Forget 'Real Beauty': Ads for Skin-Whitening Beauty Products Just Won't Die

In Asia, Global Skincare Giants Plug Whiter Skin

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In a controversial Pakistani ad, celebrity Zubaida dispenses whitening soap and cheer.
In a controversial Pakistani ad, celebrity Zubaida dispenses whitening soap and cheer.

In Asia, Pond's sells a line of skin-lightening products called "White Beauty." A recent ad from Pakistan showed a tube of its face wash with the tagline "Dark Out, White In." The Unilever brand posted the ad on Facebook and urged users to "Click LIKE for fairer skin!"

In Thailand, billboards advertised a whitening feminine wash (yes, that's a thing) from pharmaceutical giant Sanofi. The ad showed a scale of 10 skin tones, light to dark, leaving women to compare how their nether regions fared.

Across Asia's diverse beauty markets, one constant is an idealization of fair skin. And skin-lightening is a big -- and growing -- business here. From January 2010 to June 2014, 30% of prestige face-care products debuting in Asia promised whitening, according to Mintel. In the first half of 2014, that number was over 38%.

Global skincare giants from P&G to L'Oreal to Unilever are helping fill the demand. While Unilever's Dove pushes its "Real Beauty" message, its Pond's brand sells "White Beauty" in Asia. Even The Body Shop, an ethical, self-esteem boosting brand from the start, sells a line called Moisture White Shiso in Asia; its makeup base promises "fairer-looking skin in an instant."

New ad guidelines in India
There's been a spotlight on skin-lightening products and their ads since the Advertising Standards Council of India issued new guidelines in mid-August. The guidelines suggest that ads shouldn't portray people with darker skin as unattractive or depressed -- or paint them as unlucky in love or their careers.

But that sort of messaging pops up across Asian markets.

An ad for a Pond's lightening face wash in Pakistan.
An ad for a Pond's lightening face wash in Pakistan.

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 jokes.

"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 Rising.

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 Han said.

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 beach.

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.

Mixed messages
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 needs."

"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 or demographic.

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 soap.

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.

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