April 30, 2002
Critics Say Ads for Skin
In an ad running on Malaysian television, an attractive Malay college student can't get a second glance from a boy at the next desk. "She's pretty," he says to himself, "but ..."
After using Pond's Skin Lightening Moisturizer by Unilever PLC, she reappears, brightly lit and looking several shades paler. The boy exclaims, "Why didn't I notice her before?"
Women's groups in Malaysia certainly noticed.
"It's a bit offensive," says Loga Chitra, a lawyer and an executive for the women's wing of the Malaysian Indian Congress, a component party of the ruling National Front coalition. "Black is beautiful," she says. "You don't have to be fair to be beautiful."
Equating lighter skin with beauty is a deeply rooted perception across much of Asia. But Unilever, a unit of Anglo-Dutch concern Unilever Group, which is known for its sensitivity to local cultures, may have crossed a line by discussing openly a prejudice that usually lurks just beneath the surface.
For many Asian cultures, light skin historically conveyed wealth and status, while dark skin was associated with those who toiled in the fields. It is a stereotype that persists today. According to a survey conducted in February by Asian Market Intelligence, 74% of men in Malaysia, 68% in Hong Kong and 55% in Taiwan say they are more attracted to women with fair complexions. About a third of the female respondents in each place said they use skin-whitening products.
Ads for whitening creams are ubiquitous in magazines and on airwaves throughout the region. Most limit themselves to making claims about beautiful skin. For example, Chanel's Absolute Whiteness promises skin that is "fine, translucent and glowing with health." Shiseido Co.'s UVWhite Intensive Whitening Treatment ad says it is "a new maximum power system to whiten and renew tired, dull skin." Few take as bold an approach as that pursued in Malaysia by Unilever.
In a TV ad for Fair & Lovely, another skin-whitening range produced by Unilever, a train attendant fails to catch the attention of her love interest, a businessman who buys a ticket from her each day, until she appears one day with fairer skin.
"Those ads are incredible," says Malaysian social activist Cynthia Gabriel, referring to the Unilever ads. "Whitening creams are capitalizing on a market that's quite racist and biased toward people who are lighter."
Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising firm that produced the Pond's campaign, said it was based on consumer research and was tested in Malaysia before it ran.
For Unilever to find itself the subject of such charges is unusual. The company has operations in 150 different countries and has built its reputation on its ability to effectively communicate with different peoples and cultures. Unilever insists it never meant to convey a message that could be interpreted to have racial undertones.
Referring to the Pond's ad, Unilever's Malaysian unit said in a statement: "Our TV commercial was never intended to suggest any correlation between skin color and beauty. We leave that to each individual to interpret according to his or her culture, background and education."
Tell that to Kuala Lumpur's comedians. The Instant Cafe Theatre, a group that specializes in satire, parodied those skin-cream ads and others in a musical skit staged in December.
"The one that really got to us is the one in the [train] station," says Jo Kukathas, Instant Cafe's artistic director, who wrote the spoof tune. "Sure, there's lot of these products on the market that are damaging to your health and skin. What's more damaging is this attitude that you have to look a certain way."
That attitude has helped fuel a booming business in whitening creams throughout Asia. In Hong Kong, for example, the sale of facial-whitening products grew by 35% in both value and volume last year, outpacing the overall facial-moisturizing category, which grew by 18% in volume and 15% in value, according to AC Nielsen.
With so many products now on the market, Malaysian women's groups have also become concerned about ensuring against potential health risks.
Some whitening creams are little more than sunscreens. Unilever, for one, says it uses sunscreens and vitamin B3 in both Pond's and Fair & Lovely. But some whitening creams contain a range of ingredients -- from compounds that inhibit production of melanin, which produces a pigment that protects the skin against the sun, to bleaches that can be harmful. In January, 19 women were hospitalized in Hong Kong with mercury poisoning linked to a skin-whitening cream imported from mainland China.
"We want stricter controls over these kinds of ads," says Sen. Jaya Partiban, president of the MIC's national women's wing. At its annual general meeting next month, the MIC women's wing plans to pass a resolution calling on the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs to regulate skin-whitening-cream ads. "We don't want them to take advantage of the vulnerability of Asian women," she says.