Fair & Lovely, and may be a little bit of Dignity

Derek Newberry, a blogger at Nextbillion has a very interesting post on Ethics in the BOP Market. He uses the case of Fair & Lovely, the skin whitening cream marketed in India by Hindustan Lever, the Indian subsidiary of Unilever. The company has constantly used a advertising strategy that depicts women of darker complexion as being inferior (the most controversial being such women being unable to find a suitable groom). Derek posted this Fair and Lovely ad, which uses a similar strategy as mentioned above.

BoP critics like Aneel Karnani (University of Michigan, Ross School of Business Professor) have used the Fair & Lovely example to show how companies make ethical sacrifices in marketing products and services to the poor. His paper “Doing Well By Doing Good – Case Study: ‘Fair & Lovely’ Whitening Cream” can be found here.

Derek proposes a simple two-point framework to deal with such ethical challenges in working with BoP markets (He calls it the BoP Litmus test):

  1. Dignity: Does this activity tap into BoP markets in a dignified manner? The BoP hypothesis, after all, is all about treating the BoP with dignity by including them in the global marketplace, so does the business model treat the BoP with dignity or exploit insecurities and race/class divisions?
  2. Sustainability: Does this activity align with a vision for a future economic system that is environmentally sound? Or is it at least not clearly a major detriment to the Earth’s resources?

I think for many traditionally profit-minded organizations, its a tough test to pass, especially with regard to the products and services that they are pushing into the BoP markets. Fair & Lovely has played in well to exploit the race/color insecurities that has plagued Indian society for centuries, to sell skin ‘whitening’ creams. I guess one of the comments by a youtube viewer after viewing the video sums it all up – “this is just wrong on so many levels”

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2 Responses

  1. As a fellow South Indian, who had to deal with the ongoing fear of my mother of me getting too dark growing up in Florida, I cannot help but shudder when I see this video. I am glad you chose to post on it Santhosh, as I had it on my short list of things to bring forth.

    I guess one way to approach it is this: how would you feel if someone marketed the product that way to you? If it bothers you then more likely than not you are violating the principle of dignity. If it does not bother you, it could still violate general dignity but at least then you are making progress.

  2. It is true that inherently South Indians are perceived to be darker and the ad has a very strong south Indian undertone to it. In addition, I’m pretty sure predominant share of Fair & Lovely’s sales comes from the South.

    There have been silver linings though. Bipasha Basu ushered in a movement, making dark and tan ‘cool’ for a little while. However, I dont think its as widespread as it needs to be. I believe that if Unilever honestly believes in dignity, then it should create something on the lines of “Campaign for Real Beauty” instituted by Dove.

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