In January 2019, Nissin Foods, the Japanese instant noodle company, were called out by the Twitter community for ‘white-washing’. In advertising, white-washing is defined as a conscious attempt to misrepresent the colour of a person’s skin by making it a few shades lighter in an attempt to enhance their appeal, or in this case, acceptability.
The Nissin ad featured top tennis player Naomi Osaka, who is of Haitian-Japanese origin. Many critics felt this rendition was created to make her seem more Japanese or purer. The manga artist Takeshi Konomi, who drew the cartoon, along with the brand owners, initially denied any such intention. Later, the brand confessed to a lack of sensitivity, published an apology and withdrew the ad.
A mirror image of this trend has been present in Pakistan for decades. The need to be fairer, lighter-skinned and the association of beauty with fair skin are represented in the advertising as seen on TV, in print and on billboards. We Photoshop the models’ skin tone a few (read many) shades lighter in the belief that this will help them gain appeal. There is, however, one bit from the Nissin ad fiasco that has yet to happen in Pakistan’s ad industry – the apology.
Creative people working in advertising are trained to grasp how vulnerable people feel when it comes to their appearance and self-image. A surprisingly large segment of society is attracted to tests on Facebook about how ‘likeable’ or ‘lovable’ they are. Post colonial literary theories suggest that Pakistan may still be experiencing self-esteem issues. We suffer from what is called the gora complex – a feeling of inferiority about being born with darker skin tones. There seems to be an unquestionable belief that fair is in fact, for most people, lovely.
As far as aesthetics are concerned, most visual artists will vouch for the fact that high contrast is a treat for the eyes. Black looks great on white. Dark brown would certainly stand out beautifully on a rosy, light beige instead of a muted brown. However, our faces are not posters or book covers to be judged in a graphic design contest. Aesthetics can and should contribute to a person’s charm only in part. The maxim that beauty is skin deep was first coined by Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613 in his poem A Wife. We are centuries past that date and the world has repeatedly debated why a person’s self-worth cannot be derived from their skin tone. In fact, this should not even be debatable. It should be honoured by illustrators, ad makers, photographers and modelling agencies; in doing so, beauty would be redefined for the common man or woman. Yet, it is not.
In the 1980s, skin care creams, such as Stillman’s and Mod Girl promoted their products using jingles like ‘Rangat Nikharay, Khoobsurat Banaye’ – equating fairness with beauty – with no shame or guilt attached. Olivia’s Mujhe Gora Kardo placed the onus of a professional modelling career for aspiring Pakistani women on their cream – with the ad ending on a note of gratitude to the cream ‘Olivia, Shukiya’.
We may have laughed over the slogan Ab Gora Hoga Pakistan (whitening soap ad) or had a momentary concern about how insensitive it was. In any event, the brand owners changed the tagline post some criticism. No one, however, apologised. And no one cared enough to ask them to. The privileges of the affluent and educated are many, some less obvious than others. They can select causes they are concerned or angry about or those they wish to influence. The underprivileged cannot. They cannot escape the shame they perceive in the mirror every time they look at their brown skin. They cannot find books and support groups to wean them off these notions and encourage them to adopt more enlightened ones. They can barely find refuge in their own home, with parents, siblings, relatives, neighbours – all advocating that to be marriage material, they must first and foremost be fair. Do we as storytellers and influencers not owe them an apology?
In the 1980s, skin care creams, such as Stillman’s and Mod Girl promoted their products using jingles like ‘Rangat Nikharay, Khoobsurat Banaye’ – equating fairness with beauty – with no shame or guilt attached. Olivia’s Mujhe Gora Kardo placed the onus of a professional modelling career for aspiring Pakistani women on their cream – with the ad ending on a note of gratitude to the cream ‘Olivia, Shukiya’. The widely loved and followed ‘Buss 15 Minute Mein Ho Gayee Mein Gori Gori! took fair skin to another level – not only did it guarantee success, the results were instant.
Today, with non-stop social media commentary and feedback, we may have shifted our stance ever so slightly. Global brands like Nivea still promise 10 times fairer skin in 10 days. Garnier promises lighter skin as their top feature for BB creams and over 50 local whitening products tread a similar path. According to a BBC Urdu report on YouTube in 2014, Pakistani retailers and beauty parlours believe business is booming thanks to this race for fair skin and therefore, there is no reason to complain. Shopkeepers say demand for skin-whitening products has grown exponentially in the last two decades and brands are rushing to cash in on the opportunity. Why apologise?
In the case of Fair and Lovely, (to be fair to them, there is little wiggle room if you have a name like that) an ad showed a girl resisting marriage, choosing to pursue a career first. This helped instil a sense of self-worth and ambition in the target audience. It also strategically placed the brand as a catalyst in the process of self discovery. Here was a step in the right direction, given the context it was made for. The product was positioned to be supportive of girls who recognise their confidence is shaky, without priming them to become marriage material.
The fair-skin girl bias has undergone another interesting twist with fairness creams for men. The past decade has seen the launch of multiple brands exhorting men to be fair and hence ‘handsome’. Does this dilute the debate simply because it shifts the focus from gender-focused to gender-neutral? Should brands rush into selecting their next fair-skinned couple and not worry about being accused of white-washing? Or do we use Nissin’s example and explore new ideas with more honesty?
In 2009, the Indian NGO Women of Worth (WOW) launched their campaign Dark is Beautiful with the iconic dark-skinned Nandita Das asking India to Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful. When celebrities, leaders and influencers tell the public that fair is not the only way to be lovely, they listen. And when they show that the colour of your skin is a sign of your worth, then they must apologise.
It is not only in our personal lives that the colour of our skin exercises ridiculous control. Leading TV hosts, such as Fahad Mustafa, have been confronted on TV for taking skin-whitening injections, a common procedure among local stars. The argument made in their defence was the fact that ratings, popularity and fan following went through the roof when they went from being regular to fair. The question is: Does our role as storytellers and trend-setters end here? Strong ratings and a solid fan base are flattering, but should they not be built on something deeper than skin?
Or is showing dark skin now becoming an innovative idea? Several clothing brands have recently taken on the challenge of showing people as they are. Generation showcased a series of women across different segments and age groups. The play on skin colour helped enrich their campaign aesthetics, not because they found world-class models for their shoot, but possibly because they hired professionals to ensure the aesthetics were optimised, while telling a true story. This is not an easy task and requires an experienced art director, a motivated cinematographer and above all, a forward-thinking brand owner. But does it work as an ad? Highlights the product; check. Is relatable; check. Is inclusive; check. Portrays the brand as secure, well-grounded, honest and mature; check. Not a bad checklist.
The stories ads tell their audiences are at the end of the day, stories. We may be selling specific products and services, but stories are powerful tools to help shape progressive thinking and culture. In a land where the majority of the population is mostly illiterate, the ability to analyse and evaluate stories is missing. This makes it even more critical for ad makers and brand owners to communicate with responsibility. In 2009, the Indian NGO Women of Worth (WOW) launched their campaign Dark is Beautiful with the iconic dark-skinned Nandita Das asking India to Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful. When celebrities, leaders and influencers tell the public that fair is not the only way to be lovely, they listen. And when they show that the colour of your skin is a sign of your worth, then they must apologise.
Nagin Ansari is Group Head Marketing & Communication, Ithaca Capital. [firstname.lastname@example.org]