By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 4, 2008
CAVELOSSIM, India He's the rugged type, with sculpted arm muscles. He rides a motorcycle and wears a trendy tank top, wraparound sunglasses and slicked-back hair. There's only one problem: His skin color is a few shades too dark. His fair-skinned love interest won't even accept his offer of a rose.
But in this popular Indian television ad, the protagonist is able to buy a magic cream that will change his status in life, turning his brown skin several shades lighter and causing his beloved to swoon.
The new product is called Fair and Handsome, and it's among the male skin-lightening creams that are exploding in popularity in small towns and cities across India. While such products are nothing new among Indian women, for whom fair skin has long been a symbol of affluence and status, sales of the product for men are growing at nearly 150 percent annually in emerging markets, according to a recent study by Ernst & Young.
"It's all lower-middle-class men who want the product now," said Ajay Gupta, 52, a pharmacist, who said the creams often sell out. "What it really means is that the young and up-and-coming Indian male wants to look fair and therefore rich. He wants to be smart and good. The cream is now part of many men's grooming routine and very popular at barbershops."
Whitening face masks, soaps and exfoliating lotions are available across Asia. In many parts of India, fair skin is seen as highly desirable. Matrimonial ads always include long descriptions of a potential mate's complexion.
Now, with India's economy soaring, more and more men from smaller cities and towns want to have their skin lightened and attract fairer-skinned brides, who often come with larger dowries in this largely dark-skinned country of 1.1 billion. Experts say the trend is a startling sign of so-called aspirational products in India's growing markets.
"In India, the poor man has a rich man's aspirations and wants to live tomorrow's life today," said V. Shantakumar, chairman of India's branch of Saatchi & Saatchi, an advertising agency that handles Olay, which puts out several whitening products. "That's reflected in the advertising with the social mobility dream of wanting cars, washing machines, air conditioners and, of course, skin-lightening creams."
The creams often cost about $1, or half a day's wages for many Indians. Despite the expense, the creams might as well be liquid gold for some young men, who believe pale skin will lead to well-paid jobs and wealthier mates.
Vinod Kumar, 18, a dark-skinned cigarette salesman, said he buys Fair and Handsome every month. "I want to be rich and fair like my film hero," he said. "To be pale would make me be so smart."
Some companies have started to produce tiny packages of the cream so that poorer Indians who can't afford an entire tube can still strive toward lighter skin.
"A guy taking his girlfriend out for a film today has all the aspirations of a richer man and will spend money on a shampoo or a skin-lightening cream in a small packet," said Anant Rangaswami, editor of Campaign India, an advertising magazine. "There is more disposable income in the hands of young people today, and the lower-middle classes are dreaming big."
Some say those dreams shouldn't include lighter skin. The products are seen by critics as reinforcing long-held discrimination against darker skin, especially in northern India, where it is often linked to lower-caste professions.
"It's something we have internalized, and it's propagated by everyone since we still have this colonial hang-up that white is better, white is wealth, white is someone rich enough to never toil in the sun," said Nikki Duggal, a New Delhi-based graphic artist who created T-shirts that say "Dark and Lovely" and "Fair and Ugly" -- which in many ways mirror the "Black Is Beautiful" T-shirts that became a symbol of empowerment in the United States. "It's so prevalent in India that fair equates to more success in life. There is a very sad message that if you are dark, you are doomed."
Cosmetic companies say there is nothing nefarious about marketing the idea of lighter skin. They often defend the standard of beauty in India by pointing to the West's fixation on wrinkles or weight.
Other advertising analysts say the growth in male skin creams simply shows that Indians in smaller towns and cities have increasing purchasing power and the same materialistic dreams as residents of New Delhi or Mumbai.
"The new India story is completely about aspirations in the smaller cities. It's no longer an ad for motorbikes that shows a woman getting her sari crushed on a bus. Now it's an ad about owning a car -- and not just any car, a big car," said Jagdip Bakshi, the head of the Contract Advertising agency. "Skin-lightening creams are just one aspirational product among a long list that those in the smaller cities are now spending their money on. The market is unstoppable."
Ads that target the lower middle class and play to desires for upward mobility can be seen round-the-clock on Indian TV these days. In one ad, for the satellite provider Dish Network, Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan laments that Indians are too "content" with what they have already.
"We are content even if there's no water, no electricity. Even if our cable is showing us only a few channels," he says.
"Pleeeez, don't be santusht," he continues, using the Hindi word for "content." "Wish some more, Dish some more."
Khan, known as the King of Bollywood, recently appeared in another ad. It was for Fair and Handsome cream.