Monday, July 31, 2006

Fair, though hardly lovely

[Just a quick post. Regular blogging will resume Wednesday. Though you can check out my views on Omkara here]

A friend sent me this link to a petition to Unilever criticising Fair & Lovely and asking (I think) that they stop equating fairness with beauty in their advertisements. The petition reads:

This is a petition to Unilever to recognize the socially detrimental impacts of obsession with physical fairness. Unilever currently markets a product called 'Fair and Lovely' which in its advertising and product information equates fairness with beauty. Even if the product reflects an already existing social belief among people that fairer skin is an indicator of better physical appearance, a company making a product supporting such a notion and making money out of it is socially irresponsible, and treading a racially discriminatory line. If the product should continue to be sold, it should desist from comparing fairness with goodlooks overtly in its title. In fact, a company of Unilever's international range of products and revenues should not be selling such a product at all.


You can go sign it here.

Personally, I have my reservations about the petition. The idea that fairness somehow equals beauty is one that I don't understand, and I recognise the quasi-racist attitude that underlies that assumption, but I'm not sure that this petition makes too much sense.

First, attacking Unilever for prevailing social attitudes is a little like attacking the cart because it led the horse down the wrong road. While it's probably true that Unilever's advertising contributes to the strengthening of the perceived importance of fairness, it's hardly the root cause of that attitude, and if we start attacking advertising that is 'socially irresponsible' because it uses social attitudes that we disapprove of to sell its products, then we'd pretty much have to shut down 80% of ads on TV. And do we really believe that if Unilever stopped advertising Fair and Lovely the way it currently does, the market for such products would die? It feels unfair to be penalising Levers for doing a good job with a sales campaign. [1]

Second, even if Unilever is contributing to the propagation of a socially harmful message, why shouldn't they? They're not forcing anyone to buy anything. They're not spreading pollution or destroying the environment. They're not selling a product that is toxic in any way. Ideas, however unattractive, are not crimes. Who, exactly, is being harmed by Unilever's campaign, and how? It's not Unilever's job to reform social values, it's their job to make as much money for their shareholders as they can, and that's what they're doing.

Third, I'm not sure why Fair and Lovely is so much worse than any other cosmetic product in the market. If we are protesting something, why wouldn't we protest the idea that physical appearance is a valid measure of human worth - that good looking people (women) are somehow better than those who are less beautiful. If it's okay to emphasise the importance of physical beauty, and create products that glorify stereotypical images of what 'beautiful' is, then I don't see why making fair skin a part of that description is such a bad thing. Why is it okay to argue that redder lips make you more beautiful, but not that fairer skin makes you lovely? How is Fair and Lovely any worse than eyeliner or lipstick?

Fourth, I don't know why we would want to control an individual's subjective opinion on physical attractiveness. If people choose to believe that fair is beautiful, that's their loss. I don't know why we, as a society would want to force a politically correct aesthetic judgement on them. The line between discrimination and opinion is a thin one, but there is a difference. I have the right to decide who or what I find beautiful and why; though I don't have the right to discriminate against people on the basis of this in a professional space. I'm welcome to think my fair-skinned co-worker is really ugly, as long as it doesn't affect how I deal with her at work.

Fifth, what is the petition actually asking for? It seems to demand that Unilever sell the product without equating fairness with beauty. I'm not sure how this is to be done. For one thing, the brand name itself connects fairness to beauty, and I can't imagine Unilever giving up a brand like Fair and Lovely just to send a more politically correct message. Also, even if they were to make the message less explicit, who would they be fooling? Suppose they said "use our cream and it'll make you fairer, not lovelier, necessarily, just fairer". Would that really help? What other reason is there for buying a bleaching cream, except to (supposedly) improve your appearance? If the argument is that fairness should not be considered a positive quality at all, and that we as a society should attack companies to make this attitude go away, then the logical way is to argue that bleaching creams themselves be made unavailable, not that their advertising not talk about beauty and fairness in the same breath.

Don't misunderstand me. I agree whole-heartedly that the preference for fair skin is shockingly bad aesthetics and that Unilever's participation in supporting that attitude is despicable. But there's a difference between having no respect for someone and accusing him of doing something wrong. Unilever's error is one of taste and 'decency', not one of ethics.

