Nivea’s billboards are distasteful, but there’s a bigger problem
Skin care brand, ‘Nivea,’ landed in hot water because of an advert promoting a body lotion that gives users ‘visibly lighter skin.’
The advert sees former Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria, Omowunmi Akinnifesi, become visibly lighter after applying the cream and happily professing how young she feels now that she has ‘visibly fairer skin.’ Billboards showing a smiling Akinnifesi with the tagline ‘for visibly fairer skin’ are dotted across cities in West Africa. As it turns out, people weren’t impressed.
British-Ghanaian musician Fuse ODG drew attention to a billboard of the ad in Accra, and called on ‘every African everywhere’ to stop buying Nivea products. He called on the company to take down the billboard or ‘we will.’ Ghanaian Twitter launched a hashtag #pullitdownnow and #BlackisBeautiful to express their anger and dismay at the ad.
Reaction was swift in other quarters too. Hot on the heels of the ‘Dove’ controversy, where the company was accused of racism for a body wash advert that showed a black woman ‘transform’ into a white woman, it was unsurprising that the international media reacted swiftly and furiously at Nivea. The German skincare giant, no stranger to racial controversy, has widely been accused of colourism, profiting from self-hate and being racially tone deaf.
In wake of the backlash, Nivea released a statement on Facebook, but stopped short of an apology. Instead, the company said the advert “is in no way meant to demean or glorify any person’s needs or preferences in skin care.” But as satirist and writer, Elnathan John, pointed out on his Twitter account, Nivea isn’t actually tone deaf at all. “They are simply profiteers in an already colourist society,” he said. “Attacking Nivea is lazy. Let’s talk about why lighter IS ‘better.’”
He’s right. It is easy to blame Nivea, they’re a huge, global company who should ‘know better.’ They should be promoting the idea that all skin shades and tones are beautiful and equal. But what if, as is true in many African countries, that’s not the prevailing narrative of the market they’re selling to? Well, like any business whose aim is to make profit they will adapt. If the market is saying light is right, so will they.
And in Nigeria, it’s fair to say that is almost unequivocally the message we receive.
A 2011 report by the World Health Organization revealed 77% of women in Nigeria use skin lightening products on a regular basis. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry with no signs of slowing down. Nigeria’s issue with colourism started way before Nivea, and even if every ad was pulled and every single billboard was torn down tomorrow, it probably wouldn’t make a dent anywhere besides on Twitter. Because in the place of Nivea, shelves will still be filled with Carotone, Fair and White, Fair and Lovely, and so on; markets will still sell homemade concoctions laced with god-knows-what, promising lighter skin.
Does that absolve Nivea? No, the advert is distasteful. But Nivea and the many other skincare companies that sell such products are not solely to blame. The unfortunate reality of the situation, is that there is a huge demand for these products. And that’s what needs to be addressed. Why, despite all the health warnings and the attempts to, are so many women still choosing to lighten their skin?
Colonialism and colonial mentality play a part of it, but the fact that colourism is real and with real implications, cannot be denied. Even today in Nigeria, white people are often treated better than black people, and given that light skin is considered closer to white skin than dark skin, it’s not a surprise that light-skinned people are treated better too. And ‘better’ goes beyond just physical appearance.
Any woman living in Nigeria, either dark or light-skinned, has likely felt either the benefit or disadvantage of being one or the other. And that’s not to say that colourism doesn’t affect men too, it does, but since the value and worth of a man is not solely tied to his looks, it’s slightly different.
Pulling down billboards and trending hashtags are nice symbolism, but until we start addressing the very real implications of colourism, and as a result, the huge demand for these products, things aren’t likely to change at all.