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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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Such ideologies are not only propagated through age old ideas regarding beauty but a systematic supremacy of the white beauty standards that has spread through colonialism. Here is an example of an advertisement from the 1600's for bleaching cream.



I know it is disgusting to see something like this in today day and age but similar colonial ideas that those who are not white must be made white to be accepted and beautiful are just repackaged and reformulated for today's society in the way fairness creams still advocate for the ideology that fair is beautiful. The spread of such colonial ideologies have become so ingrained in society that people not meeting white beauty standards are deemed ugly and must be…


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24020242
24020242
Dec 10, 2022
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I'm glad you provided us with a very visual reminder of how racial colonial ideologies are inscribed into the bodies of black people, I think it's important to historicize these ideas in order to understand where they originated and the racial politics behind belonging that informed them in order to place them in a larger social and cultural context, and also to see the ways in which these ideas have continued to exist decades after these ads were first published. This, in a way, also indicates just how racism and colorism have been reinvented through more insidious forms of marketing, that (like I've pointed out) rely on certain advertising techniques like the use of humor, personal and emotional appeals, background…

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I think there is an equal role for large corporations like Unilever, who exploit the fair-skinned biasness of the people with products like Glow And Lovely (Previously known as Fair and Lovely) and Dove soaps. Dove got under fire when they aired an ad., a three-second GIF, featuring three women, each removing her shirt to reveal the next. But the transition from black to white women evoked the troupe of a “dirty” black person cleansed into whiteness. After receiving criticism on social media, they removed the ad from their social handles. However, Unilever had a history of purporting racist ideologies to sell its fair products. After the global debate of racial inequality, they changed the name of their best-selling fairness…

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24020242
24020242
Dec 10, 2022
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It's important that you point out how black people are usually portrayed in advertisements that advocate skin-bleaching. A lot of this can also be traced to the institution of slavery itself, which was there during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and which divided light-skinned and black-skinned slaves on the basis that it would be easier to rule through these categories. The slaves that were assigned domestic work were often the biracial children of the slaveowners and slaves, so they were of mixed race and light skinned. On the other hand, dark skinned slaves were confined to working in the fields and were subject to much abuse and tortured. By perpetuating false ideas, these colonialists were able to assert their racial superiority,…

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Myra Shahab
Myra Shahab
Dec 05, 2022

I think we have all reached the consensus regarding the problematic nature of fairness creams. What particularly struck in this blog was the need for men to ‘hide’ the fact that they use some sort of skincare, grooming or in this particular case, a fairness cream. the advertisement shows the guy using the cream as clearly embarrassed when his sister exposes him in front if the girl he’s flirting with. As you have mentioned, the advertisement makes a clear effort to uphold the guy’s masculinity in other ways—calling his skin tough, lighting the match etc. so he is still manly. A similar example is an advertisement we’ve all seen on television so many times- the Garnier Men Acnofight Anti-Pinple…

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24020242
24020242
Dec 10, 2022
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Exactly! There is always an action-sequence accompanying ads for fairness creams and face washes for men that indicates to me at least, this crisis of masculinity. It is almost as if men's masculinity needs to be redeemed (for partaking in the "feminine") through these exaggerated stereotypically masculine behaviors.

Just like the ad you mentioned features Tiger Shroff performing stunts, this ad with John Abraham also does something similar. It is portrayed here as if John Abraham has done something physically strenuous (indicated through the presence of construction workers in the background) and hence, his "toughness" is very much preserved, and in this ad, even enhanced by the usage of the face wash. You're also right about Lux using very "delicate"…


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This is a very meaningfully penned down peice and I agree with every little argument you’ve made. One thing I would like to add is that recently we all know that Fair and Lovely has changed its brand name to Glow and Lovely however I believe that the latter still reinforces the Gora Complex and revisits the problem. Like you’re emphasising that girls need to have a glow on their face to look nice and ‘lovely’. Brands need to be conscious because they along with their advertisements play a major role in instilling unrealististic beauty standards in girls and making them strive for achieving the socially acceptable looks. When girls are unable to attain the desired complexion through fairness creams…

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24020242
24020242
Dec 10, 2022
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Thank you for your insightful comment! Your point about how recently Fair and Lovely changed its name to Glow and Lovely is one that I missed, and I think definitely builds on Rosalind Gill's idea around how "post-feminism" tends to portray and idyllic world in which all inequalities have been evened out, when in fact, sexist ideas and discourses find new and creative ways to reinvent and repackage themselves. I remember that this change happened while Unilever was getting a lot of flak amidst the Black Lives Matter protests happening across the world. It is important to remember then that these corporations find new ways to maintain their market share, by taking away from us our vocabulary to appropriately call…

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The idea of having a fair complexion is now being challenged by the gen Z , however this gora superiority complex has been so deeply embedded in our society that no gender is immune to it. If I am being honest, it’s kind of refreshing to see men in a fairness cream advertisement as it somehow breaks certain stereotypes. Mostly women have been the target audience for such fairness and bleaching creams. This practice exists in South Asian countries where parents want a “gori” daughter in law for their “son” because nobody really cares about men, right? He is already doing enough by being a man and the girl has to be suitable for him by having a fair …

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24020242
24020242
Dec 10, 2022
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I completely get where you're coming from. When I too used to play outdoor sports, I was suddenly subject to a lot of these comments. Interestingly, I also noticed that there was a visible change in the vocabulary with which people talked about skin color, with a tan always being described using the vocabulary of impurity and uncleanliness. The idea that somehow one skin color is somehow "purer" than the other, was always evident in these conversations, and highlighted larger cultural ideas around how people perceive dark-skinned people. The word "kharaab", was often directed at me to describe my tanned skin, which indicated to me the idea that again any skin color that wasn't fair was considered to be undesirable.

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