[1] It's rare enough that they do this. Take the Sunsilk Gang of Girls promotion. Can anyone think of a more clueless marketing strategy? Were these folks asleep in 2000 when all these 'Websites for Women' popped up and went bust in a matter of months? And even if the Sunsilk folks manage to create a community of giggly teenagers online, why would this lead to higher sales of Sunsilk products? How many people actually participate in online communities (is it really a significant portion of their target market)? What do consumers look for in picking a shampoo brand (is 'this brand has a cool lifestyle portal' really a key criteria)? Who in the household makes the purchase decision (is it really the teenager sitting on her computer chatting away about boyfriends)?

22 comments:

mk said...

I think..

# "attacking Unilever for prevailing social attitudes is a little like attacking the cart because it led the horse down the wrong road"
I think there is no answer to what came first-the belief or the ads and story models (verbal or visual)that uphold the beliefs. You can't really separate the two-social beliefs are not things abstract that hang apart from these concrete manifestations. (media as both reflecting and creating beliefs argument) So bad analogy, the horse-cart one; chicken-egg is a better one,if at all..So if you want to attack the belief, attack the ad, same difference.

# "And do we really believe that if Unilever stopped advertising Fair and Lovely the way it currently does, the market for such products would die?"

Like saying "so if I don't litter or don't bribe, would we have cleaner public spaces or would corruption end?"

#"Who, exactly, is being harmed by Unilever's campaign, and how?"

You define harm in material terms-pollution etc. Could it not be the unnecessary self-loathing and anguish felt by women with dark-skin? Man, fairness is one hell of a toxic idea!

# "I'm not sure why Fair and Lovely is so much worse than any other cosmetic product in the market."

Not much worse. F&L, lipstick, eye-liner all baaad! But having admitted that ideals of beauty are always going to be around, lets atleast fight against ones that are difficult to attain and which have base in biology and consequently in the slighly more problematic arena of race and class.

#"I don't know why we would want to control an individual's subjective opinion on physical attractiveness."

"Subjective opinion"-thats a myth. Equating fairness with beauty is a subjectively held opinion you think? What petitions like that attemtp to do is give people an alternative. To tightly defined, hard to attain ideals of beauty.

# agree with your fifth point.

p.s. Dare I hope that the arguments put forth in your post are not really personally held ones but just an attempt at rousing debate?

Mycotoxin said...

Hi, Falstaff. I don't think gangofgirls is such a wasted strategy... looks more like by building a database of 'giggly teenagers', they're looking at tapping into the peer-group effect - 1 girl in 10 will (ideally) rave about gangofgirls to the other 9. And once they're on, they get first dibs on all new stuff coming up; and heck, why can't they be taking the purchase decision?
We'll know if this has worked when there's enough traffic being sustained without advertising. seems to be doing okay so far... alexa of around 23,000. not bad.

confused said...

I completely agree. If people are foolish enough to feel that fairness is equal to beauty, let them. And as you correctly pointed out, what about lipsticks?

I think...

a) There are far more substantial issues to worry about.
b)Societal attitues cannot be changed through coercion. If people want to believe in their fairy tales, they will.
c)Unilever has every right to build and promote their own idea of beauty, if they think it is fairness, so be it.

mk,

You say

''Could it not be the unnecessary self-loathing and anguish felt by women with dark-skin''

And why would they feel anguish? Unless they actually believed this idea that beauty=fairness. If they did, why blame Unilever?

Falstaff said...

mk:

1. Yes, the horse-cart analogy isn't too apt, but frankly, neither is chicken and egg. I think it's fairly safe to assume that the social belief predated the ads (that's why the product was developed).

2. Not quite. The point about not littering / bribing is that each individual's difference would make a difference, even though it wouldn't cure the problem. But it's not clear to me that that's true with Unilever and Fair & Lovely. The real question, I think, is whether Unilever's ads are creating a new need or are simply helping the company gain / retain market share in a well-established category. My suspicion is that it's the latter. I'm unconvinced that category sales would decline if Fair & Lovely wasn't advertised, though it's likely that Unilever's share of those sales would fall. Fair & Lovely isn't the only bleaching cream out there you know. Again, building off point 5 - the issue as I see it is with the existence of demand for the product itself - the ad campaigns aren't creating that demand, they're only diverting it towards a particular brand.

3. True. But the key word is unnecessary. Why should a company get blamed if someone's literally insecure enough in their own skins to let crap like 'fair is beautiful' get to them? If people have low self-esteem that's their problem. And even if you believe that we need to protect people who are too weak to have an independent sense of self-worth, notice that Lever's contribution to this is marginal at best. The self-loathing comes from a whole host of social cues, not just from the Levers ads.

