Racheal Lee
Oct 29, 2013

Skin-whitening products should embrace the chance to empower women

Many skin-whitening products capitalise on socio-cultural dynamics exploiting negative emotions and going so far as to suggest an association between lighter skin and intelligence. Instead brands could play a role in changing and improving these dynamics while actually helping their business.

A screenshot of the withdrawn video
A screenshot of the withdrawn video

Consumers are quite “right to be up in arms” about these subtly racist marketing approaches, Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO of US-based consultancy IfWeRanTheWorld, warned. Brands should expect a backlash if they continue to exploit these dynamics further.

A deeper issue brands also have to consider is the corporate reporting structure. Many leadership teams are predominantly male, if not all-male, and lack an understanding of female consumer behaviour. Similar structures show up in the leadership of agencies and creative teams.

The issue arose recently (though not for the first time) when Unilever withdrew a video for its skin-whitening cream Citra in Bangkok after widespread public criticism. In the video, launched mid-October, the brand asked female students to submit photographs of themselves in their university uniforms, along with a bottle of Citra Pearly White UV body lotion, as part of its 'Citra search for clear, soft and glowing skin' scholarship campaign. It offered a reward of 100,000 baht (US$3,215).

The video aired on Thai TV and YouTube, showcasing two female students, one dark and one fair. When asked what would make them look “outstanding in uniform”, the darker-skinned girl was incapable of answering, while the fairer one, whom presenters described as “beautiful”, said Citra products could help. Citra later withdrew and removed the video from YouTube, but is continuing with the scholarship competition. The brand also issued an apology, saying it did not intend to promote “racial discrimination”.

Gallop mentioned in a guest column early this year that advertising to women hasn’t changed for the past 50 years, and the real feminine mystique has since remained unanswered. Yet, while women are the primary purchasers in many product categories and represent a majority of social-media users, the bulk of people creating the advertising that targets them are male.

Only 3 per cent of ad agency creative directors in the US are female, and Gallop further noted that the majority of people deciding the gold standards for the creativity, appeal and effectiveness of that same advertising are also male.

Instead of encouraging and capitalising on insecurities, skin-whitening brands could take the opportunity to portray how their products can empower all women, regardless of skin colour, Tara Hirebet, head of Asia-Pacific at trendwatching.com, said while commenting about the rising number women with increased spending power.

Brands need to portray empowered women and help female students and young professional women in their struggles against cultural stereotypes.

“Instead of skin colour, they could focus on women’s confidence, inner radiance and intellectual power—make them brighter (on the inside) while their skin glows brighter and lighter at the outside,” Hirebet said. “These are all more powerful and positive messages.”

Early this month, PHD published a study showing marketers should speak to women on a Monday morning, when they feel their worst. Gallop, nevertheless, stressed that marketers have an opportunity to change this issue at its very heart to help women feel good about them “all the time”.

“In the same way, this is not about brands going ‘this is the way it is, women want lighter skin and we’re delivering against that need’,” she added. “This is an opportunity for brands to go, ‘We are going to help stop women wanting lighter skin and the societal perception around that, in a way that will ultimately benefit our business because the future of business is doing good and making money simultaneously.”

Brands have a duty to address any misinterpretation head on and consumers now expect brands to behave in a human manner, Hirebet added .

“Unilever and Citra need to remember that consumers already have a distrust of large brands and mass manufacturing,” she added. “So larger brands have to work even harder and sometimes be more humble and give in, to show they are personal, approachable and do care.”

Several years ago, Unilever made a campaign for Fair & Lovely in India, implying an Indian woman only managed to get a job as an air hostess and improve her family’s condition, after she became fairer by using the Fair & Lovely product.

The backlash against such ploys has definitely risen. Last year, another Indian product, Clean and Dry Intimate Wash, experienced a bombardment of public criticism when it implied that brown female genital areas are the source of poor marital relations and that a lightening product could reignite a marriage.

Still, there's more room for improvement and beauty isn’t the only category with a problem. Last month, Dunkin' Donuts put out an ad in Thailand for its charcoal donut. It featured an image of a woman with jet black hair and face, along with the slogan "Break every rule of deliciousness". Human Rights Watch called the ad "bizarre and racist". The company pulled the ad after much criticism, but clearly there's more work to do. This kind of misstep shouldn't even make it off the drawing board.

Three suggestions for brands with skin-whitening products

By Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO, IfWeRanTheWorld

1. Communications programme that says, literally, ‘Don't buy our products. For years we've made skin whitening products. For years you've bought them. We don't want you to. We believe you're beautiful just the way you are, and we make other skin products for skin of every colour. So buy those—don't buy these’.

2. Deliberately cast dark-complexioned women in all ads for their general skin and cosmetic products, and celebrate darker skin––again, on a strategy of ‘You're beautiful. Our skin care products celebrate your skin the way it is and help you keep it as beautiful as you are’.

3. Engage their consumers in the dialogue––in the way they have been engaged in responding to these appalling ads. Put out a call that says, ‘We want to change the dynamics of our business, and we want you to help us. How can we, together, work to change the society we live in, so that these skin-whitening products are no longer wanted, and we can create, innovate and sell instead the skin products of a different future?’ Open up the dialogue and make that dialogue into the marketing programme––crowdsourced, user-generated, user-involved––in a way that makes purchasing of this brand’s products active support of societal change that both brand and consumers want to see.

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