Home > Foreignery, Marketing > Unilever isn’t being racist – but you are

Unilever isn’t being racist – but you are

Aussie blogger Melinda Tankard Reist has a rather misguided post on Hindustan Unilever’s controversial face-whitening Facebook app:

Playing on certain racial insecurities by telling dark skinned people that they can never really be beautiful – that’s what Unilever is doing… These products promote ethnocentric stereotypes about the superiority of white people.

Hmm. So in two sentences accusing Unilever of racism, she’s managed two rather irritating, patronising – and indeed, accidentally racist – mistakes.

The first is ‘non-white-European people don’t have opinions or make decisions’. So if Hindustan Unilever comes up with a marketing campaign, it must be because a white man in London told them to.

Great… except for the fact that Unilever’s Asian marketing operation is run by an Indian man in Mumbai, is locally devised and locally executed, and London doesn’t pre-approve campaigns.

The second is ‘the US-derived model of white-European versus everyone else is the only way to view prejudices and stereotypes based on skin colour’. So obviously if people in India are being told that lighter skin is better, that’s so they can be more like Europeans and less like Indians.

Great… except for the fact that the Indian preference for paler skin has absolutely cock-all to do with wanting to be European, and a great deal more to do with the fact that within India, long before the British invasion, the ruling castes have been paler-skinned than the workers (partly because they’re more likely to be of Persian descent, and partly because they don’t spend their time working in the hot sun).

Once you stop viewing non-European cultures through the prism of European race relations, playing on people’s desire to appear lighter is no worse than playing on their desire to appear less spotty or wrinkly. So if people from European cultures object to this campaign any more strongly than they’d object to a campaign for an anti-wrinkle cream, they’re basically telling Indians that they have to follow European values. Which is distinctly Not Cool.

Categories: Foreignery, Marketing
  1. Jim
    July 21, 2010 at 5:48 pm | #1

    A very good friend of mine is black. His parents came over from Jamaica in the 50s and he was born in London. He recently went back to Jamaica to visit his folks (they went back when they retired). He also visited his extended family over there, and did some family tree research. In doing so he discovered that family members who were darker skinned than others were looked down on, considered of lower class. Lighter skin was the preferred option.

    I guess its a throwback to the colonial days – if you had light skin you were closer to the European masters, possibly even related. But its a view held today, 50 years after empire ended and much longer since slavery was abolished. So you have to accept it for what it is.

    Blaming everything on white Europeans gets a bit old after a while.

  2. Neil
    July 21, 2010 at 7:03 pm | #2

    Another anecdote/data point: In China, sunblock *without* lightening cream in is incredibly hard to find, and extremely expensive when you do (as are shoes > UK size 8).

  3. Falco
    July 21, 2010 at 8:00 pm | #3

    Ah your forgetting the starting point of Melinda and her ilk; all evil in the world is the fault of white men, any indications to the contrary simply show that you haven't delved to correct level to find where the evil white men made it their fault.

    Added to the above is the view that if you happen to be a white man then you are fully responsible for the evil actions of all white men ever. As Jim says, it gets old.

  4. chris y
    July 21, 2010 at 10:41 pm | #4

    playing on people’s desire to appear lighter is no worse than playing on their desire to appear less spotty or wrinkly.

    No, actually in a South Asian context it's unpleasantly snobbish. I entirely agree with your point that prejudice in favour of lighter complexions in India reflects the historical tendency for the elite to be paler than the masses – I encountered the same kind of advertising in Pakistan in the days before Unix was invented, let alone Facebook – but that doesn't make it OK. Unless you think class snobbery is OK except in Europe and N.America.

    And of course that doesn't justify anybody jumping up and down about racism, if only because the intended targets of the advertising would react to such antics with, "Are you high, or what?"

  5. July 22, 2010 at 12:11 am | #5

    Fair. I don't think "company markets product based on class aspirations" is quite as powerful a critique as "company is OMG TEH RACISTS", though, since it covers pretty much all marketing for every expensive thing that's ever sold to anyone ever.

  6. dsquared
    July 22, 2010 at 4:56 am | #6

    except for the fact that the Indian preference for paler skin has absolutely cock-all to do with wanting to be European, and a great deal more to do with the fact that within India, long before the British invasion, the ruling castes have been paler-skinned than the workers

    well, points to Unilever for not being "racist" but points then deducted because encouraging caste bias in India is pretty much morally identical. If you've got discrimination groups which are hereditary and identifiable by physical characteristics, then whether you're going to call them "races" or not is pretty much one for the lexicographers isn't it?

    And in any case, anyone who disagrees with me on this is racist, via a chain of reasoning that I will develop later if necessary.

  7. July 22, 2010 at 5:38 am | #7

    This wins a Dan award.

  8. Anon
    July 22, 2010 at 6:59 am | #8

    There is also a mistaken subtext in the critique of non-european cultural preferences for light skin — namely, since light skin is a continuum, sunburned blue to Kashmiri olive-skin and green-eyes to Canadian pink, that somehow what must be considered most beautiful is the pale colonial pink. Actually, for example in Latin America, pale Northern European can play as a bit sexually repugnant, very dark skin is a bit commonplace and not really remarkable either way, and the ideal is something in the range of Italian-Lebanese with perhaps a bit of soft brown hair. Which makes sense, since those are the best-looking members of our species.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>