Skip to main content
Connect the World

Skin whitener advertisements labeled racist

  • Story Highlights
  • Indian lawmaker slams skin whitener products as racist, highly objectionable
  • Series of advertisements in Asia give impression light skin better than dark skin
  • Many looking to marry say they want light-skinned partner
  • Companies say their products are meeting a demand
By Sara Sidner
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- Cosmetic advertisements in Asia are targeting men with blunt campaigns aimed at skin color that one lawmaker labels racist.

Nivea's skin whitener aimed at Asian men.

A still from a commercial for Emani's skin whitener.

In one TV commercial, two men, one with dark skin, the other with light skin; stand on a balcony overlooking a neighborhood. The dark skin guy turns to his friend and says in Hindi, "I am unlucky because of my face." His light skin friend replies, "Not because of your face, because of the color of your face."

Suddenly the light skin guy throws his friend a cream. It's a whitening cream.

It is one of several television commercials aimed at men in Pakistan and India. In the end the darker skin actor is shown several shades lighter and he gets the girl he was after. Most of the ads end up that way.

The commercials are sending a not-so-subtle message to men in Asia: Get whiter skin, and you'll get the girl and the job of your dreams. Or at the very least you'll be noticed.

"We always have a complex towards a white skin, towards foreign skin or foreign hair," Jawed Habib says. Video Watch how skin whitening ads send a harsh message »

Habib should know. He owns a chain of 140 salons located in India and across the world. "We Indian people, we Asian people are more darker, so we want to look more fair."

Skin whiteners were once targeted only to women. Now the products are a hot commodity for men.

Many of the brands being advertised for men are well known around the world -- including Nivea and Garnier.

Connect the World
Becky Anderson takes viewers across continents, beyond headlines.
2000 GMT

A marketing study found sales for skin whitening creams have jumped more than 100 percent in rural India and sales for male grooming products are increasing 20 percent annually.

Hindustan Unilever, one of the largest consumer products companies in India, noted in recent annual reports that "skin lightening continues to be a major area of emphasis" for its skin care division.

And Emami Ltd., the company which produces "Fair and Handsome," sent CNN an email saying: "Fair and Handsome is a market leader with almost 70 percent market share in India and doing extremely well in Gulf countries and the Middle East as well."

But in a country where most people have brown skin, the message being sent to men and women has some people outraged.

"Basically if you need a job you have to have white skin. If you want a good partner, a companion you need white skin and you always seem to get it once you've used the fairness cream. Basically I think it's completely racist and highly objectionable," says Brinda Karat. Do you think skin-whitening commercials are racist? Sound off below

Karat is a member of India's Parliament who has made formal complaints about the advertisements to Indian authorities. She says the ads are simply playing on a social stigma that already exists in India.

To get a good look at the pervasiveness of the stigma attached to dark skin in India all you have to do is look at the want ads for Brides and Grooms in the newspaper.

Arranged marriages are still commonplace in India, and the advertisements for brides and grooms often list physical attributes of the person being sought. Many of the ads list "fair" as one of the wanted physical characteristics.

"I mean at a time when we're talking about talents and skills, and the need for the accessibility to that to develop our potential; what does it do to dark persons' self esteem?" Karat says. "I think it should be stopped."

But the product makers say they are simply giving the public what it wants, and a few Indian consumers agreed.

Deepak Rajput said: "Everybody wants to look handsome and beautiful, why not me?"


Salon owner Jawed Habib says he will accommodate if that is what the customer wants, but he doesn't push the skin whitening products.

"Why do you even think about it?" He says: "Let's accept the way we are."

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print