“Now I have visibly fairer skin, making me feel younger.”
In Africa, this is a divisive tagline, and yet global skincare brand Nivea created a whole advertising campaign around attaining fairer skin. In parts of Africa and Asia, Nivea has created “Natural Fairness”, a body care line promising to restore and enhance fair skin.
The West African television advertisement features Nigerian beauty queen Omowunmi Akinnifesi, who applies the lotion to “visibly lighten” and “care” for her skin—as if a lighter skin were a mark of health, youth and prosperity. In the ad, graphic effects show the model’s skin lightens as the lotion passes over it.
The advert is just the latest in decades of mass-media messaging to people of color that their darker skin tones are unacceptable, and what they should be aspiring to is a superior white skin. This form of racism has so been internalized that even when most big brands have tried to embrace ethnic diversity, consumers in Africa and Asia spend billions of dollars on harmful skin bleaching products.
Akinnifesi, who was happy to see the advert pop up in-between her favorite show Black-ish (a US sitcom that deals with contemporary race issues), is also being blasted for participating in the campaign. Nivea also erected billboards where the product is sold.
The Nivea brand is owned by German manufacturer Beiersdorf AG, which is based in Hamburg and has a market cap of around 23 billion euros.
The ad may have aired months ago, but it was dragged into the harsh spotlight this week, following the racism controversy over competitor Dove’s tone-deaf advertisement. Social media users were scathing, especially in Ghana where twitter users called for a boycott of all Nivea products and a removal of the campaign with the hashtag #pullitdownnow.
Nivea issued a statement on Facebook on Oct. 18 saying the “campaign is in no way meant to demean or glorify any person’s needs or preferences in skin care.” The Natural Fairness line’s “natural ingredients and UV filters” were aimed at “reducing the sun-induced production of melanin,” they went on to say. While reminding consumers that their product ranges embrace diversity, the Facebook post showed no real acknowledgement of the racial insensitivity of the ad.
This isn’t the first time Nivea’s ad campaigns have offended people of color. In 2011, Nivea was forced to apologize for advertisement that saw a black man discarding an Afro, with the tagline “re-civilize yourself.” The embarrassment from that incident seemed short lived as Nivea once again released a racially insensitive advertisement. Earlier this year, Nivea directed a deodorant ad to its Middle East customers with the tagline “White is purity.”
Nivea might have pulled the “white is purity” ad, but that hasn’t stopped it from advertising the benefits of whiter skin. In the Philippines, Nivea’s Extra Whitening Cell Repair & Protect Body Milk offers “fair skin” even after exposure to sunlight. There is also a range of other Nivea products in the Philippines promising to whiten skin.
The product range and advertising seems contradictory for a brand that has previously embraced various skin tones. Just as Dove has celebrated ethnic diversity with its “real beauty” campaigns, Nivea has advertised to all skin types and has fielded singer Rihanna as the face of their brand.
Nivea could have advertised for clearer skin, or an even skin tone, or just plain healthier skin, which would all be less racially charged. It appears that Nivea is cynically tapping into the same insecurity that boosts skin-bleaching sales in emerging markets.
“We recognize the concerns raised by some consumers regarding a Nivea product communication in Ghana and take them very seriously,” a spokeswoman for Beiersdorf told Quartz on Oct. 19, reiterating the company’s commitment to diversity. “Our intention is never to offend our consumers.”