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These Skin-Whitening Ads Are Misleading

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    Homegrown is an Indian youth media company. They are India’s leading provokers of raw, unfiltered conversation around youth culture. If you’ve ever wondered how unhinged, how wonderful, and how unpredictable life in India can really get (minus all the cliches), consider Homegrown your rule book without the rules.
    By Mandovi Menon

    Homegrown editor's note: Inherent values aren't something we've learned to expect from most of Bollywood's insiders, yet Kangana Ranaut has never quite fit into that pack. In all fairness (no pun intended), she's impressed us with her ability to straight-shoot even when the industry's wind is blowing in another direction. The star just turned down a fairness-cream advertorial worth Rs 2 crores (in the Indian numbering system, the equivalent of 10 million rupees), so there's cause for a renewed celebration of her valor.

    Kangana Ranaut doesn't understand the concept of "fairness." Of her recent actions, the actress explains, "As a celebrity, what kind of an example would I be setting for younger people? I have no regrets about turning this offer down. As a public figure, I have responsibilities."

    Unfortunately, Ranaut represents a terrifyingly small minority of "role models" who subscribe and live up to such values. So, we couldn't resist revisiting an article in which we called out all the brands and actors who continuously propagate India's skin-whitening obsession.

    Skin whitening isn’t an alien concept in a country that continues to be preoccupied with fair skin tones. Product ads glorify lighter skin, stoking deep-rooted insecurities and fears that permeate Indian society. Recently, we listed a few brands that have taken up the responsibility of challenging regressive norms, rather than feeding into them. But sadly, they aren't exactly in the majority.

    Ahead, we list some of the worst ads, those that reflect some of the most deplorable and misleading ideas about beauty being only as deep as the color (or lack thereof) of our skin. The problem isn't just limited to brands, but rather, blame also lies with the supposed role models these ads depict, who heavily influence the young people who look up to them.

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    Fair & Handsome, Featuring Shah Rukh Khan
    Not only does this ad use a luminary like Shah Rukh Khan to endorse fairness as a prerequisite for “feeling handsome,” it also asserts that light skin is a necessary attribute for fame and fortune. In the new Fair and Handsome ad, Khan — who quite clearly seems to be leveraging his role-model status for a few more crores to stack upon the hundreds he already has in the bank — offers advice to a young fan, who gawks at him in reverence. Khan tells the young man he can be just like him as long as he uses Fair and Handsome. As predicted, the boy uses the cream and is overjoyed with his newfound success with women and boosted self-image. The ad's dismaying message: Fair skin is a prerequisite for both happiness and success.

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    Garnier Men Power Light, Featuring John Abraham
    What’s the worst thing that could happen to you when you go outside? Well, according to John Abraham, it’s getting tanned. This ad tells us that it’s all fun and games until you find yourself with uneven skin tone — then the party's over. The testimonial ends with Abraham walking into the sun shirtless (as one obviously does upon discovering a product like this) seeming quite content with his skin color and self-worth. The only redeeming factor we can think of for this ad and the previous one is that at least they eliminate the gender bias so often associated with these products!

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    Ponds White Beauty Facial Foam
    As much its creators may want to believe that this is subtle advertising, what with its understated chess game, it really isn’t. Especially when you have the protagonist knock off the black pawns with her white ones followed by a voice-over that says, “Time to defeat the dark.” No, really. Can you hear us slow-clapping at the sheer subtlety of it all? It's glaringly obvious what the ad is hinting at, shunning dark skin as unacceptable with its slogan, “Dark Out White In.”

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    Ponds White Beauty Episodes, Starring Priyanka Chopra, Saif Ali Khan & Neha Dhupia
    This dramatic ad is stretched out over four episodes, creating a story arc about a woman and her quest for validation, which she finally receives after using Ponds White Beauty cream. Priyanka Chopra is haunted by the fact that Saif Ali Khan leaves her for Neha Dhupia. Motivated to make him painfully aware of what he has lost, she uses the cream that makes her visibly fairer, and is successful in getting his attention. Not only does the ad suggest that a woman needs attention from a man to validate her worth, it also asserts that that attention is rooted in fairness. All of this comes endorsed by the biggest names in the Bollywood film industry, no less.

    Related: What If We Treated All Crimes Like We Treat Sexual Assault In India?

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    Vaseline Men, Featuring Shahid Kapoor
    “Shahid Kapoor fits in because consumers associate with him the hard work that he puts into his performances. He really embodies the pursuit of perfection,” said Unilever’s brand manager while preparing the world for Shahid Kapoor’s takeover as the brand ambassador of Vaseline Men’s Skin Care line. Apparently, the campaign's "Be Prepared" tagline also means being prepared to get shunned for your skin color if it isn’t the appropriate shade of white. We can’t say we expected too much from Shahid Kapoor, who doesn't seem to show much conviction in his own career choices, but he certainly isn’t so starved for fame or money that he couldn’t have resisted the lure of this particular endorsement.