Fair’s Unfair

On September 1, 2011 by admin


Anisha Datta

Against the backdrop of a globalized capitalist economy and postcolonial modernity, contemporary Indian metropolises are sites of prolific production and consumption. Since the mid-1980s an intensified and highly visible consumer culture has emerged in urban spaces and there has been an unprecedented proliferation of media and mediated images in everyday life. Advertisements are the symbols of India’s globalized and deregulated economy and its main consumers are the upwardly mobile middle class. India has a huge middle-class population of approximately 250–350 million with growing purchasing power, reflected by the remarkable increase in purchase of consumer durables in the last decade. Recently, the global real-estate consulting group Knight Frank ranked India fifth in the list of 30 emerging retail markets.

In this essay, I will undertake a feminist and postcolonial deconstruction of one of the ‘Fair & Lovely’ face cream advertisements in order to unpack how this particular advertisement appeals to a set of dominant gender and aesthetic prejudices by seducing the careerist and consumerist desires of educated young Indian women. [2]

(For a video version of the ad–please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yET6dTSYsSA )

Baudrillardian Moments

At the outset, I would like to point out two classic Baudrillardian moments that I experienced while I was surfing the website (www.agencyfaqs.com) from where I accessed this advertisement. The ‘agencyfaqs’ website aptly reflects how production and consumption intersect with and reconstitute each other in the new media of the World Wide Web, and that too on a global scale. It is a website where the advertising agencies are advertising their products, primarily targeting potential client corporations; and at the same time it is a site for pure entertainment and leisure for a casual Internet surfer. And in the role of a casual surfer I chanced upon this website and this particular advertisement. Secondly, this website represents the extreme ephemeral and episodic nature of form that characterizes the postmodern world. The site uploads any new ad’s audio/visual form, which they call the streaming version, as well as the still image-frames which are termed the storyboard. But the streaming version can be accessed only in the first few days, when the new ad is being  beamed over the television channels and hence still ‘live’. After which it is withdrawn from the website, and then one can only find the storyboard version of the same advertisement – which by now has been reduced to the status of ‘file picture’. This reflects the transient existence of any mass-circulated sign today, be it fashion, news item or advertisement. Its only recently that one discovers the adverstisement on sites like youtube for another kind of consumption.

The Narrative Unpacked

The narrative of the advertisement revolves around an educated young woman with a passion for cricket, the most popular sport in India, who aspires to be a TV cricket  commentator. The advertisement also depicts the hyperreal  journey of an ‘ordinary’ young woman from an unknown city neighbourhood to the globalized information highways of satellite television and ‘live’ cricket matches.

The story of Indian cricket, which begins with the first mention of a cricket match played by British sailors in Cambay in 1721, is a story of its gradual indigenization. Since India’s victory in the World Cup Cricket tournament in England in 1983, cricket has emerged as a huge corporate business in India in terms of match sponsorship, product endorsement by cricket players and the revenue generated through telecast rights and advertisements shown during telecast cricket matches. [3] As we know, cricket in India is popularly portrayed in chaste terms, as being a social unifier cutting across class and regional boundaries, a civilizing agent and a national cultural bond striving to overcome religious, caste and language divisions. Since the mid-1980s, there was a significant change in the nature of cricket consumption with the spread of viewership through television, which has taken cricket out of its urban confines to the villages and small towns. During the last World Cup Cricket tournament in February 2003, 79.9 million Indians tuned into live cricket telecasts, of which 36.5 million – that is close to 50 per cent – were female viewers. [4]

In the words of cricket historian Ramachandra Guha, cricket has become a vehicle for the playing out of nationalist feeling. [5] India’s success in the game can also be viewed as the reappropriation of cricket by a former British colony, a typical phenomenon of the ‘Empire striking back’. The indigenous adoption of cricket also reflects certain ideas of self-cultivation, manliness and self-worth. The game became a mirror through which a (middle class) [6] Indian identity assessed itself.

However, it is to be noted that even today, cricket commentary in India is overwhelmingly a male domain, as is the case with all other televised sports. Therefore, the aspiration of the girl in the advertisement indicates a definite breaking of new ground, a detraditionalizing move, as she wants to make a foray into a traditionally male occupation. Commentators have always been men and often these days one finds images of former (male) cricketers wielding the microphone on TV instead of the willow and the ball. Thus the advertisement projects a hyperreal world in which gendered occupational barriers have apparently withered away, courtesy of commodity consumption.

