures and modern poetry eulogise women endowed with skin made out of white marble.
Skin colour is closely identified with caste and is laden with symbolism. Pursue any of the ‘grooms and brides
wanted’ ads in newspapers or on the web that families use to arrange suitable alliances and you will see that most
potential grooms and their families are looking for ‘fair’ brides; some are progressive enough to invite responses
from women belonging to a different caste. These ads, hundreds of which appear in India’s daily newspapers,
reflect attempts to solicit individuals with the appropriate religion, caste, regional ancestry, professional and
educational qualifications, and, frequently, skin colour. Even in the growing numbers of ads that announce ‘caste
no bar’, the adjective ‘fair’ regularly precedes professional qualifications.
Bollywood (India’s Hollywood) glorifies conventions on beauty by always casting a fair-skinned actress in the
role of heroine, surrounded by darker extras. Women want to use whiteners because it is ‘aspirational’, like losing
weight. Even the gods supposedly lament their dark complexion – Krishna sings plaintively, ‘Radha kyoon gori,
main kyoon kala?’ (Why is Radha so fair when I’m dark?) – a skin deficient in melanin (the pigment that
determines the skin’s brown colour) is an ancient predilection. More than 3500 years ago, Charaka, the famous
sage, wrote about herbs that could help make the skin fair.
Indian dermatologists maintain that fairness products cannot truly work as they only reach the upper layers of the
skin and so do not affect melanin production. Nevertheless, ‘hope springs eternal’ and for some Fair & Lovely is a
‘miracle worker’. ‘The last time I went to my parents’ home, I got complements on my fair skin from everyone,’
one user gushes. But for others, there is only disappointment. One 26-year-old working woman has been a regular
user for the past eight years but to no avail. ‘I should have turned into Snow White by now but my skin is still the
same wheatish colour.’
The number of Indians of the opinion that lighter skin is more beautiful may be shrinking. Sumit Isralni, a 22-year
old hair designer in his father’s salon, thinks things have changed in the last two years, at least in India’s most
cosmopolitan cities, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Women now ‘prefer their own complexion, their natural way,’
Isralni says; he prefers a more ‘Indian beauty’ himself. ‘I won’t judge my wife on how fair her complexion is.’
‘Sunita Gupta, a beautician in the same salon, is more critical. ‘It’s just foolishness!’ she exclaims. The premise of
the ads that women could not become airline attendants if they are dark-skinned was wrong, she said. ‘Nowadays
people like black beauty.’ It is a truism that women, especially in the tropics, desire to be a shade fairer no matter
what their skin colour. Although, unlike the approach used in India, advertisements elsewhere usually show how
to use the product and how it works.
HUL launched its television ad campaign to promote Fair & Lovely in December 2001 and withdrew it in
February 2003, amid severe criticism of its portrayal of women. Activists argued that one of the messages the
company sends through its ‘air hostess’ demonstrating the preference for a son who would be able to take on the
financial responsibility for his parents – is especially harmful in a country such as India where gender
discrimination is rampant. Another offence is perpetuating a culture of discrimination in asociety where ‘fair’ is
synonymous with ‘beautiful’. AIDWA(All India Democratic Women’s Association) lodged a complaint in March
and April 2002 with HUL about its offensive ads but Hindustan Unilever failed to respond.
The women’s association then appealed to the National Human Rights Commission alleging that the ad demeaned
women. AIDWA objected to three things: (1) the ads were racist, (2) they were promoting son preference, and (3)
they were insulting to working women. ‘The way they portrayed the young women who, after using Fair &
Lovely, became attractive and therefore lands a job suggested that the main qualification for a woman to get a job
is the way she looks.’ The Human Rights Commission passed AIDWA’s complaints on to the Ministry of
Information and Broadcasting, which said the campaign violated the Cable and Television Networks Act of 1995 –
provisions in the Act state that no advertisement shall be permitted that ‘derides any race, caste, colour, creed and
nationality’ and that ‘Women must not be portrayed in a manner that emphasizes passive, submissive qualities and
encourages them to play a subordinate secondary role in the family and society.’ The government issued notices of
the complaints to HUL. After a year-long campaign led by the AIDWA, Hindustan Unilever Limited discontinued
two of its television advertisements for Fair & Lovely fairness cold cream in March 2003.
