Sach bolne waale fairness creams… so rare na?” says Genelia D’Souza in the Garnier Light ad.
Fairness creams that speak the truth… rare, aren’t they? And what about fairness cream ads? In an India where the educated classes are increasingly demanding a social conscience and accountability from their stars, celebrities these days face an interesting dilemma when they agree to be the face of a fairness product. After all, it’s not easy trying to position yourself as a sensitive and liberal star when the product you endorse cashes in on the widely prevalent prejudice against dark skin in our country.
That should explain why it took a half-hour conversation and persistent questions to get Genelia to even partially acknowledge that she’s endorsing a fairness cream for Garnier. Question: If a consumer asks you if your product is a fairness cream, what would you say? Answer: “I’d say exactly what I say in my ad.” In your ad you say: Sach bolne waale fairness creams, so rare na? “But where am I saying that you are dark so use this and you are gonna get light?” But if you call it a fairness cream, what else will the consumer understand from the ad? “There are certain things that advertising does and you can decide saying you’re doing something wrong and you’re doing something right...” Who said you are doing something wrong or right? But is your product a fairness cream? “I don’t know. You will have to speak to the agency.” Can’t you tell us: is Garnier Light a fairness cream? “I don’t know about that. I don’t know why you are cancelling off the moisturiser part very conveniently. It’s Garnier Light Moisturiser. I’m saying if it has a quality of making your skin look fairer or brighter or whatever, it’s probably part of the thing. I, as an endorser, am saying, at times your skin gets dull so use this because it’s a moisturiser.” Genelia is not alone. John Abraham— who endorses Garnier’s fairness moisturiser for men—insists that “in India, fairness means removing blemishes”. And Priyanka Chopra who earlier endorsed Pond’s White Beauty and now backs a rival fairness product has famously said that Pond’s White Beauty “doesn’t lighten the skin, it brightens the skin”.
In an India where standards of political correctness are changing, clearly these stars are torn between the large sections of their fan followings who use fairness creams; and another section that accuses them of being racist, colour prejudiced and socially irresponsible when they endorse these products.
“The fact that these stars seem to be going through a dilemma is a positive sign for me. I thought once they got the money they didn’t care about anything else. I’d be worried about the celebrity who’d tell you he doesn’t care and that if there’s a demand there will be a supply,” says ad filmmaker Mahesh Mathai, who tells us he’s turned down several offers to direct fairness cream commercials through his career because he finds the concept of these products unethical.
Mathai’s words are in contrast to the stand taken by R Balki, chairman and chief creative officer of the ad agency Lowe Lintas (India) whose client roster includes market leader Hindustan Unilever, producers of Fair & Lovely.
“This is downright hypocrisy,” says Balki. “Obviously these stars want the big bucks they can get from endorsing fairness creams, but they don’t want to stand by the product either.” True. Most celebrities would find it hard to resist the lure of the moolah offered by the Rs 2,000-crore fairness creams industry. Shah Rukh Khan (who could take home up to Rs 12 crore per annum for an endorsement) accepts a lower fee for his long-standing association with Emami, manufacturers of Fair and Handsome: that ‘lower fee’ is approximately Rs 8 crore a year. Other celebrities too are paid mind-boggling sums for these tieups.
But many of them clearly do not want to be considered indifferent to their social responsibilities either. Because matrimonial ads may continue to be dominated by demands for “fair brides”; professions where beauty is a pre-requisite may continue to be ruled by light-skinned people; even some critics of these supposed fairness facilitators may be surreptitiously using them... but at least among large swathes of the educated population, it’s no longer politically correct to admit that you believe white is beautiful and dark is not.
This is a world far removed from 1978 when Fair & Lovely was first launched in India. Through the 1980s, advertisers would crudely show a charcoalcoloured or chocolate-skinned girl using the product to dramatically alter her colour to near-white and consequently improving her miserable life. “Very early on when Fair & Lovely began, there was a blatant colour argument,” recalls media analyst Akhila Sivadas. “Even the ads would be moaning and moping. We were all protesting at the time. Finally there was an ad that was so derogatory that the All India Democratic Women’s Association went straight to the I&B Ministry and said, this is highly demeaning to women and in contravention of the Indecent Representation of Women Act.