Let us now look into the initial images in some detail: the woman is walking into an expansive cricket field dressed in a three-piece suit, salwar kurta, which is a typical dress of young working women in urban India. The shot of the woman walking into the huge field in the image is quite significant, as it can be read as the allegorical representation of the woman’s entry into the juggernaut world of a high-profile career and conspicuous consumption.

 Moving on to a later images in frame five, she is seen to be practising mock commentary while watching a cricket match on the TV. Keeping in mind the present status of cricket in India, the advertisement simulates the fusion of commerce and leisure/entertainment by representing the woman watching cricket on TV, commentating and using as well as advertising the product Fair & Lovely. In this image, she is also shown to have dark skin tone compared to her sister. It is the most hyperreal and commercial moment in the whole narrative, when her sister introduces her to the Fair & Lovely cream. It’s an advertisement within an advertisement. This image frame is an example of Baudrillarian hyperreal. It’s a simulation of the TV image and reality in which the relation between the signifying system and the reality gets ambivalent. The real is now an effect of the television commercial. The dialectical dynamics between the advertising image and reality are blurred in the process and the subjects turn indifferent towards it. What are left are merely signifying practices of becoming ‘fair’ (light skin toned), having the coveted and successful career of cricket commentator, breaking the glass ceiling, consuming more and promoting more consumption. Thus this image aptly reflects the closed circuit of commercial simulacra where advertisement, commodity, cricket, TV, entertainment, career aspiration and consumption all play into each other to produce the seductive hyperreal. [7]

 Why Fair’s Unfair?

 Secondly, the advertisement appeals here to a set of prevalent gender and aesthetic prejudices by ‘seducing’ the careerist, consumerist and aesthetic desires of educated young Indian women. The young woman has a talent for commentary. But she is not born with a fair (light) skin complexion and hence not considered ‘conventionally’ beautiful by dominant Indian aesthetic standards. This desire for fair skin is well reflected in the images of lead actors/actresses in the other domain of Indian public culture – the mainstream Hindi Films. Also a casual browsing of the matrimonial columns in Indian newspapers and Internet sites makes it evident that when searching for a bride, fair/light skin tone becomes the most important aesthetic consideration. In the advertisement this aesthetic desire is kept minimally explicit. However, the metamorphosed image of the woman [8] does carry the seductive message which is sufficient for the consuming female subject to understand that a ‘fair and hence lovely’ look is absolutely essential to get a job ‘in front of the TV camera’, where visual appeal matters a lot. Note that in the advertisement the girl sends a videotape of her portfolio to the TV company. Thus the surface and appearance that is the skin tone becomes as important (if not more so) as the substance that is the woman’s commentating skills. In the process both the woman and Fair & Lovely face cream attain sign value.Also note that it is men who select her for the job, which directs our attention to the androcentric nature of the culture and economy.

Most importantly, it has to be noted that the ascribed and natural skin colour of the girl is transformed with the help of a chemical technology, the bleaching cream, whereby she achieves a new and perceptibly lighter skin tone. [9] Thus in consumer capitalism nothing is impossible and the collapse of difference between the true and the false is replaced by the hyperreal. The advertisement narrates and interpellates a typical manifestation of a (post)modern self, where one must constantly work on oneself through a kind of self-therapy with the aim of achieving new sign values. The woman is not merely an object of consumption here. She is also an active subject of production and consumption.

Detraditionalization and Retraditionalization

In the narrative, the woman and her family successfully dispose of the traditional mindset that sport commentary is a ‘masculine’ profession. Nevertheless, the other more deeply entrenched gender and aesthetic prejudices could not be subverted. Traditionally, fair/light skin tone is equated with beauty and particularly feminine beauty in India. The issue here is also how dark- and light-skinned status-coding is both pre- and postcolonial. The earliest Vedic text Rig Veda, scripted by Indo-Aryan language speakers and dating back to 1500–1000 BCE. has a few references to non-Indo-Aryan language speakers Dasa, who were compared to demons, being blackskinned (Krisha-tvach) and speaking a strange language. [10] However, historians such as Romila Thapar caution that Indo-Aryan ‘refers to a language group and not to race, and language group can incorporate a variety of people’. [11]

Unfortunately, nineteenth-century Orientalist scholars and British census officials concocted a theory of Aryan race invasion of ancient India. Such discourses also racialized the words Arya and Dasa as well as the caste system. [12] In present-day India, innumerable shades of brown, black and lighter skin tones can be found across the spectrum of class, caste, religion and ethnic groups. However, even in the fourteenth-century CE Vaishnavite literature of Bengal (India), one finds that Gourango (i.e. fair skin complexion) is more aesthetically appealing to the poets such as Vidyapati and Chandidas. [13] Finally, India’s colonial encounter with a ‘white race’ in the eighteenth century simply seems to have reinforced this already existing aesthetic obsession with fair skin. Though new ground is broken in the narrative of the advertisement when the woman gets the ‘nontraditional’ job, ‘tradition’ is re-established ‘in the last instance’ with the aid of a retrogressive and gendered idiom, the ‘fair and lovely’ aesthetic myth and the (post)modern capitalist logic of self-therapy and material success.

