A recent ad for a local product in Pakistan showed glum-looking
women peering into mirrors until a celebrity named Zubaida showed
up with a whitening soap named after her. (Scroll down to watch
this commercial, and others.)
In Thailand in October, Unilever apologized for any
misunderstandings following a campaign by its Thai subsidiary,
Citra. It offered financial prizes for students who turned in
photos of themselves wearing their school uniforms and holding a
whitening lotion. The ad portrayed a darker-skinned college student
as unable to answer a question from presenters, while a
lighter-skinned student was praised for being "beautiful,"
according to local reports.
For Dariya Suebkraisorn, the ad conjured up memories of growing
up, when her tan skin was a constant subject of discussion and
"I used to have a problem with my self-image when I was a
teenager, so when I see this kind of thing, I do not like it at
all," said Ms. Suebkraisorn, 28, a member of women's group Bangkok
White jade and pearls
Despite flare-ups of controversy about the way lightening products
are advertised, the products themselves are generally not
controversial in Asia. (A desire for white skin is such a given
here that Korean cosmetics brand Elisha Coy actually put up an
ad in Flushing, N.Y., that read: "Do you wanna be white?")
Since ancient times, Chinese poets have praised women with skin
they compared to white jade or pearls, Chinese beauty blogger Bing
There's not a very wide range of natural skin tones in China,
and darker skin is usually associated with outdoor work, he said.
"In China, lighter or brighter skin can indicate someone has an
easier life," he said. Meanwhile, Westerners show off their tans to
indicate their version of the good life -- leisure time for the
But skin tones come with different baggage in different Asian
countries. In the Philippines, once colonized by Spain, whiter skin
is associated with being "mestizo," or of mixed ancestry.
Westerners are often startled by the ubiquitous whiteners on Asian
store shelves and by global skincare giants using very different
messaging here than they're used to.
Gillian Rollason started a Facebook
group called "Skin Whitening is NOT Real Beauty" after moving
from the U.K. to Thailand to do research for her PhD. She noticed
that The Body Shop was selling fairness creams there, while Dove
was selling whitening deodorant.
"I thought, this is hypocrisy," she said. "I don't think they
would be comfortable sharing that message with the North American
or European market."
The Body Shop did not respond to a request for comment. Unilever
said in a statement that it had "many personal care brands that
appeal to an extremely diverse consumer base with distinct
"It is because we recognize and cater to this that we are able
to comfortably house brands that are distinct in their
communication," Unilever said. "We are proud to provide people
everywhere with that feel-good experience regardless of age, race
Elena Rossini, a filmmaker who researched skin-whiteners for a
documentary, said she found it "ironic that the same corporations
that sell skin-whitening creams in Asia and Africa are selling
self-tanning lotions in the West and Australia."
Her upcoming film on global beauty marketing, "The
Illusionists," shows a split-screen shot: an ad featuring an Asian
woman applying whitener on one side, and one with a French model
putting on self-tanner on the other. Ms. Rossini's takeaway: "The
message from beauty conglomerates is that you cannot be beautiful
just as you are, in your natural state."
A few commercials worth watching:
A 2013 ad for Dove whitening deodorant in the Philippines has a
very different message from "Real Beauty." ("Use Dove whitening
deodorant and say goodbye to your dark chicken-skin worries!")
A celebrity brings whitening soap and happiness to the women of
Pakistan in a 2014 ad. The product is called Zubaida Aapa whitening
Because "friction from tight clothes can darken the intimate
area," Sanofi's Lactacyd feminine wash has a line called "White
Intimate." Here's an ad from 2012.