Advertising
The ad, which has now been withdrawn, showed a woman of color removing her shirt to reveal a different white woman wearing a lighter shirt.
Screenshots

As a brand, Dove has often drawn praise for its innovative and so called inclusive ad campaigns. Recently however, Dove landed itself in a controversy for posting a GIF promoting a body lotion. It has now issued an apology and withdrawn the ad.

The GIF showed a woman of colour wearing a brown shirt. She goes on to remove the shirt, and the big reveal is not the same woman with lighter skin as most fairness products go, but a different white woman. This woman again takes off her shirt and another woman with light skin is revealed.

The ad promotes the oft-repeated and pervasive stereotype of fair being better and more beautiful than dark, but in a whole new, nauseating way. Considering racism continues to be a deeply entrenched issue in the Western world, the idea this ad seems to promote is that only white women can be considered beautiful. 

According to reports, it was makeup artist Naythemua who first approached Dove, calling out the racist ad. She posted a screenshot of the conversation as well. Dove’s response, as a social media user commented on Naythemua’s post, seems to be “selling the product than answering the damn question”.

Twitter users took screenshots of the ad and slammed Dove for perpetuating racism.

This insightful thread here talks about how it's not just Dove, but many other soap companies which sell their products by bashing dark skin.

Issuing an apology after the backlash, Dove said it “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.”

India and the obsession with fair skin

The Indian audience is not new to racism in ads. Or at least, colourism. It does become harder to spot however, considering how obsessed we are with fair skin.

India forms part of the fastest growing market for skin lightening products – the Asia-Pacific region. The sheer number of fairness advertisements and the who’s who of tinsel town endorsing these products is telling of this trend. Prominent names, right from Mammootty, Trisha and Kavya Madhavan to Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan are guilty of telling millions of people that if they have lighter skin, things will start falling into place in their lives.

To know more, read TNM’s fairly long and not so lovely list of celebrities who have endorsed fariness products.

To demonstrate just how far this light-skin obsession goes, here’s a five-part ad series by Pond's, a cosmetics brand, starring Bollywood A-listers Saif Ali Khan, Isha Kopikar and Priyanka Chopra.

It’s a love story panning a few years, which ends up with our hero and heroine (Saif and Priyanka) being separated and then reuniting, because the hero realises he’s been a jerk. And Priyanka’s visible glowing (airbrushing, fairness cream, who knows?) by the end of the ad series is somehow responsible for this happy reunion. Watch, because it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

More recently, Bollywood actor Aishwarya Rai was slammed for posing for a Kalyan Jewellers ad in April which showed her dressed like royalty and reclining comfortably as a dark-skinned slave child holds an umbrella over her. The visual was apparently inspired by 17th Century European paintings, which showed white women their slave-child servants.

The ad was heavily criticised for promoting racism and child slavery, and prompted Kalyan Jewellers to issue the following apology. The apology itself, Vinaya pointed out for Lighthouse Insights, was conditional with an ‘if’:

“The creative was intended to present the royalty, timeless beauty and elegance. However, if we have inadvertently hurt the sentiments of any individual or organisation, we deeply regret the same. We have started the process of withdrawing this creative from our campaign.”

There are voices which are pushing back against this preference for light skin. Actor Abhay Deol had recently gone on a naming and shaming spree for actors who had promoted fairness products. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is known for his powerful and unconventional performances, also hinted at colourism in the film industry and how he was not cast opposite fair actors.