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Fair and Not-So-Lovely: Color Discourses in Advertisements

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

For years on end, television advertisements in South Asian countries have been geared towards promoting products that focus on bleaching one's skin, and in the process, reinforcing age-old ideals about what is considered beautiful, and hence, desirable. This ad, through its use of Shahrukh Khan (Asia's most popular actor), humor and songs, manages to effectively hide the ways in which corporations exploit existing prejudiced cultural norms in society in order to increase their market share. These social factors intersect to create ideas about who is beautiful, and who is not beautiful, which then impacts the ways in which people are treated within society, impacting the kind of opportunities they are able to access/not access. Advertisements are important because they are social sites, that are different from traditional media. This also means that they are very much worthy of criticism, specifically because mainstream corporate media are important stakeholders here who can use this form of media to impart certain cultural ideas that benefit them/sustain them.

This means that often colonial ideas about beauty that were transported to South Asia, and which focused on reforming/disciplining women's bodies to provide another basis for the "civilizing mission", continue to persist to this day. While this colonial legacy is manifested to this day, this particular ad is interesting to analyse because it is a fairness cream for men, not women (who are normally considered to be the primary consumers of fairness cream). This impacts the way that the advertisement is packaged, primarily because fairness creams are considered to be traditionally feminine. Since the usage of such products then might be considered to be emasculating for men, the product is advertised using a diction that constantly emphasizes characteristics that are considered to be stereotypically masculine, effectively distancing itself from feminine products in a way that does not "compromise" on the man's virility. This is evident through the fact that the man in the advertisement is repeatedly chastised, and made fun of, for using fairness creams for women, highlighting an arbitrary difference in the texture of men and women's skin. The use of words like "rough", and "tough" for men's skin, whereas the use of words like "delicate", to describe women's skin texture has the ironic effect of also shaming men (questioning their masculinity in the process) for using fairness cream used by women, forcing them towards the "tougher", more masculine alternative. This also reflects the ways in which gendered bodies are positioned against and informed by larger ideas surrounding masculinity and femininity, since participating in the feminine would imply that a man is "weak", not "man enough". This is evident through the sequence where the man (using the fairness cream in question), is seen trying to run away and hide from the shame of using a feminine product. Similarly, Shahrukh Khan uses a matchstick to light a fire against the man's jaw, reinforcing effectively preserving the stereotypical masculinity of the man since this would imply that he is physically "rough". The use of a song to convey all this has the effect of humorizing, and hence, belittling the young man for not adhering to masculinist ideals as well. It is also important to the role that women play within this advertisement. The goal all along, is to be able to covet attention from women, and hence, to be considered socially and sexually desirable. The flock of women surrounding the young man both at the beginning of the advertisement and the end is evidence of this. At the beginning, owing to his dark complexion, the man is portrayed as being unsuccessful in covering a woman, whereas by the end, having achieved the four-week fairness effect, women surround him, playfully referring to him as a "handsome" man. This is important because it is using physical characteristics, and immediately imparting certain ideas about what is beautiful (and thus, superior), and what is "imperfect" (inferior, and somehow always in need of "fixing" or "improvement"). It also has the effect of exploiting culturally embedded prejudiced beliefs and ideas, that intersect with racial ideologies, leading to growing inequality in society. The corporatist model used by companies to sell their products is important to look at and understand the social, and political economy which generates, and exploits certain cultural ideas. Over here, advertisements use a carefully curated mixture of personal and psychological appeals to pander to desires that are innate to every single human being: being liked, and desired by others. For Herbert Marcure, the deceptive nature of consumerism. In essence, is such that it functions through the “manipulation of needs by vested interests”. To this effect, Marcuse differentiates between what he calls “true needs” and “false needs”. While the former refers to things that are needed for survival or sustenance, the latter refers to things that the capitalist system imposes on us. False needs give us what Marcuse characterizes as “repressive satisfaction", which in reality has the effect of disenchanting us from our immediate circumstances. These leads to individuals associating happiness and gratification with these needs, hoping that their next purchase would bring them closer to achieving a societal ideal that will always be out of reach. This ad uses a familiar and universally recognized face, Shahrukh Khan, to propagate ideas about desirability, reaching out to the masses by linking the product to someone they're not just familiar with, but who they probably idealize.


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