Look at it this way. What advertising campaign doesn't try to imply that people who buy the focal product are somehow better than those who don't? Therefore most, if not all ads are aimed at making people feel deprived and bad about themselves. If we start going after companies for doing this, who would we leave out? If I experience self-loathing because I can't afford a luxury car, does that mean that all luxury cars ads should be banned? If I feel anguished because ad after ad implies that having a beautiful girlfriend / wife is the key to being a real man and I've got no one, does that mean that every ad that shows a hot woman on some model's arm has to be taken off the air?

4. I don't agree with the point about cherry-picking Fair & Lovely to go after. Most of our standard stereotypes of what is beautiful involve some genetic factors, and many of them are really hard to achieve. I'm all for a movement that attacks the idea that social definitions of beauty are bogus. That's why I'm opposed to this petition - because implied in it is the argument that conforming to some social standard of beauty is important - that's the only reason why we would care whether that social standard includes fairness - and that's something that I'm opposed to. All this petition would achieve, even if it worked, was to replace one ideal of beauty with another, still leaving us with a massive majority of women who don't meet those socially defined standards and therefore end up feeling inadequate.

5. Of course, it's a subjective opinion. It's a socially conditioned subjective opinion, but that doesn't mean that people who hold it can dodge the responsibility for their bigoted attitudes and pass them on to the nearest convenient multi-national. Lots of things we believe are socially conditioned, but we still hold the individual, not society, responsible for those beliefs. The same principle applies here. Irrespective of how much the fairness-beauty link is socially created, it's still a belief that individuals are choosing to subscribe to. There are, after all, those of us who grew up in the same society and don't buy it.

The overall point is this - what I'd like to see is a petition to Fair and Lovely consumers telling them that their attitudes towards beauty are narrow-minded and racist. What I'd like to see are public campaigns to re-educate the general population on their image of what beauty is. That, to me, is the most logical and efficient way of attacking this kind of discrimination. Taking the roundabout way of attacking Unilever as a convenient scapegoat makes little sense to me; and going after them for explicitly saying what their consumers are thinking anyway, makes even less sense.

As for your PS - yes and no. Everything I'm saying here is stuff that I genuinely believe, but I am taking a partisan view and trying to make the case against the petition. There are many things about the petition that I like (mostly, I think it's taking up an issue that is well worth pursuing, though I think it's going about it the wrong way) which is why I chose to post it here and give people the opportunity to sign if they felt they agreed with it.

mycotoxin: Not quite. We'll know if this has worked if Sunsilk's sales go up enough to justify the kind of advertising spend they're putting into this. I'm less unconvinced about their ability to sustain traffic on the site. I'm far more unconvinced that just giving a bunch of teenage girls first dibs on new products will cause a substantial increase in Sunsilk's sales. I'm perfectly willing to believe that Sunsilk sales will actually go up marginally as a result of this exercise. But I can't help questioning whether the kind of spend and effort that Sunsilk is putting into this couldn't have been used far more profitably in other ways.

km said...

Good points, Falstaff.

If anyone deserves scorn, I say it's the consumers of these products.

(BTW, does anyone know if Indian consumers have ever lashed out at a cigarette company or a beedi-rolling company or a brewery?)

mk said...

Confused,Falstaff(pliss to note the comma..)


You wonder why Unilever should be blamed for individual anguish, for individual bigotry, for low individual self-esteem.
BECAUSE ITS UNILEVER THAT CREATES IT, don't you see? You don't agree I know, but try and understand Unilever as a part of the larger media that reflects and was also responsible for creating these ideals. How CREATING these ideals?
I think we disagree here-largely through the media images you get of beautiful fair women with flawless skin in your morning newpaper, on the road-side hoardings and movie posters you see whenever you go out, in the tv shows you see and the magazine you flip through when you reach home. And if you think back from the picture story books from your childhood.
So if you see Unilever ads as a part of this media onslaught, should we not blame it? Should we not target it? Yes ideally it can be a part of a larger campaign that "re-educates people" on their ideals of beauty which if really ambitious can try to bring in a dark, small breasted, big waisted, hairy limbed Sita into children's books. But I think just such a petition doing the rounds and getting into all the newspapers is one really effective way of re-education. You say why target Fair and Lovely, why not target the belief, the standard. Fair and Lovely IS the belief (I don't separate the chicken and the egg, twin born they are to me)You say you are all for campaigns that attack beauty ideals as bogus, I think this is one way of doing it.(among many)

You also say..
"Therefore most, if not all ads are aimed at making people feel deprived and bad about themselves."
Yes and the way to be worthy human-beings is to buy their products.So you see how nearly every-aspect of our lives-the way we want to look, the houses we want, the food we want to eat, the life-styles we want,nearly everything is taken over by corporations. No, perhaps not so much for you and me, but I really don't think me typical anyway.

mk said...

