Atomic Tango

“Your Skin Color is not a Stain!”: L.A. Teen Takes on Unilever’s Bigotry

July 12th, 2008 · 16 Comments · Case Studies, Media News

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC

Delia Rose is mad as hell. The L.A. teenager is calling for a boycott of Unilever. The reason? The skin-whiteners that the corporate behemoth distributes and promotes in Malaysia and other Eastern countries…

Check out this nauseating spot for Unilever’s Fair & Lovely brand, where a dark-skinned girl enjoys career success and scores a white man only after she bleaches her skin (it’s not in English, but it’s easy to understand):

For Delia, it’s also personal: part-Latino, she has the beautiful skin tone that millions of white women are risking melanoma to attain by tanning, but which Fair & Lovely appears to hold in contempt. And that brings up the hypocrisy: in the West, Unilever’s campaign for its Dove brand is encouraging women to appreciate their “real beauty”…

The promise for inner beauty
This promise is at the heart of the brand and is the main driver behind our global Campaign For Real Beauty. For too long, beauty has been strictly defined by narrow, stifling, unrealistic rules. And many women agree. We believe real beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and ages. Dove aims to change the status quo, break down the stereotypes and encourage a healthier and broader view of beauty.

I guess one’s attitude towards women and race pulls a 180 upon switching hemispheres, huh Unilver? (Even the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign is not without its controversy, as detailed in BusinessWeek. Apparently, master photo retoucher Pascal Dangin was hired to make the “real beauty” models more, uh, beautiful.)

At a time when both women and African-Americans are making serious political waves in the U.S., it’s stunning that Unilever is still carrying Fair & Lovely, least of all promoting it in TV commercials. Delia obviously has the moral high ground here — but she has her work cut out for her.

I recently heard about Delia’s campaign through her mother, and I’m always eager to support the next generation of anti-Neanderthal activists. Here’s hoping we adults can help their voices be heard…

Contact Unilever here or email comments@unilever.com

Update 10/4/8: After this article ran, it had a lot of traffic from visitors on Unilever servers — who says one person’s voice can’t be heard? I then noted that they changed all the web addresses of the web pages I linked to on their site. I’ve updated them today. If you notice any broken links, please let me know!

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Claire Barry

    Sad but not too surprising, Marketing is a game of tell em’ what they want to hear. I’m sure that regardless of hemisphere, that most marketing has zero to do with morals or values and everything to do with whatever message sells the most. That is why I as a consumer, even though, and especially because I’m a marketer, go the extra mile to know what the real values are behind the business I give my money to.

    Take for example Horizon, yeah they are borderline Organic, but do you know how badly they treat animals? This is why I’m such a big fan of Santa Monica Co-Op. I hope that in the next wave of marketing, that consumers will become more and more informed and not so susceptible to advertising ass-kissing.

    But of course, that means that the consumer will need to care deeply about bigger issues, like Delia.

  • bl

    that is a crazy ad! i also noticed a lot of skin lightening products/ads in Korea. being half-Filipina and not having stayed out of the sun my entire life as they must to be so fair, the flight attendants on the airline I took also really stood out to me. i guess companies sell to each market–well, whatever sells! which interestingly has not necessarily been “real beauty” in the U.S.–I read a rumor that campaign didn’t do so well.

  • tomboys

    Wow! This is crazy! How insane. Most white women want to be darker skinned. So sad how companies pray on our insecurities.

  • tomboys

    Oh.. I had to stumble and digg this one too. Here’s the digg link if anyone is interested.

    http://digg.com/people/Your_Skin_Color_is_not_a_Stain

  • Andrew

    I can only half-agree with this article. I don’t notice many people with darker skin standing up and being angry at ads which encourage paler women to try to have the same skin tone as them. You even note that in your description of Delia that she has a “beautiful skin tone that millions of white women are risking melanoma to attain by tanning, but which Fair & Lovely appears to hold in contempt”. Is your (and her) only objection when someone who has dark skin tries to become whiter, and not when someone with white skin tries to become darker.

