Fair & Lovely: Advertising in India

This real world example supports how global marketing topics and issues are affecting businesses every day. The following information has been summarized from a case study included in the textbook International Marketing, 14th Edition, by Philip R. Catera, Mary C. Gill and John L. Graham.

Overview of Situation:

Fair & Lovely is a branded product of Hindustan Lever Ltd. (HLL), and is positioned as a cosmetic cream that lightens skin color. Fair & Lovely is the top-selling skin lightning cream in India, followed by CavinKare’s Fairever brand. Until CavinKare entered the market in 1999, Fair & Lovely held a 90% market share for the product. Fairever gained an impressive 15% market share since it began being sold in India, causing HLL to respond with increase advertising efforts.

HLL instituted a huge campaign with a series of ads that were centered around “the fairer girl gets the guy” theme. The ads ran from December 2001 to March 2003. A brief description of the ads are as follows:

  • One commercial featured a father struggling financially saying “if only I had a son,” while his dark skinned daughter looks on helplessly and demoralized because she cannot help in supporting her family. The ad then cuts to a clip of the woman after using Fair & Lovely- – now dressed in a mini-skirt working as a flight attendant and taking her father to a 5-star restaurant.
  • A second ad that aired pictured two attractive women next to each other; a light-skinned girl who was happy with a boyfriend and another that was dark-skinned, single, and depressed. The light-skinned girl then tells the other that she needs to use a bar of soap to wash away the dark skin that’s driving men away from her.
  • CavinKare counteracted these ads by taking a dig at HLL’s strategy. They showed ads that encouraged women to be successful regardless of their complexion, but rather more self-confident after using Fairever. The two opposite approaches in advertising put HLL and Fair & Lovely in a bad position to the public and press.
  • The company faced severe criticism from the ads, stating that their portrayal of women was false, demeaning and discriminative.  Activists began to speak out against Fair & Lovely.
  • The All India Women’s Democratic Association (AIDWA) filed a complaint in March and April 2002 with HLL about the offensive ads, but HLL did not respond.
  • The women’s association then appealed to the National Human Rights Commission alleging that the ads were offensive in three ways: (1) the ads were racist against dark-skinned women, (2) they were promoting a son preference by parents, and (3) they were insulting to working Indian women. The Human Rights commission passed AIDWA’s complaints to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
  • The Ministry of Information ruled that the campaign violated the Cable and Television Network Act of 1995, which strives to ensure no ads promote discrimination on the basis of gender, race, creed, color, caste or nationality.


As a result of the backlash against HLL’s Fair & Lovely campaign, the company discontinued the ads in March 2003. Shortly after it pulled the ads off the air, HLL launched a new charitable cause called the Fair & Lovely Foundation, which vowed to “encourage economic empowerment of women across India.” The foundation now provides resources in education and business to millions of women who use or support Fair & Lovely. Efforts have included:

  • HLL sponsored career fairs in over 20 cities across India
  • Counseling in over 110 careers
  • Supported 100 rural scholarships for women students
  • Created a professional course for aspiring beauticians
  • Created a three-month Home Healthcare Nursing Assistant course open to women from ages 18-30 years
  • Honoring women across India that have achieved greatness and set good examples for others to follow

Global Marketing Topic/Themes:

Going Global (The Cultural Environment of Global Marketing):

Cultural Norms: Skin color is a very powerful and valued them in India and much of Asia. Contrary to western cultures who place an emphasis on a deep and glowing tan, society in this part of our world feels that a lighter color skin tone reflects a higher status and is more attractive. Historically, skin color is closely identified with caste or social class; Brahmins, at the top of the social hierarchy were traditionally fair, while lower castes had darker complexions.

This tendency became a cultural norm through time, and products like Fair & Lovely were invented to help women with darker skin achieve a more desirable look. In the past, the preference of lighter skin has been very important to Indian women’s culture. Newspaper ads put out by men in search for a wife frequently stressed they were  searching for a “fair-skinned woman.” Bollywood (India’s Hollywood) also glorified fair-skinned actresses over their counterparts. Older generations of woman have also been known to stress the importance of skin-lightening creams to their daughters in order for them to increase the chances of meeting a husband.

Today, although these cultural elements are still present, opinions and the norm is beginning to change. The number of Indian women and men who think lighter skin is more beautiful may be shrinking, as the protest against HLL’s ads demonstrate. A large part of going global means that you understand the ins and outs of the cultural environment you do business in. As previously mentioned, Cultural Knowledge is necessary in global marketing. There are two types of knowledge: factual and interpretive. Factual is usually obvious and can be learned. Interpretive is more about acknowledging and accepting different cultural traits and patterns.  Instead of exploiting a cultural norm that is becoming more controversial or out-dated, HLL should have done much more research into current cultural patterns of perceived beauty and the modern roles of women before executing the campaign.

Global Marketing Mix: Promotion

Ethics: Exercising a sense of social responsibility and good ethics in your company is largely reflected in how you promote your products and services. Ethical standards vary by country, and there are organizations on national and international levels that continuously monitor consumer industries (such as the All Women’s Democratic Association in India or the Human Rights Commission that operates across borders). Many believe that HLL demonstrated poor ethical practices by exploiting the use of existing cultural norms in India to promote their products. In relation to global marketing,  know that accepted practices may vary and must be identified.

Advertising: As previously mentioned in another blog post, “Advertising to a great extent is a cultural phenomenon – – it can shape a country’s popular culture whilst at the same time a host country’s cuture may also influence the creation and effectiveness of a campaign.”  As we see with the Fair & Lovely advertisements, the newest popular culture in India tends not to favor the judgement of women solely on their physical appearance. What HLL probably viewed as a creative strategy to combat threats from competitors, was deemed negative and ineffective. As a global marketer, remember that advertising may be the biggest part of your promotional mix. If you do not conduct enough testing to understand how your advertisements relate to culture, your efforts and budget spent will be wasted.

Public Relations: Hindustan Lever Ltd and Fair & Lovely was forced to respond to the negative reactions to their advertisements by generating ample and positive publicity. The creation of a charitable foundation was a smart and beneficial move by the company after  their reputation in the public was tarnished. Regardless of whether you generate PR out of defense or in support of your business operations, it is imperative to reach the right audience. It may be even more difficult to attract attention when you operate internationally, but doing so effectively may the key promotional element that allows your organization to grow. Following the intense PR efforts to reverse the damage done by HLL, it should be noted that sales of Fair & Lovely have continued to grow at a rate 15 to 20% annually and the market for skin care in India has grown over 40% since the advertisements first aired.


The lessons learned by Hindustan Lever Ltd. and their Fair & Lovely brand can be useful to many global marketers. First, remember to gain a full understanding of the culture of your target markets and know that keeping up with changing patterns and traits is essential to success. Do your research and respect differences that may arise. After all, it may seem strange to a western woman that lighter skin creams would be used at all, as many Americans buy self-tanning lotions to make their skin darker!

Second, firms must understand that all elements of the global marketing mix are equally important to the overall success of their products and services. Promotional strategy that includes advertising and public relations can have a profound effect on how current and potential customers perceive your product. Brand reputation is much harder to maintain on a global scale, and one wrong move can set you way back. When marketing internationally, businesses must ensure they live up to the ethical standards set in each individual location. If you make a mistake, make sure you combat these challenges by using positive PR and ad efforts that are in better alignment with your audience’s expectations. Every country and industry may be different, after all!

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