Confused,Falstaff(pliss to note the comma..)


You wonder why Unilever should be blamed for individual anguish, for individual bigotry, for low individual self-esteem.
BECAUSE ITS UNILEVER THAT CREATES IT, don't you see? You don't agree I know, but try and understand Unilever as a part of the larger media that reflects and was also responsible for creating these ideals. How CREATING these ideals?
I think we disagree here-largely through the media images you get of beautiful fair women with flawless skin in your morning newpaper, on the road-side hoardings and movie posters you see whenever you go out, in the tv shows you see and the magazine you flip through when you reach home. And if you think back from the picture story books from your childhood.
So if you see Unilever ads as a part of this media onslaught, should we not blame it? Should we not target it? Yes ideally it can be a part of a larger campaign that "re-educates people" on their ideals of beauty which if really ambitious can try to bring in a dark, small breasted, big waisted, hairy limbed Sita into children's books. But I think just such a petition doing the rounds and getting into all the newspapers is one really effective way of re-education. You say why target Fair and Lovely, why not target the belief, the standard. Fair and Lovely IS the belief (I don't separate the chicken and the egg, twin born they are to me)You say you are all for campaigns that attack beauty ideals as bogus, I think this is one way of doing it.(among many)

You also say..
"Therefore most, if not all ads are aimed at making people feel deprived and bad about themselves."
Yes and the way to be worthy human-beings is to buy their products.So you see how nearly every-aspect of our lives-the way we want to look, the houses we want, the food we want to eat, the life-styles we want,nearly everything is taken over by corporations. No, perhaps not so much for you and me, but I really don't think me typical anyway.

dazedandconfused said...

I nodded my head all the way through your post till I reached the footnote.

All major brands nowadays try and create a web presence. You have some customers who are more engaged with your product than others. It's all part of the marketing mix. And the website promo will rub off on the brand sales/equity as well. Of course we will never know if the ad campaign worked or achieved its objectives.

In either case, a brand manager somewhere in Levers will get marks for being 'innovative' :)

Anu said...

I dont think it matters if society/ companies promote ideals of beauty. Attacking Fair and Lovely is as sensible as attacking Tanning creams and lotions for lustrous hair. Have hrd stories of how, not being fair has led to "discrimination" against dark skinned models who dont get enough work etc...but in what way is this different from discrimination against Bulbuous nosed women, for example?
In the US, such advertising/ products would be wrong since it could sound Racist (discrinating against African-americans). But in India its not really about race-we are all the same race- but its more about a genetic factor. And that's why F&L is no different from say, Badami Hair oil.

But I must confess I find their Advertising highly obnoxious since it is not limited to just "fairness = looking good". There is one with a Woman who uses F&L who then gets a job as a Sports commmentator(???!)
Another one where her Dad mixes some potent Ayurvedic F&L to get his daughter a groom. I wish, they would limit the advertising to -"become fair (and hence pretty) using this cream"- and not link it with getting jobs/ grooms! That is a pretty wrong message they are spreading. Thats where this is different from a Lipstick ad. Lipstick ads show you how to get Red lips that are attractive.They do not actively show Employers discriminating against women without Red lips, for example

That said, multinationals are our usual scapegoats to attack first- and thats why I think this petition is useless in concept.

Anu said...

Anyway, I dont have an issue with the message "Fair is beautiful/ makes you attractive" but I DO have an issue with, "If you're not beautiful you probably arent going to get emnployed/ married/ have kids/ become prime minister"

Give us a break- we women have enough problems dealing with Beauty being the first (and often only) thing people judge you by than having Levers add to this pain.

And when its a socially responsible giant like Levers promoting this, it does rankle quite a bit. Would they dare put up such advertising in other developed countries? Woudlnt women's groups come out in full force?

To their credit (?) they have now started "fair and handsome " as well- but this ad implies that being Fair makes you attractive to women. (like most other men's cosmetics/ deo ads). it shows this guy being felt up by several giggly girls.

