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Fair skin, fair game


2017 is fast turning out to be the year of tone-deaf marketing moves. It’s only been a couple of weeks since Dove courted controversy over an ill-advised Facebook promo GIF featuring a black woman transforming into black woman, drawing criticism for the insensitive, if not racist, choice. This week it was Nivea’s turn to be embroiled in a racism row over an ‘appalling’ advert campaign that promises their product will ‘visibly lighten’ skin.

Adverts for the natural fairness’ moisturiser by the brand owned by German skin care company Beiersdorf Global AG have sprung up across Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal as part of a campaign, which also includes a TV spot starring former Miss Nigeria Omowunmi Akinnifesi.

Africans across the continent have taken to social media to express their outrage at the suggestion that they would want ‘fairer’ skin and have demanded the removal of the billboards using the #PULLITDOWNNOW. One well-known voice among many is British Ghanaian hip hop artist Fuse ODG who shared the picture of the billboard ad on his Instagram and called Nivea out.


He said: “Kindly take down these billboards you have placed all over our beloved countries in Africa.“I saw this one with my own eyes today in Ghana and we love our complexion the way it is. And if you don’t take these down. We will. 

“Every African everywhere should stop buying any Nivea product. Tag the Nivea branch from your country so they understand how foolish this is!”While the brand may try to play down the billboard ad as an oversight in the choice of words – the product description reads, “NIVEA Natural Fairness Body Lotion is a daily moisturiser developed to enhance the skin’s natural radiance” – there is no denying that the TV spot overtly pushes the fair skin agenda. As the former beauty queen talks of her quest for the right moisturisers for her skin, the camera pans over, with her skin tone shown to turn visibly lighter. Not radiant. Not moisturised. Lighter.

Just one of many sharing the TV spot on Twitter was the CEO of Vitae London, William Adoasi shared the ad with the message, “This is why black businesses need to rise up and cater for our needs. Nivea can’t get away with pushing this skin lightening agenda across Africa. Appalling.”

While it is easy to understand the outrage, it is hard to forget amidst the outraged cries to #PULLITDOWN, there is also level-headed query, “We need to ask ourselves, honestly, are we complicit with the ideologies that spawn these toxic lines of thought? Obviously, there’s demand,” as one Twitter user asked.

If you place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Western companies, who are admittedly keen to make a quick buck off the back of Africa’s evergreen ‘yellow fever’, then you have never come across the fashionistas that claim they were “fortunate to be born fair-skinned” (true story!) despite dozens of childhood pictures to refute the claim, or you have never heard a mother encourage her daughter to bleach because “she has a pretty face; if only she was fairer”, or you’ve never had the privilege of Nigerian aunties sending jars of bleaching cream to their sisters in the UK. Whether we would like to hold the mirror to our communities or not, there is a bleaching epidemic prevalent across Africa.

Of course, skin bleaching, like most ills that continue to plague the continent, originated elsewhere first. Long before they made their way to Africa, skin bleaching products were commonly used by black Americans during the 1920s and 1930s, with advertisements for skin bleaching products such as Bleach and Glow, Plough’s Black and White, Artra and Nadinola in black publications.

While in these early days the products bluntly advertised that they would change dark skin to a ‘lighter, lovelier skin,’ with the tide turning to political correctness in the ‘50s, subtler lexicon came into use – cue ‘even skin tone’, ‘clearer complexion’, ‘helps with hyper-pigmentation’.

No such sensitivities in Africa, where such products came into the market in the 1980s and gained huge popularity amongst a generation sold on the colonial mentality that ‘fair’ meant better. In the back alleys of the Makola Market in Accra or River Road in Nairobi, you can still find products which promise “restorative ultrafast action whitening” and “100% Double Action Whitening.”


According to the World Health Organisation, more than 70 percent of Nigerian women admit they use such products despite the health hazards. That compares with 59 percent in Togo, and 27 in Senegal.

As woke keyboard warriors in the diaspora and beyond, we can wage war on Nivea pledging to boycott their products, frown on our Nigerian brothers and sisters who choose to patronise brands cashing in on the fair skin craze, but the truth is the solution to such a deeply entrenched problem should be more than calling out racism and boycotting brands. The blame is not squarely on Nivea’s shoulders in a country where 70 percent of women court cancer and many other disastrous ailments in their quest for ‘unnatural fairness’.

It is time we began questioning the mind set which favours people of lighter complexion on billboards, magazine covers, TV screens, red carpets, on the arm of every other African statesman, entertainer footballer; in the boardroom, the front room, and the other room. It is time we began recalibrating young minds through education that black is strong, smart, sexy – beautiful, so in another generation we achieve zero percent skin bleaching in Nigeria and beyond. That would be the best kick in the backside for Nivea and co. still consider pushing the ‘fair skin’ agenda on the 70 percent as fair game.

In this article:
Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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