Indian Ad Council Cracks Down on Skin Lightening Products

The Advertising Council of India is cracking down on skin lightening products after a series of increasingly discriminatory advertisements.

Skin lightening products are booming in Asian countries like India and China, where light skin is very strongly associated with class, beauty and success in life. The fairness industry in India alone is worth a whopping $432 million a year and grows 18% each year.

Much of this growth is built by stigmatizing dark skin. While much of this stigma comes from societal tradition, a fair amount is coming from beauty marketing tactics aimed to keep the skin lightening industry going strong. Commercials often portray women who are unsuccessful or sad compared to their lighter skinned counterparts, or women who only become happy and successful once they lighten their skin.

“Not all lightening creams are safe. Many contain the ingredient hydroquinone, which has been banned in Europe as well as mercury which can destroy your kidneys and nervous system,” says Amanda Wolfe-Elampooranar, VP of Marketing at Hylunia. “You want to look for a cream that helps to reduce pigment with ingredients like vitamin c, vitamin a, licorice, kojic acid and fruit acids like glycolic.”

This practice will take a significant hit from the new guidelines released by the Advertising Standards Council of India on Tuesday. The memo’s intro states that “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,” and goes on to detail new advertising restrictions for skin care companies.

The guidelines include several strict clauses to prevent commercials and marketing tactics from reinforcing a stigma against dark-skinned consumers. Advertisements are forbidden from portraying negative social stereotyping or discrimination based on skin color.

According to the memo, “advertising should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin in a way which is widely seen as unattractive, unhappy, depressed, or concerned,” and “ads should not portray people with darker skin in a way which is widely seen 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.”

Television commercials are required to comply with ASCI mandates, and ASCI’s former chairperson Bharat Patel told Live Mint that they expect 92% print compliance as well.

The largest distributors of skin-lightening products in India include multinational brands like Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever. Many major celebrities endorse the products, and a disproportional amount of light-skinned women win beauty pageants.

While ASCI’s new guidelines represent a major step in national beauty standard, it may take much longer to tackle the issues that motivate India’s pursuit of lighter skin.

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