It doesnt go anywhere near saying, if you're ugly, your self worth is going to be pretty low as chances are you will be discriminated against in life by nearly everyone (probably your own parents). So its still not a Fair :) deal to women.

Dananjay Anandan said...

it's pathetic how unilever is flogging a half-assed attempt at "engaging the online consumer". the website itself, as far as the content is concerned is an insult to the intelligence of anyone visiting it and an excuse for genuine content. it's as if the content was cooked up because an empty page looks suspicious.

i also have a post on my blog about this...
http://pianoinawhorehouse.wordpress.com/2006/07/15/sunsilks-gang-of-liars/

Swathi said...

common,i have other things that weigh on my mind than a 30second ad in the TV which I have never fully watched. And if someone knows of a petition to build better roads, to ask for the accountability of the humble tax-payer's money (read my money) , to provide clean drinking water and a good sewage system - then I would sit up and listen!

n wat was that they say 'bout beauty - being in the eye of the beer holder? :)

Falstaff said...

mk: I think the issue comes down to this - is it legitimate to target one individual / company for doing something that is an accepted norm? The reason I'm uncomfortable with the petition is that it implies that Unilever is doing something especially evil - which it isn't really - it's ads are no more socially irresponsible than literally thousands of other ads that propagate stereo-types of beauty. You're effectively saying it's okay to make an example out of Unilever. I'm saying it's unfair to pick on them, specially because using them as a scapegoat will do little to change the dozens of other stereotypes about female beauty. Personally I see little value in a petition whose best case effect is making women who look like supermodels but have dark skin feel better about themselves.

km: Thanks, and yes. Which is why I'd like to see a petition attacking them instead.

d&c: Maybe. Let's see if it works.

anu: Oh, the ads are hideous, no doubt - and generally in terrible taste. But that doesn't mean they're socially irresponsible.

dananjay: Haven't actually seen the website, so can't comment on content

swathi: True, there are many other causes to petition for. But that doesn't by itself mean that this one isn't worth it. And those thirty second spots must be striking a chord with some people

lemontree said...

hey, first time to your blog. well thought out argument. Completely agree. And ofcourse its really an individuals choice if skinny, fair and tall are his/her ideals of beauty.

Sony Pony said...

Third, I'm not sure why Fair and Lovely is so much worse than any other cosmetic product in the market.


Really? I find that hard to digest. Surely you see a difference between someone wanting to redden their lips and lighten their skin? (you say as much in your post, I think).

Falstaff said...

Lemontree: Welcome.

Sony Pony: Actually, no, I don't. What's the difference? Except perhaps that one is easier to achieve and less permanent? Either way you're using artificial means to alter your natural features to conform to some stereotype of what is beautiful.

joyojeet pal said...

Hi All,

I am the guilty party for having begun this conversation. Admittedly, I put the petition there in a fit of rage on an ad which brought out some festering disdain for the campaigns in general, and in some conversations over 'dark and lovely' (i had sent a link to it) which I had with friends in Rwanda in the past. Anycase, in short, the idea was not thought through well and now that I relook, the petition could be worded more cleverly. Perhaps down the line (maybe already) I will rethink quality and quantity of my free time, and question my personal motivations in spamming my friends. But for the moment, I stand by it and will explain briefly, taking on some of the key criticisms. I fear though that not much new will be said here.


1. On whether Unilever should be attacked for an essentially socio-psychological colour conception which is organic to indians

I don't quite see the analogy of the horse and the cart, but I will admit that I don't feel the petition is a 'solution' instead it is a starting point - and the starting point is easier from an institution than from the grassroots.

To elucidate - racism is far from dead, in most parts of the world, but does that mean we do not have 'official sanctions' against racism, and indeed some amount of censorship too? A product like fair and lovely would never cut it in a number of foreign nations - in part because the idea would be seen as too politically incorrect. Does this mean that people do not feel fair is beautiful in wastern nations? No - but it does mean that there is much lesser pressure on dark as unattractive, certainly an institutional underwriting that such discrimination is wrong, and such notions deeply misplaced. Institutions reflect society only in part - they do not reflect it in entirety. Institutions often do (and indeed should) reflect the society we would like to become. Interviews with people in Apartheid South Africa reflected a deep distrust and fear of blacks among whites, including what you could term 'innocents' that had no malice, but honest conviction that blacks were racially predisposed to certain actions. Did the then existing institutions in South Africa reinforce those notions - absolutely.

