Dark days ahead for fairness cream ads in India?

We asked thought leaders how the new rules can change the whole ad narrative of skin-lightening creams if the proposed bill by the government is implemented

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Feb 17, 2020 8:40 AM

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The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare last week proposed to amend the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954. The new rules would be drafted under Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020. Under this act, brands endorsing pharmaceutical products for fairness of skin, hair loss, improvement of height or obesity, among others, will be faced with a penalty of Rs 50 lakh and will serve prison time up to five years. The Ministry has asked for suggestions, comments or objections from the public or stakeholders with regard to the said draft Bill. Quite often, brands in India have tagged dark skin as an undesirable trait or skin ailment and used this notion to market their creams. We asked thought leaders how the new rules can change the whole narrative if the proposed bill is enforced.           

The ‘dark’ side of the beauty business

Priya Gurnani, Senior Creative Director, Publicis Ambience, feels that while pulling the plugs on fairness cream advertising is a step in the right direction, it is really the mindset of the buyers that needs to change.“Preference for fairer skin colour is still very prevalent in most parts of our country, especially for women. Fuelling this peer pressure, brands have ridden the bandwagon on fairness creams to maximise their profits. Banning fairness cream ads seems a step in the right direction where social moral responsibility is concerned. But then again the desperate Indian buyers will still turn to fairness creams as their last resort. The problem is rooted deeper,” she points out. And rightly so, India continues to be plagued by a deep-rooted fascination for a lighter skin tone, evident by a flourishing industry, enabling just that.

According to the "India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Overview, 2018-2023  report, the women's fairness cream category is anticipated to achieve market revenues of more than Rs 5,000 crore by year 2023. Rising influence of media and entertainment, pressure from the society to look well-groomed all the time, inferiority complex about darker skin colour, desire to try new products launched in the country, escalating number of young population, etc. are some of the factors that have been driving the market of women's fairness cream market in last few years and.  

 To curb what maybe be referred as a cultural problem, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) rolled out a charter in 2014 which prohibited cosmetic brands from communicating any discrimination based on skin colour through advertising. The guidelines further stated that no brands can use post-production visual effects to exaggerate product efficacy as well.  Digital evangelist, and media veteran, Sandeep Goyal of Mogae Media believes that it is not the fines or the punishment that are a deterrent but rather the enforcement of these rules that is a key to initiating change.

“Surrogate advertising is blatantly misused by liquor brands. The government, the censor board, the FSSAI all look the other way. The TV channels woo the business despite all the claims of adhering to self-regulation codes. In the case of fairness creams too,  if an impact has to be made, some visible examples have to be made out of errant brands,” he remarks. Goyal observes that in the past too efforts came to nought because everyone involved quietly got away. “The narrative is societal and deep-rooted. Just some fines and proposed punishment will not change mindsets,” he opines.                                 

Adverting with ‘conscience’ As per recent reports, celebrities like Taapsee Pannu, Dia Mirza and Sona Mohapatra have hailed the government's proposed bill to ban fairness cream advertisements. Pannu stated that she will never endorse fairness as a benchmark for beauty while Mirza asserted that as we evolve in our understanding of what kind of advertising perpetuates stereotypes, gender discrimination and falsehoods, we must collectively take responsibility to ensure such demeaning advertising ends. Mohapatra, who was a brand manager herself a couple of years ago, said that it is about time that we acknowledge the regressive, deeply disturbing nature and impact of such toxic advertising campaigns.    

 Raghu Bhat, Founder, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi opines that we are not going to suddenly see 'advertising with a conscience' but should lead to brands being very guarded and precise in their efficacy claims. “The Magic Remedies Act has expanded its ambit to 78 ailments including fairness creams. The big change is that ads can't promise magical transformation. Rather, the use of 'subtle body-shaming' and emotional triggers will continue. But particular attention will be paid in crafting the exact words for the product window,” Bhat explains. 

 To self-regulation and shifting the narrative 

While focussed associations and govt now prohibit companies from advertising their products with misleading claims, this isn’t a fresh occurring. The ban was first introduced by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) in 2014 for brands wanting to broadcast advertisements. It had put a ban on broadcasters from running an ad that didn’t comply with ASCI code. At that time, around 50 ads, which mostly belonged to the fairness creams category, were taken off-air.

Apart from these, telemarketing ads were also significantly taken off-air. Chirag Shah, CEO, SVG Mobile, notes that pharma companies are as smart marketers as liquor companies and hence, consequently the adoption of surrogate advertising could be one of the ways to go. “The magic word 'health' could be used more frequently now to the advantage of brands. Another good tool that brands can use is to change their positioning from fairness crèam to glow cream, ageless cream, wonder skin cream, freshness cream, etc. Also, the employability of creatives conveying the message of love, attraction and power after using these products (instead of transforming into fairer a skin) will certainly be high,” Shah asserted.      

In 2015, a Delhi consumer court imposed a Rs 15 lakh fine on skin and healthcare giant Emami and found its face cream “Fair and Handsome” guilty of “misrepresentation to the public”. “It uses the word ‘ gorapan‘ in advertisement No. 1, which means ‘fair complexion’. In advertisement No. 2 it gives out a promise that the use of the product for a period of four weeks will ensure a fair complexion,” the court said. 

According to Tarun Rai, Chairman and Group CEO, South Asia, Wunderman Thompson, bodies like ASCI which could play a more active role here. “Self-regulation is the ideal way to curb irresponsible advertising,” Rai asserts.                       

 For years, activists like Indian film star and director Nandita Das (who is termed “dusky”) have tried to start social movements against the manufacturers of these types of products and advertisers that carry those messages. She launched “Dark is Beautiful,” a campaign to celebrate “beauty beyond color.” Other celebrities and brands are also making a conversation on shifting the narrative from being downright offensive to consciously discreet. Here’s hoping that there is light at the end of this dark tunnel...

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