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Commentary: Why Unilever’s skin lightening cream is drawing backlash despite earning US$500 million each year

The multinational company is challenging what it calls narrow beauty ideals in its packaging but it remains unclear if it can tackle discrimination based on skin colour, says the Financial Times’ Judith Evans.

Commentary: Why Unilever’s skin lightening cream is drawing backlash despite earning US$500 million each year

Unilever reportedly made US$500 million from Fair & Lovely sales last year. (AFP/Sajjad HUSSAIN)

LONDON: At Unilever, there will be no more “normal”. 

The multinational is cutting the word from the packaging and advertising of its beauty and personal care products in a push to challenge “narrow beauty ideals”.

The initiative unveiled last month, in which Unilever will also stop digitally altering images of models’ body shape, size, proportion and skin colour, is the latest move by chief executive Alan Jope to sharpen the company’s focus on “purpose” — something of a mantra among consumer goods makers keen to cater for households increasingly concerned about the ethics of the goods in their supermarket trolley.

For Unilever’s US$21 billion beauty and personal care division, that focus springs in part from positive experience. 

Dove, the soap and skincare line, has become Unilever’s largest brand partly on the strength of its “real beauty” advertising campaign, which over more than 15 years has built up a loyal customer base by featuring diverse women who are not professional models.

Unilever's Dove brand apologises for an advert deemed as racist. AFP/SAJJAD HUSSAIN

The strategy also seeks to draw a line under past offences. Last year Unilever’s TRESemmé shampoo brand posted a digital ad in South Africa in which a white woman’s blonde hair was described as “normal” while black women’s hair was labelled “dry”, “damaged” and “frizzy”.

The ads sparked outrage and street protests. “We want to learn and act on our failures,” says Sunny Jain, president of Unilever’s beauty and personal care division.

READ: In inclusivity push, Unilever to exclude word 'normal' from beauty products

Unilever has also faced a backlash in recent years over its Fair & Lovely skin lightening cream, a 46-year-old brand that draws over US$500 million a year in sales.

It is wildly popular in India, one of Unilever’s largest markets, and forms part of a skin lightening market worth more than US$8 billion, according to Grand City Research. 

The Dark is Beautiful campaign, backed by the Bollywood actor Nandita Das, argues that these creams perpetuate an ugly tradition of discrimination based on skin colour, undermining women’s self-confidence and tapping into a history of colonial racism and caste bias.

READ: We need to stop chasing unrealistic beauty standards in Asia and start feeling beautiful

Unilever says women have historically used its cream — which includes ingredients such as sunscreen and the skin-smoothing vitamin niacinamide — instead of alternatives containing dangerous substances such as mercury and bleach.

Still, its ads until recently showed women measuring their skin colour against tone charts and using the cream to achieve lighter skin and, through that, successes ranging from marriage to Bollywood dancing roles. 

Some websites still sell Pond’s Pure White, another Unilever product in the process of being rebranded as Pond’s Pure Bright, with the promise that it will “reveal a pure white you”. Lightening creams certainly have a purpose, but one that looks less and less palatable.

Jope warned two years ago that brands which are not “purpose-led” risked being sold off. But Unilever has not sold Fair & Lovely. Instead it last year rebranded it Glow & Lovely and said the product would no longer be sold with promises of whitening or lightening skin.

READ: Commentary: Does long-term WFH mean goodbye to makeup?

A subsequent ad featuring rapper DeeMC proclaims: “My glow is my identity, don’t think about my colour.” Chandana Hiran, a Mumbai-based student and campaigner, started one of several petitions against Fair & Lovely that helped spur its name change last year.

She says Indian women still buy the Glow & Lovely product to whiten their skin. “It’s really known as a fairness cream, and that will not change unless they not only shift the narrative, but comment a lot on why this [past] narrative was wrong,” she says.

In Hiran’s analysis, the more Glow & Lovely does the right thing, the more it will stray from the pitch that originally made it so popular. If it squares that circle it will be a remarkable transformation from a product promising fulfilment through pale skin to one explicitly rejecting that idea.

The branding shift comes at a delicate time, after the pandemic cut into sales of beauty and personal care products. The chief executive of another big consumer goods group, Danone, also was ousted last month by activist investors after his doubling down on purpose-driven initiatives.

Unilever argues that virtue sells. “The faster we can grow, the more we can do in the world, so it’s a virtuous cycle,” Jain says.

But cases such as Glow & Lovely will be the real test of Unilever’s ability to define a new normal.

Source: Financial Times/cr

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