Fair and Lovely?

A Vaseline advert for men's skin-whitening cream
A Vaseline advert for men’s skin-whitening cream

At what point in the future will branding not be such a dominating force in society, or even cease to exist all together?

I asked myself this question yesterday, following a conversation had with colleagues here in Delhi about skin-whitening, and the way this practice has swept across the country.

Millions of Indian women and (more recently) men buy brands such as Fair and Lovely each day, in an attempt to look fairer and more attractive. The same company who produce Fair and Lovely (Hindustan Lever, a Unilever subsidiary) also just launched a hand-washing initiative in India, through their Lifebuoy soap brand, aimed at helping eradicate easily preventable diseases – such as dysentery – which claim the lives of many young children in India.  The ad is pasted at the end of this post.

In my simple mind, the conflation of these two Unilever brands in what they stand for, and what they are selling, is slightly bizarre.

Of course, as one of the world’s largest fast moving consumer goods companies, Unilever sells a variety of items.  There are also many other skin-whitening manufacturers (such as Vaseline, whose advert is above) to consider, however I can’t marry up that Fair and Lovely and Lifebuoy, products which respectively bleach and clean your skin, are both made by Unilever – a brand which prides itself (and is so often cited as “Best in Class”) on sustainability, and its social and environmental credentials.

So, where does the preoccupation with fairness come from?

I understand that for some cultures, fairer faced girls are perceived to be more beautiful by parents tasked with organising marriages, paying for dowries etc.  That there might be cultural traditions which a brand like Fair and Lovely is responding to may be how the product itself evolved.

Conversely, in countries such as the UK, many millions of people apply fake tan to darken their skin and create a healthier and more attractive look.  Others fly thousands of miles to lie on beaches, burning their skin to an alluring crisp so as to pull off the same outcome.

Cosmetic surgery, botox enhancements, all these things exist (as does make-up, perfume, and fashionable clothes and accessories) to make the consumer feel better about themselves.  We know this.

In the end, I don’t think it matters why someone invented cream that either bleaches your skin or fake tans it.  We should accept that the ultimate choice is with the consumer to make a purchasing decision, and rather than asking “why” these things are available we should be asking other questions: how are products made, where do they come from, what are the health risks we are exposed to by using them?

And in all of this narrative I can’t help be niggled by the strong influencing role of the brands themsleves.

Many people know that too much sun on unprotected skin is dangerous, and yet they still go out and get sun-burnt. I have not today had the chance to check up on the ill-effects of skin-whitening creams, but surely the toxins used in bleaching your skin are not going to feature too high up on a “healthiest things you can do to your body” list, are they? Mustn’t there be some awareness amongst those who use Fair and Lovely that this is not an optimal health product?

A Fair and Lovely advert
A Fair and Lovely advert

And still the shelves are crammed full of the stuff, celebrities promote it, and the brand gurus behind the labels keep reinventing new ways of selling it.

Perhaps this is a cul-de-sac of an argument to be making?  We all buy things we know we shouldn’t.  If you really took a different approach to sustainability as a planet of 7 billion, then the case could be well made that in terms of, say, clothing, we have all we need for the next few generations.  We don’t each need a closet full of outfits (half of which are never worn).  We don’t need dozens of pairs of shoes.

Primark have launched a scheme whereby you pay an annual amount to exchange your Primark branded clothes in exchange for a completely new stock of outfits, and the company recycle your old gear, using the materials to make new ones.

I hope this, and replicas of the idea, catches on.

Whilst job creation in some parts of the world (see these previous posts about the apparel sector in Bangladesh) relies on insatiable consumer habits when it comes to clothing, isn’t it not the case that too many people simply consume too much?

If every garment factory in the world ceased their productions for 10 years (over-looking, for the sake of making my point, the issue of job losses to the sector) we would all, ultimately, still get by.

Equally, if the fizzy drinks (spot the technical terminology here) industry stopped their carbonated beverage wars, and shut down production, this would not mean we couldn’t still access nutritious liquids to keep us all zippy and happy.

These things won’t happen, of course.  Consumption is an intuitively selfish thing.  We might choose a certain type of product to buy, based on ethical or environmental reasons, but we are also very good at making allowances when it suits us.  There is such high demand in the world for the next version of this and the upgraded verison of that.  We want ‘current’ or, better still, ‘brand spanking new’.

As the largest and smallest companies around the world design their future growth plans – increasingly responding as they are doing not just to profitability but to issues of people and of planet – the role of branding is too important to ignore.

There are public campaigns running – such as http://www.behindthebrands.org/ – which help ask good questions about where products have come from, and in doing so raise issues of the responsibility and accountabilty of those who are making money up and down the world’s supply chains.

The responsibilities of how you market your wares to a whole range of customers from different demographics is huge – whether you are packaging up cream which bleaches your skin, or soap which cleans your hands.  We need the campaigns, we need to hold organisations to account.

We also need to think about ourselves.  How brand-led are we prepared to be in the future?

Will we always make personal conscessions on certain products or for specific brands, or can we tip back the balance in the other direction?

Here is that Lifebuoy advert, for which I expect Unilever (probably quite rightly, because I think it is a great campaign) will receive further accolades and awards…

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