What’s the brouhaha on fairness creams for men? Is it just a gender bias?

There was some furor recently about a facebook application by Vaseline Fairness Cream for Men. The application enables users to ‘digitally whiten their profile pics’ and ‘remove dark spots’. Facebook users can make their skin tone a few shades lighter so that they can preview their fairer look. Is it a ‘noise creation’ gimmick or a real unrest? One can’t say. But if it’s the latter I find it extremely amusing.

Fairness Creams (Rs.1700 cr market & growing at 14%. Source: ITC Portal) from the Vicco Turmeric days, have been projecting the concept of light skin as extremely appetizing. I must laud Vicco, as they have insightfully presented the brand as a must, in the most relevant situation. The wedding. In the product evolution cycle another more scientifically presented brand, Fair & Lovely, has managed to plug a large customer base both in the South & North of India, several years ago. The bulk of customers of course, are WOMEN.

So what’s the brouhaha about? That it’s a MEN’S fairness Cream? Is it that the men are rising up in protest as it dismembers the Mills & Boon hero who is always ‘tall, dark & handsome’? Does it lessen their virility or showcase them as pansy? Doesn’t matter that closet metrosexual men across India and pop strata, have been using fairness creams lying around at home. Or then, a few have started visiting parlors/salons for facials etc!!! The backlash is by men and rightfully so. Many men would agree at focus groups, that dark skin needs to be altered for brighter prospects. But that is, if it’s a woman’s skin. “Not because I believe it, but it’s a social norm”, as one respondent said. The success of fairness creams, matrimonial ads stating the need for a fair bride, digitally altered ads/films which feature non-fair skinned brand ambassadors/actresses, is no surprise in India.

Most of the top reining heroines are not fair in the classic sense. From Rekha, Kajol, Sushmita Sen, Rani Mukherji to Priyanka Chopra. Did you know that when you saw their films? But the heroes, be it in Hindi or South/Regional cinema are resplendent in their true color. Culture codes have attributed the virginal purity of white to women AND made the labour oriented, hardworking dark skin tone acceptable for men. So when a woman gets her dream man, garners courage to say no etc with the power of lighter skin, she is completely justified.

One could summarize then, that it’s alright to be OVERT when brands present their ‘dark to light in 7 days’ stories, to their women customers. So when you tweet it, create a fan page, even hold a beauty contest to celebrate this emancipation thanks to lighter skin, it is quite alright!!!?

The story with men changing color is however noise worthy!! Here it’s less about brighter prospects and more about self image, appearance, good looks etc which is coming to the forefront. Men in the consuming class of young India, are getting increasingly conscious about their looks and that in turn is fueling grooming products beyond shaving accessories. But herein lies the catch. In the same focus group, men would perceive fairness, moisturizing, youthfulness etc as feminine need states. As much as there is a growing self awareness for a new male concept of beauty, it has to avoid making him look like a dandy. But chat up with him in a one-on-one conversation & he will tell you his deepest fears. You will be surprised at how much he knows & what he does to improve his complexion.

Saka Oxygen Instant Bleach for Men: Faster than a 15-day Fairness Cream


Taking the film industry again as the benchmark, the Hindi (commercial) film industry as opposed to regional cinema, has over the last decade made fashion designers & make up artists critical to the film & the hero’s success. It stems from a reflection of the view, that ‘life upgradation = good grooming = clean shaven/light skin/stylish’. Most successful commercial Hindi cinema today have scripts about achievement of an affluent status or stories in that milieu as a given.

Regional cinema however often shows reality as is, in their depiction of heroes. The heroines continue to epitomize beauty in the stereotypes that define the box office. Actress Aishwarya Rai stays the symbol of beauty across India today.

However if truth be told, it still hasn’t stopped Indian men from using a skin lightening cream. (>Rs.150 cr market approx. & growing at 25%)

So who are these men who have made a huge success of Men’s fairness creams? Where do they reside? Do they have certain cultural, social, media influences that make them predisposed to this new definition of good looks? What are their zones of friction causing them to accept grooming symbols that defy stereotypes? Deserves some thinking.

One could summarize then, that lighter skin works for men too. Just keep the noise levels down. Possibly it’s  COVERT communication that works. As opposed to a facebook page which implores fans to sign up and let others publicly question their manhood.

So I am tempted to ask this question. What if the hunk Hrithik Roshan or the new male teen heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor or then the macho Sanjay Dutt/Vijay in South became the face of Vaseline Fairness? Can the right (virile) role model create the right noises?

Change needs a start. Possibly social stigmas will be eventually dissolved, if men & women are on an equal plane. But in the business of brands it’s always about the economics. It will be interesting to see if the Alpha Male returns soon. Like he did in Old Spice.

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  1. Sagar Ajgaonkar |

    Very insightful article. The category seems to be growing bigger and bigger and was really a breakthrough category when discovered.I think the target audience who is driving this category is mainly a Urban guy who works in a multinational and would like to be seen and perceived as smart and good looking.
    I think this very definition of “Good Looking” is changing at a much faster pace in Urban cities than when you compare it with rural cities.Sales figure of these brands might confirm this, when we compare Rural and Urban figure.

    To drive this category it has to have a more broader appeal to create the need for the youths in the Rural areas.This will actual take product category to a next level which would “Growth” when you look at the product life cycle.


    • freshbrew team |

      Interesting view Sagar. In fact I would assume that with sachets, the fairness edge can be marketed to the rural youth too. We assume that rural follows urban, so brands are getting established almost in a linear fashion. Which could be quite the reverse with the fairness proposition for men. Why not!!

  2. Its funny that men chase fairness. Both Krishna & Ram were dark skinned. I think its the dying down of Ajay Devgan and such other heroes and the rise of Ranbir Kapoor, Hrithik, Imran as new superstars. Also increasing exposure to Hollywood and the importance given to looks even in colleges must be putting pressure. Also earlier girls parents chose the groom. Today the girls are doing it themselves. So boys need to impress. It does seem like a trend. Vaseline must have got enough publicity with this controversy. Did men buy?


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