Why Nivea's "Natural Fairness" Ads Are So Problematic

This week, for the second time in six months, Nivea has been called out for ads that promote themes of racism and colorism. In Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and Senegal, the skin-care brand released a handful of print ads and videos to promote its Natural Fairness products, which claim to lighten skin. "I need a product that I can really trust to restore my natural fairness," Omowunmi Akinnifesi, a former beauty pageant contestant in Nigeria, says in a voiceover as the camera pans to her rubbing on lotion that turns her skin white.
Photo: Via @omowunmiak.
Even though the campaign was released as early as June, social media recently caught wind of it and, naturally, reacted swiftly with the hashtag #PullItDown to demand the removal of the billboards. Along with the outrage, many prominent voices and thought leaders used their platforms to explain why these ads are so problematic. "Sadly, this is a worldwide pathology, created by colonialism, exploited by marketers," wrote author and MSNBC host Joy Reid. Nigerian novelist Elnathan John added in a thoughtful thread, "Dark skin shaming is prevalent. Growing up we were taught that light skin was better," before explaining that calling out Nivea alone wasn't enough. "They are simply profiteers in an already colorist society. Attacking Nivea is lazy. Let's talk about why lighter is 'better'" he wrote.
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In a statement to BBC, Beiersdorf, the parent company of Nivea, acknowledged the outrage. "We recognize the concerns raised by some consumers regarding a NIVEA product communication in Ghana and take them very seriously," it reads. "Our intention is to never offend our consumers. We acknowledge every consumer’s right to choose products according to their personal preferences, and we are guided by that to responsibly provide them with high-quality skin care product choices.”
It's typically never anyone's intention to offend. But there's clearly some disconnect when this harmful marketing rhetoric continues to keep popping up in 2017. Just a few weeks ago, Dove had to pull images of a Black model "turning" herself white, because nobody at the brand realized the implications of the 3-second clip, regardless of their intentions. And in April, Nivea Middle East had to backtrack with its White Is Purity advertisement, saying that the image was "inappropriate and not reflective of our values as a company." (You know it's bad when a white supremacist group praises the ad.) As social media makes us a more connected society, these problematic marketing campaigns are being taken to task regardless of where they originated — and waking many up to the pervasive, global influence of racism and colorism that still exists.
As Elnathan John mentioned, there's still an overwhelming belief that lighter skin is better skin... all over the world. “In the case of the Far East, in countries like Japan, Korea, and China, it doesn’t have to do with trying not to be Asian,” sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn, PhD, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the editor of Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, told us. “In those cultures, there’s a long tradition for women of light skin to be equated with beauty, and also there’s a class element. [It means] you’re not working in the sun, which is an important [distinction] in an agricultural society.”
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And the consumer stats make the issue abundantly clear. According to a study by the World Health Organization in 2011, an estimated 61 percent of skincare products sold in India are for lightening or bleaching. That same study states that 77 percent of women in Nigeria use skin lightening products. That's compared to 59 percent in Togo and 35 percent in South Africa. In other words, the majority in those areas. What people do with their bodies is their choice — but is it really a choice when it comes from a deep rooted societal pressure that tells people they are not enough?
Nyakim Gatwetch, a model who was born in Sudan, can relate firsthand. Back home, "you didn’t see women wearing eyeshadow or foundation — they just wanted lighter skin," she tells us. "At one point, I thought I needed to bleach my skin to get a boyfriend. I’d go home and cry to my sister, who did it when she came to America at the age of 18. She didn’t get made fun of; she was tall and beautiful and looked like a model. At the time, I wanted to look just like her." When Gatwetch moved to the U.S., she was asked by an Uber driver if she'd bleach her skin for $10,000; now she says she wouldn't do it for a million.
Even though bleaching creams and brightening products aren't as prevalent here in the states, it's still a mentality that we obviously can't shake. Just this week, Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood reality star Hazel E lost her ShoeDazzle endorsement — and might be losing her spot on the show, too — after saying women "couldn't pass the paper bag test." Rapper Azealia Banks once admitted to bleaching her skin because of depression, "watching white/lighter skinned women advance all while having worse music than mine," she allegedly wrote, in her now-deleted tweets. And Lil' Kim, who's never made her plastic surgery a secret, has also dealt with self-hatred. "Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking," she told Newsweek in 2000. "You know, the long-haired type. Really beautiful women [who] left me thinking, 'How I can I compete with that?' Being a regular Black girl wasn't good enough."
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The examples are far too many to count, and they go back centuries. Nivea obviously made a huge marketing misstep, but they're only part of a much bigger problem. We have to address the systemic colorism and racism in our society first, and also hold marketers accountable when they reinforce it through ads like these. Black is beautiful — now that's something that belongs on a billboard.
We reached out to Nivea and Akinnifesi and will update this story when we hear back.
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