The ministry made it clear that such ads would no longer be tolerated.” Today’s ads try to be more positive and understated. “Glow”, “radiance” and “brightness” have become catchphrases in commercials featuring major celebrities for products that promise “an even skin tone” and a removal of blemishes, but quietly tucked away in a corner somewhere the word “fairness” will peep out. Few ads illustrate this new-age subtlety better than the one for L’Oreal’s Pearl Perfect. The product’s star ambassador Sonam Kapoor sounds convinced that it’s not a fairness product. “It’s got SPF and it takes off dark spots on your face,” she explains. “Indian skin has a tendency to be patchy, we get brown spots in the sun, so it’s all about evening out your skin tone.” But closely watch the Pearl Perfect advertisement and you will see that while the voiceover and star endorser speak of a flawless and beautiful complexion, appearing on the screen in passing are the words “skin looks visibly fairer 88%”.
Balki insists that fairness cream ads “have not changed for reasons of political correctness but because the world has changed. It’s like today if we advertise Vanaspati the way we used to, people would be up in arms pointing out the health impact, so we have to position it differently.” But Shruti Swetambhari, CEO of celebrity and brand management firm Green Leaf Sports and Entertainment, explains that today’s more refined ads have added to the allure of fairness cream endorsements. “When brands like Garnier and L’Oreal entered the market, fairness products immediately shot into an A-list category of products that became desirable and acceptable to big stars,” she explains.
“Stars are also more comfortable with the fact that these ads no longer talk about a dark person becoming white, but about healthy skin.” Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan explains this ‘politically correct’ advertising: “There’s a gradient of whiteness these products sell. One is epidermal; the other guy almost sells it as a health cream. So it’s ecological whiteness. The whiteness is not epidermal or cosmetic and therefore catering to racialism, but a kind of inner whiteness.
And that’s what a John Abraham would like to sell because it’s eco-brand friendly. He and Priyanka can advocate green ecologies and health programmes while at the same time catering to folklore racial categories.” Sure enough, “healthy” is a key word in most fairness cream ads today, as if assuring dithering consumers, those who are seated on the fence in their attitude towards such products, that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about using them since they’re no different from a medical prescription. Corporates and star brand ambassadors stress the “ethical” aspects of their advertising. A L’Oreal India spokesperson says: “The communication for L’Oreal India’s fairness products focuses on their efficacy and is done in a manner that is ethical, responsible and backed by scientific fact. We do not play up the social discrimination and insecurities of people in the communication for any of our brands.” And asked if Garnier Light is a fairness product, Priyanka Chopra responds: “Discolouration, pigmentation, dark spots and uneven skin tones are common problems plaguing Indian skin, including mine. Garnier Light Ultra Intense Fairness Moisturiser is a fairness cream that works towards improving skin quality and texture by protecting it from the sun and taking care of all these problems. The communication for Garnier Light Ultra focuses on specific issues like dark spots and the efficacy of the product. It has been done in a manner that is ethical, responsible and backed by scientific fact.” Ethical? Hmm… let’s get down to brasstacks: can any cream make a dark person’s skin lighter? “Koi kaala aadmi kabhi gora nahi ban sakta hai (a dark man can never become white),” replies Dr Anuj Pall, consultant dermatologist at Max Hospital, Gurgaon.
“These over-the-counter products only even out skin tone if the person has normal skin, so maybe the user feels that they’ve become fairer but they’ve not. Even their claims of removing a tan and acne marks is questionable, since those acne marks will go away anyway, if left to themselves. So will that temporary tan acquired right after a visit to the beach.” But there is a more dangerous aspect to these so-called fairness products that goes beyond political correctness. Dr Shehla Aggarwal, skin specialist and director, Mehak Skin Clinic, Delhi, says, “Our Indian skin produces a dark melanin that protects us when we are exposed to the sun and prevents cancer.