Clearly it would be boorish to argue that forgiving Unilever is equal to saying nobody should have attacked the SA apartheid for racism - but then again, it is a matter of scales and thresholds of how severe we think a problem is.

The point I make is that we cannot change instantly what is organic to us, but we need starting points - and these are easiest at institutions. My petition is mostly meaningless (and armchair activism is usually no more than an indicator of workday lightness), but imagine if Unilever were to make a public statement that it's products are mere bleaches and should not be considered indicators of beauty -- certainly possible as cigarettes have warnings saying they are not cool, or bike ads warning that the stunts shown on the spots are just demonstrations by experts.

It may still not change the way people write martimonial ads or order facials - but I do believe it will be a starting point.



2. Whether companies should be allowed to propogate socially harmful messages, and to make as much shareholder value etc...

Indeed, it is a company's job to maximise shareholder value (i frequently work with microsoft ;-).

That being said, there is a good thing about multinationals being soft targets - they have enough of an influence, and enough bandwidth to be able to work around their products. They are a good starting point because they can be made to. You can pressurize a Unilever into making warnings around its products, but you cannot pressurize the X community to stop its practice of carrying white muslin to contrast against the skin colour of a prospective bride who is going to be visited by the groom's family.

Clearly not Unilever's job to reform society - but they can be used as a tool, because as a company making money off a 'defect' in the society, they can be embarrassed into admitting to it.


3. Wheter FAL is better or worse than any other product / larger question of physical appearance as human worth

The interest of this petition is to take ONE step in that direction. The question of whether one thing is better or worse is always pointless because then we would do nothing unless we did everything.


4. Why 'control' individual's subjective opinions

Actually - we always do this anyways, so it would be trite for us to deny it. We influence our children's subjective opinions, or friends' and so on, based on what we feel is ethically correct. Anycase, this does not 'control' anything - admittedly it asks for censorship.

I believe that a politically correct aesthetic of what is and is not good looking is truly important because

BTW, one's opinion of colleagues as ugly (referring to an example earlier given in this thread) very much affects how one perceive them at work, what your chances are of giving them jobs and so on -- there is ample research that shows this as true.


5. Should the product be sold without equating fairness to beauty

Yes. This is my main cause. It should be called simply Fairness Cream or some such trite name. This is outlandish in theory, but not entirely impossible. It has been done before with products that need more low-key advertising. To put it in a primarily corny fashion - a necessary social evil, for someone to cash in on, perhaps cash in massively - but not without taboo.

Anycase, my two cents.

On the whole, I feel wholly delighted that there has been discussion on this topic. My best wishes to all the contributors - in most arguments we're mostly aligned on the basics.

Falstaff said...

joyojeet:

Thanks for your comments. It's good to hear from you. And it's good to learn that you see this petition as a preliminary and perhaps small step towards a much larger objective. Part of my personal discomfort with the petition is that it seems to me to aim at a fairly trivial victory - I'm far more comfortable with the view of this petition as a 'starting point' rather than a 'solution'.

While on the whole I'm sympathetic with the need to start somewhere, I think it's still valid to question whether that's the most theoretically logical or practically effective place to start. In that spirit:

Yes, I'm aware of the findings that show that perceptions of attractiveness lead to discrimination in the workplace. And I'm entirely supportive of efforts to do away with that sort of discrimination. Notice, however, that this petition does nothing to break the connection between good looks and workplace discrimination. At best, it merely redefines, in a very small way, what we consider good-looking. The discrimination continues - just who gets discriminated against may change (possibly with greater acceptance of darker skin going hand in hand with higher 'standards' on other elements). The real challenge is to break the fetishing of appearance per se, merely recalibrating the stereotype achieves nothing, in my opinion.

I also think that there's a difference between trying to influence the opinions of friends and family, and trying to block the expression of a belief, however disgraceful, that a large number of strangers actively subscribe to. Not only is the latter 'censorship' which I'm dubious about, it's also a lot less effective. On the whole, I think what we really need to do to change stereotypes is to actively friends and family who we find implicitly or explicitly buying into the fairness = beauty myth.

As for multinationals being a softer target, I'm not so sure. First, by the same token, they're also one step removed from the real source of the problem. I don't see society changing its opinion about what constitutes beauty because Unilever starts calling FAL 'Fairness Cream'. Going after Unilever may be easier, but it achieves much less.

