As the world seems to be (literally) setting themselves alight about #BLM, coupled with varying opinions about the place of #BLM support on a global stage, the movement has sparked global change that now looks to corporates and governments to be socially responsible global citizens.

As communities re-start long-overdue conversations about other forms of apparent social injustice(s), with an overall bid to change the mindset of the system within which we live, we find that social media has become the channel for information that effects change of this kind.

One such topic of discussion that has (re)surfaced in Sri Lanka is that of ‘Colourism’. Not to be confused with racism, but ‘Colourism’ can be associated with racism and should be put on the pyre (and set alight) next to it.

What is ‘Colourism’, you ask?

Colourism’ specifically refers to prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.

But does ‘Colourism’ really exist in Sri Lanka?

The short answer is “yes”. Whether ‘Colourism’ truly exists in Sri Lanka is widely debated and it can be argued that it is not limited to one sect of society, but is apparent at all economic and cultural levels throughout the nation. Whether everyone realises they have been victim to ‘colourism’ is a matter of concern as the concept has become so deeply rooted in our perceptions that more often than not it has become commonplace. From larger than life advertising of the advantages of being “fair-skinned”, to unwelcomed (mainly naive) comments/ advice by others, to always casting the main actress on screen as the fairest of them all, fueled by biased standards of beauty and even tokenism in branding, we can now clearly identify where marketing has failed our society.

Skin lightening in the form of skincare and make-up involves the use of products, treatments and procedures to lighten one’s skin, such as through the use of creams, serums, facials and even more invasive treatments such as laser skin therapy and HydraFacials and is at present a billion-dollar industry, globally. In Sri Lanka, treatments for fairer skin or whiter skin ranges from LKR 500 up to LKR 20,000/- per treatment and effectively suppresses the melanin in your skin.

Subconsciously many Sri Lankans still hope for fairer children, fairer partners (most often directed at those that identify in the female or wife role but is not exclusive to either – i.e men too face the concept that skin tone is tied into their self worth) and still equate fairness with quintessential beauty and opulence.

Skin colour matters because we are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present. Add to this, the race-based prejudices human beings have attached to certain skin colours, and we arrive at present-day society, where skin colour becomes a signifier of identity and value.

Children and Colorism

Whilst there is a societal fix needed with regard to ‘colourism’, the role that marketers and brands play in exploiting these societal stigmas to capture the market, needs to be re-evaluated.

This is where ethical & responsible marketing plays a vital role. As is with the rule of supply and demand, at present, Asian and Middle Eastern markets do in fact have a higher demand for fairness products compared to that of tanning products. While it is in a brand’s absolute right to cater to this demand, it is also in the brand’s absolute duty to do so responsibly.

What is Responsible Marketing?

Socially responsible marketing is when a company takes into consideration “what is in the best interest of society in the present and long term” prior to going to market. Here is where marketing should work to provide for demand without exploiting social biases.

A few instances where brands have failed to understand this is in the use of primarily fair-skinned representation of users, marketing fairness as a prerequisite for success in life and love and visually comparing the advantages of before and after (darker vs fairer) which sets a dangerous precedent further relegating merit-based criteria as being less important.

However, marketers can still redeem their brands by following a few simple rules. Be proactive and get ahead of the issue. Lean in to control the narrative being created about your brand. Try to understand where your stakeholders are coming from and work with them to better your brand. Know that production and sale need not stop, but the era of discrimination does.

With very recent events we see global brands that are embracing responsible marketing, so much so to even rebrand legacy products, recommitting themselves to unity and the global community in which they service.

Unilever to rename Fair & Lovely skin-lightening cream in India

Unilever to rename Fair & Lovely skin-lightening cream in India

The question now remains: as marketers are you able to take it in your stride, just as you have done before, to evolve yet again, into responsible marketers, or if you will remain to turn the cogs of the vicious cycle that perpetuates societal stereotypes?

Ianthe Yatawatte Raj

Ianthe is a graduate in Public Relations from the University of West London and currently heads Strategic Marketing as a Director at Quire (Pvt) Ltd (Sri Lanka)

Clayton Durant

Ianthe Yatawatte Raj

Ianthe is a graduate in Public Relations from the University of West London and currently heads Strategic Marketing as a Director at Quire (Pvt) Ltd (Sri Lanka)