Advertising has the power not just to sell a product but also to make an impression on how we view the company that renders the service or product. In India, the market for “fairness creams” (aka skin whitening products) is huge because having fair skin remains a beauty ideal. The Indian arm of Unilever, HLL introduced the trend-setting Fair & Lovely cream in the seventies targeted at women. Their adverts consistently sent out the message to young women implying that to be fair is to be beautiful.
Since then, scores of brands like Emami, Body Shop, Pond’s, L’Oreal, Garnier, Neutrogena etc have jumped into the market. The market that was previously saturated only with products targeted at women has now expanded into fairness products for men. Over the years the message that advertisers were sending out also changed. In the eighties, if you were fair you got the man you desired. Now, if you are fair you automatically get breaks in your career. Take for example, the HLL advert for Vaseline body fairness lotion that is promises a dramatic reduction in tan-lines. It features a young reporter who starts using it and becomes fairer. Then it shows her questioning a rather handsome CEO and he picks her interview questions over her duskier colleagues. Another advert features a model that gets a plum job after she starts using a fairness product to become unrealistically several shades lighter. Many top male and female Indian celebrities are endorsing these products. What kind of message does this send to young girls I wonder?
This demand for fairness products is not unique to India. It is prevalent in Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Africa and the Middle-East. It has been proven that many fairness creams contain harmful chemicals including mercury, bleach and other agents that can cause cancer. Many creams contain ingredients like hydroquinone which actively blocks melanin production thereby leaving the skin vulnerable to sun exposure. Some even contain steroids. Every manufacturer claims that their cream is 100% safe but consumers should bear in mind that cosmetic manufacturers are not obliged to list every ingredient in their formulations. So they could be advertising one thing and the product can contain other chemicals all together.
The unfortunate thing is that most of these companies have strong woman-centric CSR programs. Unilever also owns Dove which has built its whole brand image on celebrating “natural beauty.” In India HLL, runs Project Shakthi that promotes women-centric schemes and entrepreneurship programs. Yet it is also the biggest purveyor of fairness creams and is actively sending out the message that to be fair is to be beautiful and successful.
CSR is no longer a stand-alone component of doing business. Everything that company does must be tied into the way it communicates its CSR initiatives. In a free market, there will always be demand for products like fairness creams but the manner in which these are advertised is beginning to play a role in distinguishing CSR efforts. In order to be taken seriously about CSR, companies must start presenting a holistic view of their product line and this starts with responsible advertising.