Ayesha Muttucumaru reports on the incredibly unfair result of the petition against skin lightening adverts in Asia

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Last week, we reported on the progress of a petition hoping to crack down on skin lightening adverts  in Asia and change how darker skin tones are portrayed in the media. Created by an organisation called Women of Worth as part of their Dark is Beautiful campaign, the NGO sought to remove the latest in a long string of offensive adverts by skin whitening brand, Fair & Handsome and brand ambassador, Shah Rukh Khan from their screens, hoardings and magazines. With over 25,000 signatures, the petition seemed to have struck a chord with people not just in India, but globally too.

A closed-door meeting took place last Saturday between Mr Mohan Goenka, the Managing Director of Emami (the parent company of Fair & Handsome) and Women of Worth Founder and Director, Kavitha Emmanuel. Did Emami agree to lead the change, remove the advert and recognise the issue of skin colour bias in the media? Sadly, no.

Despite this particular advert not being their worst (there’s a bunch of them, feel free to peruse on YouTube when you have a sec: they’d be hilarious if they weren’t so offensive), what disappointed us most of all was the reasoning that Mr Goenka gave for refusing to do so. According to Women of Worth, Mr Goenka, “stressed how preference for fair skin has been there for generations and changing it now did not make sense.” That doesn’t change the fact that the reasoning behind it is wrong, though, does it?

They also reported that he argued, “They are meeting a need in the society based on their market research.” Yes, meeting a prehistoric ‘need’ that they of course exploited in the first place. Why should an outdated bias be actively encouraged?

Commenting on the 25,000 petitioners who had signed up to help facilitate a change, Women of Worth revealed that he said, “In a country with a billion people I cannot answer every individual’s petition!” He further added, “If people want to be like Shah Rukh Khan, there is nothing wrong with it. If they want to be fair, it is an aspiration."

Ms Mahasweta Sen (the GM for Corporate Communications for Emami) remarked that “If the cream is helping people be more confident, what is wrong with that?” We can think of a few reasons considering their range of questionable marketing tactics, but the main one has to be the depiction of dark skin as something to be covered up and to be ashamed of. Want to get the dream girl or get the dream job? Simply apply a slick of Fair & Handsome (a common theme of their portfolio of work. The sheer lack of creativity gets a tad boring after a while).

Having looked through a sample of some of their previous adverts, it’s hard to see why the media shouldn’t rightly shoulder some of the responsibility for still giving this stereotype a place in society. Talking about the future of this campaign, Ms Emmanuel said, “We hope that brands and brand ambassadors will listen to the united voices that are calling for new attitudes and new products that appreciate and celebrates the diverse skin tones in a land of 1.2 billion shades of skin. The campaign will continue to address the issue of skin colour bias and tackle unfair advertising practises with the Advertising Standards Council of India and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.”

Although they weren't granted what they wished to accomplish this time around, Women of Worth can certainly claim a victory in shedding more light on the problems surrounding skin colour bias in the Asian media. Hopefully this will help put the wheels in motion for a more tolerant and diverse representation of all skin tones on Asian TV screens and challenge deeply-rooted attitudes that skin tone be an indication of your class, happiness and chances of success. A ridiculous thing for me to be writing in 2014, really.