It is this element that also makes our skin age less than the skin of white people who get more lines and wrinkles than we do. These fairness products bleach the melanin. So a long-term use of fairness products could cause ageing and perhaps even skin cancer. The Indian dermatologists’ community doesn’t want to cause a cancer scare but it’s been about 30 years since Fair & Lovely was launched in the Indian market and the impact is likely to be felt in the coming years.” With so much baggage accompanying these products, it’s clear that the fairness creams industry needs to offer incredible sums of money to filmstars to bring them on board. While SRK remains the highest paid of the lot, Abraham gets anywhere from Rs 2-3.5 crore a year for an endorsement, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone are paid in the range of Rs 2-3 crore per annum (Deepika endorses Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena skincare range that includes its Neutrogena Fine Fairness cream), Shahid Kapoor (Vaseline’s whitening advocate) earns Rs 2-2.5 crore, Sonam Kapoor gets Rs 1.5-2 crore and the figure for Genelia is Rs 1.5 crore.
There is another irresistible benefit for these stars. Intense competition in the fairness products market ensures that consumers are bombarded with ads at every turn, which translates into high visibility for brand ambassadors. So as long as there are professional rivalries in the film industry, Indian stars will continue to endorse fairness products ( for exceptions, scroll to the bottom of the article ). And so if Asin—a darling of south Indian cinema buffs—has been the face of CavinKare’s Fairever Fairness Cream, then it’s perceived as a major upset when arch rival Trisha Krishnan replaces her. If Bollywood’s baby-faced youth icon Shahid Kapoor has entered the fray, then can his industry junior Neil Nitin Mukesh afford to be far behind? Neil, who is now associated with Emami, does not know yet which product he will be endorsing, but is not disconcerted at the prospect of Fair and Handsome. “Where there is a demand, there is a supply,” he says with a nonchalance that some people may find disturbing but is at least uncommonly frank in this scenario. “If you want bad films you will get bad films. And if using a fairness product makes someone feel better about themselves, then why not?” But perhaps his equanimity would be dented if he googled a fellow celebrity endorser with the key words “Virat Kohli fairness creams ad”. Topping the search results is this tweet by a girl called @Supreeka a.k.a. Chocoholic: “Virat Kohli has done a fairness cream ad???? Okay my heart just broke:(.”
The Stars Who Said ‘No’
Hindi filmstars who say no to skin ‘whiteners’ are treading a fine line in their community. After all, no one wants to offend colleagues, friends and relatives in the industry who are endorsing such products. That’s perhaps why Ranbir Kapoor is not particularly anxious to tomtom his stance that he will never lend his name to a fairness cream. But earlier this year he quietly rejected an offer from a major manufacturer simply because he doesn’t believe in what the product stands for.
Bipasha Basu has negotiated this tricky situation with admirable finesse. Her just-recently-ex-boyfriend John Abraham has been the face of cosmetic giant Garnier’s men’s fairness cream for a while now, but that has not deterred the gorgeously and unapologetically olive-skinned Bipasha from consistently rejecting the advances of fairness product makers.
Says a source close to Bipasha: “There have been not just one or two, but several offers over the years. Bipasha has always refused. She believes we are all beautiful the way nature made us and we should accept ourselves that way.” Fans would expect nothing less from this beauty and fitness icon who has chosen the brand name “BB Love Yourself” for her fitness videos and clothing range.
Bipasha and Ranbir are not merely grandstanding to make waves. Considering that Bipasha earns Rs 1-1.25 crore and Ranbir gets Rs 4-5 crore for a year’s commitment to a brand, their anti-fairness-creams stance has cost them big money. But it is just as attention-worthy that Abhay Deol says he’ll never endorse a fairness cream, even before he’s been approached to do so. Reason? These stars are rare phenomena in an India where actors—unlike their counterparts in the West—usually avoid taking positions on controversial social and political issues, unless they’re keen on alternative careers in politics.
Bipasha is the face of 14 products right now. And Ranbir currently endorses Docomo, John Players, Pepsi, Panasonic, Hero Honda and Nissan Motors, a list he pointedly restricts to six because “it’s a big responsibility, it’s not just a money thing. You have to be careful, you have to believe in it, you have to be honest to what you’re endorsing."
Anna M M Vetticad is on Twitter as @annavetticad