Second, I'm not sure how easy, at a practical level, going after Unilever really is. It's not like Unilever wouldn't have thought about what selling FAL in India meant - they clearly believe that the profit they make of it justifies living with some bad PR. And I really can't see them scrapping a brand as well established as FAL.

The analogy to cigarettes is attractive, i know, but also a little misleading. The pernicious affects of smoking are empirically proven fact, that fairness does not equal beauty is just a subjective value judgement. What Unilever could at most say is that "Some people believe that fairness does not equal beauty" and surely there are easier and more immediate ways of getting that message across.

The point is that while it's undoubtedly true that changing public perceptions directly is hard, I'm not sure that getting Unilever to change its campaign (in the absence of any real social change) is any easier. If we're making small, potentially 'meaningless' gestures, we might as well go after our own communities, rather than some incidental multinational.

Finally, for the record, while I continue to disagree with the content and focus of your petition, I have nothing but admiration for its spirit, and for the fact that it at least starts to address a much larger social issue. Armchair activism is always a good thing, and I suspect that the real benefit of your petition will be in sparking debate and discussion on the issue of social stereotypes of beauty. Which is why, while I continue to be unconvinced about signing the petition, I'm glad to see it generating wideer interest, and hope that other people reading this will help ensure that it gets even more publicity than it already has.

Anonymous said...

Where did you find it? Interesting read »

Anonymous said...

the reason why fair and lovely is worse than a tube of lipstick is because of the way it could harm your health [you know, bleaching your skin]. this is debatable, of course, since it doesnt appear that there are any bad health effects from the product thus far.

also, it's rare to find a commericial for a lipstick that degrades your race and says you will never get married or have the job you want if you don't use that lipstick. just saying.

in addition, it is easy to put on lipstick. it is not easy to change the skin color you were born with. this is coming from a girl who was born with dark skin and gets grief for it every day. the commercials didnt really help :) my mom is as liberal as they come, but she gets a little ticked off at me when I spend too much time in the sun. And according to her, dark skinned girls can be beautiful, but she still laments that I was born with it. Go figure, internal conflict.

while I don't agree with you whole-heartedly [I feel that ads are influenced BY society and also influence the society as well], you do raise some good points. I would not petition fair and lovely to stop selling it's products, but I do want to send them a smart ass letter about what I think of their marketing campaign.

Shaping Youth said...

Here it is an entire year later, and still a relevant debate.

We've just linked to you here http://www.shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=773
in our post on Shaping Youth with the Dove/Axe/Fair & Lovely disconnect in terms of the 'Campaign for Real Beauty'...

Having spent considerable time with southeast Asian women at the Women Leaders for the World (GWLN) summit http://www.shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=550
I can honestly say that your post resonates with the most depth in terms of deconstruction of the 'beauty ideal'...

We all attended the About-Face.org event taking place in S.F. while we were in residence at SCU and we went round-about the debate from multiple countries and conundrums as to what role media and marketing play in fueling the pop culture zeitgeist.

I love mk's comments, and appreciate Falstaff's "even handed logic" too...in fact ALL of the editorial is erudite and worthy, and we're proud to link to such conscious, thought-provoking dialog. It raises the bar for where we need to be as 'change agents' today.

So I'll toss out a new angle...

Do we think kids are immune to this media bombardment?

Do we think they're not listening to what societies (globally) put forth as an unobtainable ideal?

Have you ever noticed that Unilever's "Bomchickawahwah" Axe gals all look the same, even though they've got a different skin tone and hair color?

These are the nuances that open a larger debate about damage...

In my case, I see this directly as we film/produce the impact on K-5 playgrounds...in our documentary, "Body Blitz: Media, Shaping Youth"."

If you have darker skin, darker hair, a hairier bod, or an ethnic look that doesn't fit the Unilever mix, I'd say there's harm being done by virtue of the fact that we hold these 'ideals' to a global standard that is a nonexistent fallacy and a lie.

That in itself is reprehensible, but what has it done to the wee souls aspiring to same? That's where we need to look beyond media/marketing silos and filtration of imagery and cut to the core of what we're doing to children.

This is the next generation. Let's not blow it with shallow ideals...

Anonymous said...

Wow. Four years from your post and online communities and online networking are what is IN! and brands and advertisers are going crazy on the internet!

Sunsilk's Ganag of Girls is an amazing case study.

I guess you could never have known!