Fair & Lovely, one of the leading products in the skin whitening sector, are beaming advertising campaigns in the region, allegedly using photo touch-up techniques to justify claims of desired results.
Similar advertisement of Fair & Lovely, manufactured by FMCG giant Unilever, displaying photographic changes in the condition of the model was earlier withdrawn from being displayed or beamed in the UK market in October 2008.
The said ad campaign shows a miraculous change in the complexion of a person – from dark to very fair – displayed in a series of photographs. Allegedly, the affect has been achieved in the series of pictures by using software to show the desired results of alteration in the complexion of the person.
Responding to a query by Emirates Business, Priya Sarma, Corporate Communication Manager, Unilever North Africa & Middle East, sent an email saying: "Unilever North Africa Middle East is not aware/conversant with the UK case cited and hence we are not in a position to comment.
"Also as per our information we do not sell Fair & Lovely in the UK and hence, are not sure about the accuracy of the case cited below.
Daily Mirror issue dated October 16, 2008, clearly states that "Consumer goods giant Unilever has been rapped for a TV ad shown in the UK promoting skin-lightening creams.
The report, that was also on the website of the newspaper stated: "The ad, in Bangla, was broadcast in the UK on Nepali TV."
In response, the report clearly stated "Unilever said the ad was created for use in India and Bangladesh – where the market for skin -whitening creams is huge – and was not supposed to be shown in the UK.
"But the Advertising Standards Authority [of the UK] said the claims were 'misleading' and ruled it should not be broadcast here again."
Here, in the UAE, Unilever North Africa and Middle East, did not respond to the question of ethical responsibility that it seemed to have displayed in the UK.
Created by Unilever's research laboratories, Fair & Lovely claims to offer dramatic whitening results in just six weeks. A package of the cream displays one face six times, in an ever-whitening progression, and includes"'before" and "after" photos of a woman who presumably used the product. On its website, the company calls its product "the miracle worker" which is "proven to deliver one to three shades of change".
However, industry experts said: "Images conveying the same message on the box and in the advertisements are touched up using software."
Since Fair & Lovely is not categorised as a pharmaceutical product, Unilever has not been required to prove efficacy. Many dermatologists do dispute its effectiveness. Dermatologists claim that fairness creams cannot be effective without the use of skin bleaching agents such as hydroquinone, steroids, mercury salts and other harmful chemicals, which Fair & Lovely does not contain.
On the subject of the ethical responsibility, Lance de Masi, President of the International Advertisers Association (IAA), UAE Chapter, said: "Product efficacy claims must be provable by scientific means; usually, clinical trials. Even if in any given advertisement individual claims can be substantiated, but the summary impression of the ad distorts the reality of product performance, the ad cannot be deemed truthful.
"Responsibility for ensuring that advertising is truthful is a shared responsibility among advertisers, agencies, and the media. These protagonists must take this responsibility seriously. The best regulation is self-regulation," he added.
In a categorical response to the possibility of withdrawing the advertisement in the region, Sarma said: "Our advertising across the North Africa & Middle East has not been challenged by any authority or competitor and hence we do not see the need for withdrawal or issuance of an apology with regards to the advertising."
Ali Muin Jaber, Dean of Mohammed bin Rashid School of Communication, voiced concern over the ethical responsibilities of media. "Ethical issues in the media and journalism are very essential part of the curriculum in our courses," he said, conveying the essence of education that is parted to young and aspiring media professionals at the institute.
"While media should be kept free of any kind of influence, but individuals should be personally responsible for conveying truths, without any distortions and distractions from the fact," he said.
Fair & Lovely is the largest selling skin whitening cream in the world, and was first launched in India in 1975. It held a commanding 50-70 per cent share of the skin whitening market in India in 2006, a market that is valued at over $200 million (Dh734.5m) and growing at 10-15 per cent per annum. Fair & Lovely is marketed by Unilever in 40 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, with India being the largest single market. Fair & Lovely is doing well financially. In India, the ad campaign of the company was also withdrawn when authorities objected to the racial tone of the product and its brand campaign.
Fair & Lovely's heavily-aired television commercials typically contain the message of a depressed woman with few prospects that gains a brighter future by either attaining a boyfriend/husband or a job after becoming markedly fairer, which is emphasised in the advertisements with a silhouette of her face lined up dark to light. It is interesting to note that in the print and TV advertisements, as the woman becomes 'whiter' she also becomes noticeably happier!
Such advertisements have attracted much public criticism, especially from women's groups, in many countries from India to Malaysia to Egypt.
One TV commercial aired in India (often referred to as the Air Hostess advertisement) showed a young, dark-skinned girl's father lamenting he had no son to provide for him, as his daughter's salary was not high enough – the suggestion being that she could not get a better job or get married because of her dark skin. The girl then uses the said cream and it changes her life – becoming fair complexioned and there by getting the job of her choice.
In a Fair & Lovely advertisement aired in Malaysia, a train attendant fails to catch the attention of her love interest, a businessman who buys a ticket from her everyday, until she appears one day with fairer skin as a result of using the product.
The target market for Fair & Lovely is predominantly young women aged 18-35. According to retailers and market research report, "there is repeated evidence that schoolgirls in the 12-14 years category widely use fairness creams".
Confirming his faith in the local advertising company, de Masi said: "The IAA, in the Middle East and around the world, is obviously a strong advocate of truth in advertising."
Keep up with the latest business news from the region with the Emirates Business 24|7 daily newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.