    Either fight both fights (and tell women to simply be happy with skin tone) or accept that the popularities of certain skin tones will vary with time and with geography. Remember, it wasn’t too terribly long ago that in Western society having dark skin was gauche, while being pale was the height of fashion.

    Get up in arms about all advertisements which try to get women to change skin tones, or avoid the fight altogether.

    Freddy’s comment: Andrew, you’re misconstruing this article. I’m not opposed to anyone wanting to look like anything they want to be. Michael Jackson can do whatever he wants to with his face… as long as I don’t have to look at it. I’m a marketer writing a marketing blog, and the points I’m objecting to here are, 1) Corporations telling women in one half of the world that they will never succeed in life with their current natural skin color. Did you even watch the commercial? It’s worse than any tanning ad ever. And 2) The hypocrisy of Unilever, which is telling women to rejoice in their natural beauty. This is marketing at its ethical worst.

  • Andrew

    Freddy,

    I appreciate your response to my comment, and I apologize if you took offense at anything I wrote. I believe you misunderstood my original comment, so allow me to clarify with respect to your numbers.

    #1. Yes, they are telling darker-skinned women in India that they need to make their skin lighter, but your object is premised on the idea that the corporation actually creates the societal demand for the product, rather than simply responding to to it. I would wager that if the women in India weren’t already interested in getting lighter skin, that they wouldn’t be selling the products to begin with. This is evidenced on Delia’s site, with advertisements from all over the region, from different companies, which all sell the same thing: lighter skin.

    #2 Speaking as someone who has experience in market research, I would call this neither unethical nor hypocritical. No sane company has only one product line, nor one advertising scheme. They are simply doing what any company does: selling products to the people who will buy them. You wouldn’t advertise a BMW to poor immigrants (unless you’re just sadistic), and you don’t advertise used Fords in Beverly Hills. It’s about making a product and marketing it to the people who want to buy it.

    Freddy’s Comment: Just because a demand exists doesn’t mean a corporation should feed it. For example, some cultures enjoy dog and whale meat, but I don’t think it would be wise for Hormel, Oscar Mayer or any other Western company to feed that need. Other countries don’t have restrictions on cigarette advertising; that doesn’t mean Phillip Morris should begin encouraging kids in those cultures to take up smoking. And there’s certainly a great demand for guns and bombs in the streets of Baghdad — should an American company feed that need, too?

    Business without conscience undermines a corporate brand, and that’s ultimately bad for your bottom line. A corporation must consider how its behavior in one part of the world will be perceived elsewhere. Thanks to YouTube and WordPress and Facebook, news of that behavior spreads quickly and can lead to negative backlash among your consumers back home. Note that the repercussion for Unilever here in America has begun, albeit in a very small way with the voice of a teenage girl in L.A. Where will it go from here? Let’s watch…

    In the meantime, let’s closely examine this case — and this Fair & Lovely commercial. Unilever isn’t just quietly meeting a need (assuming the demand for skin bleaches existed long before they entered the market): it’s intentionally and actively fueling a prejudice with expensive TV commercials starring attractive actresses and lighting tricks. Unilever isn’t just some shopkeeper looking to keep its customers happy: it’s a giant marketing machine, with armies of professional marketers. As a professional marketer myself, I know that corporations regularly create demand where none existed before, and that we use marketing tricks and tools to turn inchoate interest into excitement.

    Please also note that this isn’t just another case of cultural relativism. While India isn’t America, I have dark-skinned Indian friends who are quite upset about this commercial. I also have light-skinned Indian friends who find it embarrassing. India is no longer an agrarian backwater; it’s a rapidly industrializing nation looking to take its seat alongside other modern, industrialized countries. Unilever should no more promote prejudices in that part of the world than it would in the U.S.

