ASCI to crack the whip on skin lightening products ads; Fair or unfair?

Given the growing demand for fairness products and the sensitivity surrounding their ads, ASCI is framing specific guidelines for this product category. exchange4media elicits ASCI board members' rationale & adlanders' response

e4m by Priyanka Mehra
Updated: Jun 13, 2014 9:32 AM
ASCI to crack the whip on skin lightening products ads; Fair or unfair?

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), is making new news for its proposed draft guidelines for the advertising of skin lightening and fairness products.

According to ASCI, there is a strong concern in certain sections of society that advertising of fairness products tends to communicate and perpetuate the notion that dark skin is inferior and undesirable. ASCI code’s Chapter III 1 b already states that advertisements should not deride race, caste, color, creed or nationality.

Yet given how widespread the advertising for fairness and skin lightening products is and the concerns of different stakeholders in society, ASCI therefore felt a need to frame specific guidelines for this product category.

“When we find that in an area the code is not guiding sufficiently, we propose a draft guideline. After we receive feedback from all stakeholders by the 15th June, a decision at the board level will take place,“ said Arvind Sharma, outgoing Chairman & CEO, Leo Burnett & ASCI board member.

Currently these guidelines have been drafted and displayed on ASCI's website. The objective is to invite comments from the stakeholders in the industry, till June 15th, at

“The fairness cream market is large and many new brands have been launched in the last few years. It therefore makes sense for ASCI to adopt some guidelines for all players to follow.  The Indian market is maturing and gender sensitivity is on the rise. The fairness cream segment is also growing significantly. It makes immense sense for ASCI to evolve some guideline to address this sensitive subject. The guidelines put out are still draft guidelines and all stakeholders are to yet to comment on it. The deadline is15th June and after this date the Board will consider all inputs and take a final call. This wider consultation is necessary when such sensitive issues are decided upon, particularly when ASCI is a self-regulation body, and compliance to the guidelines is critical,” said Srinivasan Swamy, Chairman, RK Swamy BBDO and ASCI board member.

Currently India’s whitening cream market alone is estimated to account for around Rs 3500 crore, which is only a part of a thriving fairness market growing at a fast pace given the Indian obsession with fairness.

Hindustan Unilever’s Fair & Lovely is the oldest and most popular brand in the category, while Fair & Handsome by Emami has also made its place in the last few years with the Indian male.

For years we have been subjected to advertising which depicted a girl becoming more confident post the miraculous aftereffects of a fairness product, and landing the much desired job or suitor; however ads have more recently made a conscious attempt to adapt to the changing times more progressively, and depict the protagonist in a positive light.

While the male category which is still nascent, the communication strongly urges men to go for their own fairness regime rather than use women’s products on the sly.

While adlanders seem to agree with the no discrimination principle, they also feel if a rule like this were to be applied in advertising it should also apply to films, which are again a big source of influence on the masses. 

“From movies to TVCs, we try to show things that are part of our daily life, which are real and believable. At times we tell human stories, and at times exaggerate, which is what we are in real life right? We compare each other, without hurting each other’s sentiments we also have pet names like kaliya, gorya, bootkya, natyaa, chotu, motu which we use in our daily conversation with our family and friends and if we do the same on a screen (sorry, only on a TV screen) than it's a crime. To me advertising is annexation of consumers, whatever we do/behave in real life should be allowed to reel life, “opines Santosh Padhi, Co- Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Taproot India.

Bodhisatwa Dasgupta, Creative Director, Grey Worldwide echoed Padhi’s sentiment when he said, “The guideline that says advertising shouldn’t use post production visual effects is a bit loony. Because advertising is all about stretching a point, it is about exaggerating a fact. If advertising agencies didn’t stretch a point, we’d find a zillion companies saying the same thing. We’d be surrounded by me-too-products, each fighting to stay alive in an ocean of products that promise exactly the same thing. The human race loves make-believe. We like things that don’t really exist, it makes our lives more interesting. We live for exaggerations. When we see a fairness cream that promises to make us a shade fairer in just one week, one part of us says ‘bullshit”. But the other part says “Wow, really?” And that’s where we should leave it at.”

“I think many brands want to be responsible and won't do anything wrong, as they are fully aware it may backfire,” added Padhi.

It will be interesting to see if all the proposed guidelines indeed get implemented or not. 

As Dasgupta concluded, “Leave it to the person to believe the advertising, or not. Let it be his or her call. As soon as advertising laws start playing by the rules and start to dictate what advertising should be like, or what it shouldn’t be like, it ceases to be advertising. And starts instead being a sales sermon.”

The proposed guidelines are –  

1.            Advertising should not communicate any discrimination as a result of skin colour.

These ads should not reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin color. Specifically, advertising should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin as unattractive, unhappy, depressed or concerned. These ads should not portray people with darker skin as at a disadvantage of any kind, or inferior, or unsuccessful in any aspect of life particularly in relation to being attractive to the opposite sex, matrimony, job placement, promotions and other prospects. 

2.            Advertising should not use post production visual effects on the model/s to show exaggerated product efficacy. The pre- and –post product usage visuals of model/s using special effects should not be dramatized or exaggerated so that efficacy depicted is not drastically different than what can be delivered by the product . Further, the expression of the model/s pre and post usage of the product both in the real and graphical representation should be the same. 

3.            Advertising should not associate darker or lighter colour skin with any particular socio-economic strata, caste, community, religion, profession or ethnicity.

4.            Advertising should not perpetuate gender based discrimination because of skin colour.

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