On Tuesday, the Advertising Standards Council of India issued a set of guidelines specifically for ads endorsing skin lightening and fairness products. “There is a strong concern in certain sections of society that advertising of fairness products tends to communicate and perpetuate the notion that dark skin is inferior and undesirable,” the memo states by way of introduction.
The new guidelines broadly stipulate that advertisements can no longer enforce stigmas against dark skinned individuals. They are as follows
• Advertising should not communicate any discrimination as a result of skin colour. These ads should not reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colou
r. Specifically, advertising should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin in a way which is widely seen as unattractive, unhappy, depressed, or concerned. These ads should not portray people with darker skin in a way which is widely seen as at a disadvantage of any kind, or inferior, or unsuccessful in any aspect of life particularly in relation to being attractive to the opposite sex, matrimony, job placement, promotions, and other prospects.
• In the pre-usage depiction of product, special care should be taken to ensure that the expression of the model/s in the real and graphical representation should not be negative in a way which is widely seen as unattractive, unhappy, depressed, or concerned.
• Advertising should not associate darker or lighter colour skin with any particular socio-economic strata, caste, community, religion, profession, or ethnicity
• Advertising should not perpetuate gender-based discrimination because of skin colour.
ASCI’s former chairperson Bharat Patel told Live Mint that since it is compulsory for television commercials to comply with ASCI mandates, most major advertisers will heed these new guidelines. “We expect 92% compliance in print also, as most large advertisers will follow the guidelines,” he added.
Skin-lightening products are distributed in India by several multinational brands, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Revlon, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oréal. The products feeding this market are also endorsed by a myriad of Indian A-list celebrities.
India’s mainstream fashion and beauty industries also bear some responsibility for propagating the draw to fairness, in some cases to a dangerous extent. Susan Runkle, after observing training sessions for the 2003 Miss India pageant, wrote:
Every single one of the young women was taking some sort of medication to alter her skin, particularly in colour… The contestants undergo chemical peels and daily medication, some of which have rather unpleasant side effects. [One contestant] often complained to the doctor that she felt nauseous and weak as a result of the medication prescribed to lighten her South Indian skin.
With a few exceptions, the winners of such pageants have been much fairer-skinned than the average Indian.
India’s ubiquitous fairness product industry, a $432 million market reportedly growing at 18% every year, is sustained by precisely the same stigmatised mindsets that the ASCI’s new guidelines seek to reverse. In other words, if the ASCI is eventually successful in its purported goal of quashing “the notion that dark skin is inferior and undesirable,” the currently colossal market for such products would, at least in theory, shrink significantly.
Mohan Goenka, director of Emami (maker of Fair and Handsome), told Live Mint, “We welcome the new advertising guidelines of ASCI for the skin-whitening products category which address the concerns raised by various quarters including industry, society, and consumers at large.”
Manufacturers of the products themselves, it seems, aren’t worried.
And for good reason. ASCI’s guidelines are, for now, a positive step in the right direction, but abolishing India’s obsession with fairness remains a distant goal, one which involves reversing centuries of a culture-wide conviction that only what is fair can be lovely.