    While I agree with you that advertising should be customized for a particular audience, a multinational corporation’s brand is global, whether you’re talking Coke or Disney or Unilever. In the June 30th issue of AdAge, Unilever CMO Simon Clift says:

    “We’ve gone in the last three years basically from a sort of federation of independent states to a global-brands company. That requires some global tools and processes and … some full-time attention…” To that end, he’s noticed a “family resemblance between most of our brands,” including Axe and Dove, both of which he said “tend to be about building people’s confidence up.”

    With Fair & Lovely, Unilever is actually tearing down the confidence of dark-skinned young women in hopes of profiteering off their insecurities, while its GLOBAL campaign for Dove is trying to build the self-esteem of ALL young women AROUND THE WORLD. Please carefully read the campaign http://www.dove.us/#/CFRB. This is “two-faced” hypocrisy so rich it’s almost comical.

    From a strictly business perspective, Unilever is perpetrating brand inconsistency — indeed they’re negating their own efforts! — and that’s bad marketing.

  • Andrew

    That’s a valid argument, and it is a bad PR rap when this kind of thing happens (there are, of course, ways to advertise whitening creams (which also exist in America, by the way) without looking like a complete heel). I think the issue is that you view it as a prejudice (dark = bad, white = good) where I take the historical view that the standards of what constitutes “good” skin color varies over time, and varies with which skin color corresponds to not having to work as much. At a time when Western society was agrarian (as much of India still is now) a tan was gauche since it meant you had to work outside, while paleness was the height of fashion since it meant you didn’t have to work outside.

    I think it’s no more prejudicial than a paler woman today getting a tan (since a tan nowadays is a sign that you have the time to spend out of the office getting one, and have enough money to do so). That may be the disagreement on which the rest of this hinges, since your core objection to the advertisement itself (from an ethical perspective) is that it encourages (in your interpretation) a prejudice about skin color.

    But, that said, even if I accept that it is a prejudice, that does not make it unethical. Most everything of what advertisers try to create is prejudice of one kind or another. Taller is better, thinner is better, bigger eyelashes, shinier hair, bigger breasts. Clothes and accessories meant to make us look affluent and successful. The difference seems to be that this is regarding the color of ones skin, but can you point to me what the difference is between that and any other purely genetically determined feature, like height (for which women wear heels), or baldness (which we try to avoid like the plague)?

    Yes, Unilever is shooting itself in the foot (maybe), and I’ll be curious to see how this turns out, but (that being said), the core objections you and Delia draw are ones in which I find fault. It’s necessary to draw a line between what a corporation should do on the basis of avoiding bad PR, and what a corporation should do out of a sense of public duty. I’ll agree that this may bite them on the ass in terms of Public Relations, but I’ll disagree about the reasonability of why it’s going to do so.


    Freddy’s Comment: Nicely written and reasoned argument, Andrew. I welcome a good debate! I guess we’ll just have to disagree on this one — but because it’s my blog, I get the last word. (I’m so unfair.)

    I believe it’s fundamentally more offensive to profit on skin-color discrimination than on other physical prejudices simply because of the history of skin-color discrimination. If short people had been enslaved or lynched because of their height, or redheads denied promotions at work or admission to certain schools because of their hair color, I would readily equate these physical attributes. But they weren’t, so I don’t.

    The irony of tanning is that it’s the wish of whites to become the color that they discriminated against, so in a twisted way, that’s OK. I’ll leave it to the anthropology PhD’s to explain that one, because suddenly, I’m getting visions of star-bellied Sneetches running around in my head.

    I also think that Delia has a right to be offended and to express her indignation at Unilever for helping perpetrate skin-color prejudice. After all, she could become a victim of it. I guess she should just steer clear of any country where Fair & Lovely is advertised.

  • Roem

    Great blog.

    The subject matter is appalling, but I would rather know, than not.

    Thanks, Freddy.

