Nivea’s fair skin products are only capitalizing on an age-old African insecurity

A lady client at a beauty saloon in Nairobi with
an array of lightening creams
A lady client at a beauty saloon in Nairobi with an array of lightening creams
Image: Reuters
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It’s going to take more than a woke rapper and hashtag campaign to dismantle the colorism that shades ideals of beauty and success in Africa.

Last week, global skin care brand Nivea was heavily criticized in Ghana and beyond for its “Natural Fairness” body lotion, which promised to enhance the dark skin tones of its West African customer base. The campaign starred Nigerian beauty queen Omowunmi Akinnifesi. In the short clip, her skin lightens as the glow of the lotion passes over it, and thanks to the halo effect, the rest of her life seems to improve in a slow-motion and with the help of a wind machine and graphic effects.

Consumers are savvy enough to know that lotion does not solve life’s problems. It doesn’t even—as the advert implies—make the school run to pick up your kids any easier. Yet, the narrative at the core of Nivea’s campaign tapped into a mass media message that has been used on people of color for decades: features closer to those of a white person are most desired.

It isn’t just skin color. It’s the width of noses, the thickness of lips and the texture of hair. This white supremacy has been perpetuated by people of color for decades, and the beauty industry has profited off these insecurities in Asia, Africa and South America, where people of diverse ethnicities have internalized the idea that their natural features are not good enough.

In Ghana, the advert sparked social media outrage driven by rapper Fuse ODG. Fuse, whose real name is Nana Richard Abiona, is on a mission to that involves “re-programming the world’s mental image of Africa.” Incensed by a Nivea billboard with the tagline “For Visibly Fairer Skin,” he started the #PullItDownCampaign that spread like wildfire among outraged Twitter users.

Nivea responded saying the campaign was not meant to offend any of its customers, but all that did was spark another campaign, #ILoveMyShadeOfBrown. Ghanaian women posted pictures of themselves alongside the billboard as an affirmation of their darker skin tones. Ghana, is also one of the few African countries actively trying to discourage the use of dangerous skin-bleaching products.

Earlier this week, Nivea caved to public pressure in Ghana, replacing the billboard with one that features dark-skinned models. Social media users, hailed it as a victory.

“This right here is a perfect example of when we get together, unite and use our buying power, our spending power, to say no,” said Fuse in a video posted on Instagram. “It should be a perfect example to any company that want to market their products to our people. It always needs to come from the right perspective.”

This isn’t the first time Nivea has released a tone-deaf, racially insensitive advertisement, and it probably won’t be the last time. Beiersdorf, the German manufacturer behind Nivea, invested in a multimedia campaign because there is a market demand for fairer skin. It is the same demand that makes the global skin bleaching a $10-billion business, and will likely turn it into a $23 billion industry by 2020. It’s the same demand that made Madam C.J. Walker, the inventor of chemical hair straighteners, the first black millionairess in the United States in the nineteenth century already.

Blaming Nivea, skin-bleaching companies or hair straightener manufacturers is naïve, though. Nigerian author, Elnathan John and several commentators made that point on Twitter, stressing Nivea is only marketing products that African consumers want. The author added some nuance to the online debate, unearthing evidence of a preference for light skin and western features in nineteenth century Nigeria.

Post-colonial Africa has not shaken the idea that whiteness is more valuable, a terrible irony when considering how Pan-Africanism influences so many of the continent’s liberation movements. In the documentary film A Gentle Magic, explores the resurgence of skin bleaching in South Africa, even after the country attained freedom. The country that hails Black Consciousness hero Steve Biko, also regularly ascribes value and beauty to yellow-bones, people who are lighter skinned, and dismisses those with dark skin.

Beyond tweets of outrage, the debate over the Nivea campaign has also exposed an uncomfortable truth that Africans have not yet fully grappled with. Light skin, straight hair and narrow noses are still valued above natural African features. It’s why products promising these features will continue to have a market, long after the twittersphere moves on.