Shortly after pulling its ads off the air, and, coincidentally, on International Women’s Day, HUL launched its
‘Fair & Lovely Foundation’, vowing to ‘encourage economic empowerment of women across India’ by providing
resources in education and business. Millions of women ‘who, though immensely talented and capable, need a
guiding hand to help them take the leap forward’. Presumably into a fairer future.
HUL sponsored career fairs in over 20 cities across the country, offering counselling in as many as 110 careers. It
supported 100 rural scholarships for women students passing their 10th grade, a professional course for aspiring
beauticians, and a three-month Home Healthcare Nursing Assistant’s course catering to young women between the
ages 18 and 30. According to HUL, the Fair & Lovely Academy for Home Care Nursing Assistants offers a unique
training opportunity for young women who possess no entry-level skills and, therefore, are not employable in the
new economy job market. The Fair & Lovely Foundation plans to serve as a catalyst for the economic
empowerment of women across India. The Fair & Lovely Foundation will showcase the achievements of these
women not only to honour them, but also to set an example for other women to follow.
A few facts about HUL taken from
Hindustan Unilever Limited is India’s largest Packaged Mass Consumption Goods company. We are leaders in
Home and Personal Care Products and Food and Beverages including such products as Ponds and Pepsodent.
We seek to ‘meet everyday needs to people everywhere – to anticipate the aspirations of our consumers and
customers and to respond creatively and competitively with branded products and services which raise the quality
of life’. It is this purpose which inspires us to build brands. Over the past 70 years, we have introduced about 100
Fair & Lovely has been specially designed and proven to deliver one to three shades of change in most people.
Also its sunscreen system is specially optimised for Indian skin. Indian skin unlike Caucasian skin tends to
‘tan’ rather than ‘burn’ and, hence, requires a different combination of UVA & UVB sunscreens.
The fairness cream is marketed in over 38 countries through HUL Exports and local Unilever companies and
is the largest selling skin lightening cream in the world. The brand today offers a substantive range of products
to consumers including Fair & Lovely Fairness Reviving Lotion, Fair & Lovely Fairness Cold Cream and Fair &
Lovely Fairness Soap.
Some information on CavinKare taken
We shall achieve growth by ‘continuously offering unique products and services that would give customers utmost
satisfaction and thereby be a role model.’
In fifteen years (2012) we will be a hundred times our current turnover.
Values and beliefs of CavinKare
Integrity The company values honesty and truthfulness above everything else in all its interactions. Our thoughts,
words and actions shall be the same. We shall try oututmost to fulfil promises and honour commitments.
Fairness The company shall be fair in all its dealings with people inside and outside. We will follow rules, norms
and procedures not only in letter but in spirit as well; we will show common decency in all our dealings with
people; we will not exploit undue advantages; we will respect the rights of others.
Excellence The company values highly all efforts that lead to high standards in everyday work and results. We
shall attempt to be the best-in-class in anything we choose to work on. We shall encourage any individual or
collective effort in promoting excellence.
Innovation The company values innovative thinking, innovative approaches and innovative solutions in our
regular work life. We will always look for better ways of doing things; we will seek new ideas to solve problems;
we will experiment with new concepts, ideas and solutions.
Openness The company believes that openness to new ideas, thoughts and opinions makes relationships
stronger and productive, we shall listen to others; we shall openly discuss among colleagues all that is
appropriate; we shall welcome ideas from everywhere.
Trust The company believes that trust is an important ingredient for effective functioning within the organisation
and with the outside world. While we shall protect our legitimate business interests, we would also approach
the people, issues and associations with straightforwardness, optimism and positive outlook.
Stretch The company believes that people have infinite potential. We have an extraordinary capability to exert
and extend the limits of the possible. We shall aim for stretch goals, ambitious targets and ever-receding
1. Is it ethical to sell a product that is, at best, only mildly effective? Discuss.
2. Is it ethical to exploit cultural norms and values to promote a product? Discuss.
3. Is the advertising of Fair & Lovely demeaning to women or is it portraying a product not too dissimilarto
cosmetics in general?
4. Will HUL’s Fair & Lovely Foundation counter charges made by AIDWA? Discuss.
5. In light of AIDWA’s charges, how would you suggest Fair & Lovely promote its product? Discuss. Would
your response be different if Fairever continues to use ‘fairness’ as a theme of its promotion? Discuss.
6. Propose a promotion/marketing programme that will counter all the arguments and charges against Fair
&Lovely and be an effective programme.
7. Based on CavinKare’s statement of values and beliefs, how would you evaluate its advertising/marketing
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