  • Doug aka Nullvariable

    It is becoming more and more important for companies to present a global front where they do business. Things like the internet make it very easy to see the two-sided nature of certain companies. Years ago you might never have been able to notice something like this. Its certainly something that I will keep in mind as I bring my own business into the global market place

  • Callum ginty

    That ad makes me sick

  • coolrulespronto

    This just in from a friend of mine who grew up in India:

    I understand the one commentor’s take on how they made the ad because it caters to what the public already wants, but to me that’s like saying there’s nothing wrong in perpetuating a concept that is abhorrent to intelligent human beings. I don’t doubt the thing sells like crazy, but maybe there should be some corporate responsibility in refusing to perpetuate damaging stereotypes – sort of like the backlash there has been against waify models, or a ban on cigarette ads on TV.

    You can’t really say the ad is racist, because it’s the same girl with two skin tones, but unfortunately, lightskinned and darkskinned people are treated as two separate classes in parts of India, so you almost could. Imagine if they showed a white girl going in after this girl and getting the man and the job. That would clearly be racist. But that’s what they’re saying – it’s good to be white.

    If segregation hadn’t been outlawed, I don’t know if commenter would support ads for all-white restaurants that show them clearly turning away black people. It may have been what a certain ignorant population wanted, but it was the intelligent demographic that rose up against this and caused it to be illegal due to its immorality.

    I’m not sure if India has a policy against job discrimination based on skin color, but even if they did, the law in India goes only as far as who you can bribe with how much. That’s pretty much the standard for third world countries I guess.

  • googlybear

    I’m from India and I can definitely tell you that there is no such outward discrimination against people who are not fair skinned. A beautiful female will always get attention no matter where in the world. There is no denying the fact that there is an awe factor associated with fair skinned people but you need to understand how this trend originated.
    A few years back females in India were only expected to get married and produce babies. A female was seen as a good match if she was fair, looked beautiful and knew how to cook a very good meal. Since majority of Indians are brown being fair was seen as a major selling point and hence the obsession with being fair. Females were not educated as an educated female would never be able to find a good match. Secondly the darker the female the higher the dowry her family would most likely have to pay during marriage.
    With times changing you now have a greater number of independent women who now do not care as much for being fair. Men now don’t look for a puppet that fulfills the above criteria when searching for a life partner. Sadly we do have a huge percentage that still live in villages and small towns and for them the above criteria for a good match still remains. It will take time for these towns/villages to get over the fair factor but eventually with time they will.
    The problem with ads like this is they promote a high level of insecurity among teenagers and children. When a teenager is shown that he/she can achieve the whole world with just being fair….. who wouldn’t want to become fair. It’s really sad to see 11 & 12 year olds asking for advice on online forums as to what they can do to become fair. The above ad is in really poor taste

  • sumi

    I am an Indian with a dark chocolate skin. I have faced color discrimination in India I have always bben against the fair and lovely advertisement of Hindustan Lever limited. I want to fight against the discrimination in India. But I am not as to how to do it. I need help..

  • Cola

    Has everyone forgot what the point of advertising a product is? To sell. They’ll say anything to sell.

    Is this offensive? Yes, of course, but the ultimate objective is to get your dollar. If you thought any different by looking at any of these advertisements, you’ve been fooled, bamboozled, georgied… you get the point.

    oh, and Fair & Lovely doesn’t actually work. There are no known natural herbs that will lighten your skin.

  • Ed

    The most beautiful Indian woman I ever met was darker than the women in the ad. Of course this was over here in the US, which only made her seem even more exotic to the rest of us pale folks.

    I’m not one to look for bits of racism and bigotry around every corner, but I’m with whoever thinks this ad is a crass appeal to the worst kinds of insecurity just to sell a product.

    P.S. a very lovely young Sri Lankan girl of our acquaintance, who just happens to have very dark skin, “snagged” herself a white guy for a husband, so maybe the producers of this ad are trying to play on insecurites that hardly exist.

    Maybe the Fair & Lovely people should try selling it as a toothpaste. If so, I might try it, I can always use whiter teeth…

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