Keeping it light


I had the privilege of visiting India the other week. Seriously, no kidding, I totally did. To an outsider India is a highly complex and puzzling place, a complete assault on the senses, and so thought-provoking as to leave your brain sore. On the one hand, there’s all the entrepreneurship, the innovation, the economic super-poweriness, the sheer scale, and the omnipresent sense of creativity. But on the other hand…well, on the other hand are the shoeless and dust-encrusted kids, living, sleeping, eating, defecating, and basically growing up right there on the sidewalk. Along with their entire extended families. There they are as the cars drive by, toddling or crawling on hand and knee after some piece of litter as if they were playing with a toy tipper-truck on your sitting room floor. Every day of their lives.

Woah. Not cool.

So it’s good to see such an emphasis on science and scientific advancement in India. The country is thriving economically and expanding its education and R&D systems, and the socioeconomic indicators certainly look good for the future. They really do seem to have the whole works. They are big global players in pharmaceuticals, software engineering, telecommunications, agri-science, and so on. They even have a space mission.

And they also get their DNA the right way round. Have a look at this:

Yep. Double-helix graphic looks about right. Shame about the skin-based judgementalism though

I took this photo myself on a street in New Delhi. It’s from a billboard right next to the Red Fort, a landmark of terrific significance to Indian history and politics. (Being the geek I am, I didn’t take a photo of the actual Red Fort itself.) Readers of this blog will know that sometimes the guys in marketing fall down on the whole direction-of-DNA thing. Rule-of-thumb time: if you can slalom down that spiral in a clockwise direction, you’re okay. But if you descend in a counter-clockwise corkscrew, you’re in some serious difficulty. So these guys have got it right. Full marks to them.

Of course, DNA graphics aside, you might have noticed that the billboard itself advertises something totally weird and dubious: a face cream called “Fair & Lovely“.

You know. As in “White-skinned & Acceptable“.

Here’s the whole billboard, from a pretty oblique angle:


And here, thanks to the power of modern technology (namely, to CamScanner Pro for Android), is that image from the corner, all blown up and straightened out for you:


Yes. ‘Fair & Lovely‘ is a product that turns your skin white. And that’s pretty much the main point of it. You rub that stuff in, wait a while, and hey presto, you’re “lovely“. Awww! Let’s all aspire to one day not live on the pavement, but instead be rich enough to buy some of that stuff!

You might be wondering why the double-helix motif is being used in this advertisement at all. Most cosmetic face creams are simply moisturisers with tiny amounts of generally superfluous ingredients, which are then stridently promoted as containing all sorts of scientific bits and pieces as if to imply a range of scientifically-induced powers. But DNA? As in genetics? It’s hardly likely that this cream contains anything that interferes with your DNA. Maybe the imagery is intended to convey some kind of subliminal genetics-themed message (something like, “Your DNA is all wrong! But this cream can help you!“). A kind of eugenics movement. In a handy screw-top pot. That you rub on your face.

Or maybe it’s just yet another example of a cosmetics company piling on the science messaging in order to fool consumers into thinking there is actually some merit in their otherwise preposterous sales pitch.

It’s important to note that ‘Fair & Lovely’ is not a universally loved product in India. In fact, it has attracted a good deal of criticism over the years and has had a number of its marketing campaigns pulled following accusations that they promoted racist attitudes. Still looks to me like they are keeping it going, however.

For your information, ‘Fair & Lovely’ is produced by Hindustan Unilever, an Indian offshoot of the same Unilever who make stuff with familiar labels such as Hellmann’s, Knorr, Lipton, Surf, Toni & Guy, VO5, and many others. The mother company also produces Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, that holier-than-thou, honest-to-goodness, pure-as-the-driven-snow ice cream that we’re all supposed to choose because it’s so darned ethical.

Oh well. That’s the power of marketing I suppose.

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  1. Thanks for dropping the email and sending this link in!

    It makes for wonderful reading (as usual), and I must admit, that through some colonial hangover (or some misplaced trust in skin color), the Indian psyche equates fairness with beauty. Looking at the adverts asking for brides/grooms on Indian newspapers (you surely haven’t seen the matrimonial pages in regional papers – they make for fun reading!) further consolidates what you realized on a short visit!

    And about the DNA. Well, I have a lot of reservations about the way Indian marketing works. It is chauvinistic, pseudo-sciencey, sexist, and generally speaking, plays to the stereotypes. They claim stuff like the cream has been produced after extensive research and all… the DNA, I guess, like you said, gives an official sciencey aura to their claims of research.

    As for the homeless kids, I am working with them, on them and for them as a part of my thesis, and though the socio-economic factors that lead to this great gulf between India shining and India shunning are complex, there is still a lot of headway to be made before we can bring social justice for everyone.

    However, I sincerely hope that you did not just see the stereotyped faces of India, that is, either the hungry India-poor India or the polished, somewhat fake, Yankee India. The majority of India lies in between these two shades and is an interesting study in social mobility, economic emancipation, and sometimes, evolving identity crisis!

    If you come around to Delhi once again do drop me a line.


  2. Reblogged this on Scepticemia and commented:
    Dr. Brian Hughes writes ScienceBit, a blog I follow regularly (though more as a lurking reader than anything else more!). He is a Lecturer in Psychology at the National University, Galway, Ireland. His blog is focussed on de-jargonizing science and exposing pseudo-science and the misuse of science to bluff the public. In this post, he describes his experience of being in India. In this post, he points out what has long been a pet peeve of mine – tall science-ey claims made by the cosmetics industry to befuddle the Indian masses to buy their stuff – that, and our fascination, as a race, with the lightness of the skin complexion! Anyways, head over to The Science Bit and give this a read.

  3. Thanks. Nice reading your observations. Navigated here through Pranab’s reblog above. Reminded me of the mindless adverts cropping up in India malls nowadays on vaginal tightening cream (See Seems unreal in the present circumstances as India comes to terms with sexual violence against women and such. Hmpf…

    • Brian Hughes

      My goodness! When I was in India I saw several billboard advertisements for ’18 Again’, which was described as a ‘femininity restoration’ product. I naively thought it was a simple face moisturiser or something. I had *no idea* is was…[shudder]…a ‘vagina tightening cream’…

      Many thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

  4. Wow, that company is really not shy about its racism… or its dubious claims.

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