In India, ‘fairness’ face cream is especially targeted at young women aspiring to get a job or get married, the category of women for whom looking beautiful is essential to be marketable, be it in the job or the arranged-marriage market. The ‘fairness’ cream market size in India is currently estimated at Rs6.5 billion or US$140 million. [14] Though many young men in India also aspire and eventually become TV sport commentators, air stewards, fashion models and so on, so far ‘fairness’ cream advertisements have never explicitly targeted them, which again suggests how the culture of ‘looking fair’ is overtly gendered.


 To conclude, the advertisement appeals to a set of prevalent gender and aesthetic prejudices by ‘seducing’ the careerist and consumerist desires of educated young Indian women. Depicting the life of an ‘ordinary’ consuming subject from an unknown city neighbourhood to the globalized information highways of satellite television, the advertisement successfully projects a hyperreal world in which gendered occupational barriers have apparently withered away, courtesy of commodity consumption. The commercial is a pastiche of ‘seductive simulacra’ [15] concerning the aesthetic desire for ‘fairness’ in the midst of ‘unfair’ cultural prejudices, social contradictions and apolitical commercial ideologies. In this maze of the hyperreal, the deep ideological resonances are reduced to mere spectacles. The absorptive capacities of consumer capitalism once again emerge as the winner. And the critical question, which gets muted, is the following: how can we identify the structures of domination when apparently no one is dominating? [16]

Anisha Datta teaches at the Department of Sociology, Brandon University. This essay was first published in The International Journal of the History of Sport in September 2008.


[1] http://www.knightfrank.com/ResearchReportDirPhase2/11113.pdf, accessed 29 August 2008.

[2] See the Fair and Lovely face cream’s youtube version in this essay.

[3] A feature in Hindu Business Line reported that in 2001, India played four one-day international cricket matches and over 450 brands advertised on TV during the live telecasts of these matches. The number of spots purchased during the period was over 16,000. See Nithya Subramanian, ‘Cricket as Always is Top Scorer in Rating, Hindu Business Line, 3 June, Consumption and Career in Indian Advertising 1635. Downloaded by [Brandon University GST] at 13:51 16 August 2011 2002, available online at http://www.blonnet.com/2002/06/03/stories/2002060302100100.htm, accessed 15 October 2005.

[4] From Adex World Cup Brand Barometer, available online at www.indiantelevision.com/ tamadex, accessed 15 October 2005.

[5] See R. Guha, A Corner of a Foreign Field.

[6] The addition in brackets is mine. See Majumdar, ‘Politics of Leisure in Colonial India’.

[7] See Baudrillard, Selected Writings.

[8] Compare image in Figure 5 to that in Figure 8.

[9] See the image in Figure 8.

[10] Thapar, Ancient Indian Social History, 154. See also his Early India.

[11] Thapar, Early India, 15.

[12] The German Indologist Max Muller maintained that the ‘Aryans’ invaded in large numbers and subordinated the indigenous population of Northern India in the second millennium BCE. Since a mechanism for maintaining racial segregation was needed, this took the form of dividing society into socially self-contained and separate castes. Though the equation of language and race was seen to be a fallacy by Muller, there was yet a tendency to use it as a convenient distinction (Thapar, Early India, 13). In colonial India, H.H. Risley the late nineteenth-century British Census Commissioner and ethnologist, maintained that the dominant factor in the formation of caste was the conquest of one race by another. His scientific ambition was to trace the correlation between marriage customs, physical types and the racial origins of caste (Dirks, Castes of Mind).

[13] I would like to thank Dr Mandakranta Bose for bringing this history to my notice.

[14] Ratna Bhushan, ‘Fairness Cream Ads Acquire Darker Hue’, The Hindu Business Line, 4 March 2003, available online at http://www.blonnet.com/catalyst/2003/03/04/stories, accessed 15 October 2005.

[15] Baudrillard, Selected Writings.

[16] However, there have been a few protests against fairness cream TV commercials in India. Following a petitioning by The All India Democratic Women’s Association in September 2002, the government of India recently wrote to several television channels to stop them airing advertisements promoting fairness creams on the premise that these are demeaning to women and promote skin colour prejudices.

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