MUMBAI // The claim by the Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham inspires awe. Displaying a tube of fairness lotion in one hand and a gauge to measure skin colour in the other, he guarantees in a widely played television commercial that olive-toned skin can be lightened up by three shades.
Abraham is the brand ambassador for Garnier's Power Light for Men, a range of skin care products from the French cosmetic giant L'Oreal. He is the latest among a slew of actors to endorse a dizzying array of such brands, which are the most advertised products in India.
India's rapidly expanding market for whitening creams exploits what marketing gurus call the country's "snow white syndrome" - the obsessive quest for fair skin that many believe can lead to quicker success, accolades and high self-esteem.
AC Nielsen, the market research company based in the Netherlands, says the industry is growing at 25 per cent annually and is worth US$466 million (Dh1.71 billion). France's Garnier, Germany's Beiersdorf, which owns Nivea, and India's Hindustan Lever, which owns Fair & Lovely, are some of the leading market players.
They are part of India's $13.1bn fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) business, the fourth-largest sector in the country's economy, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. The worth of personal care products - such as soaps, cosmetics and deodorant - is estimated at $989m, hair care products at $831m and oral care products at $537m. The FMCG sector, which employs 3 million people, is expected to grow to $33.4bn by 2015.
India's burgeoning population - the 300 million-strong aspiring middle-class and 747 million people in rural India, where prosperity is growing - presents a vast untapped market for FMCG products. The middle-class - who have deeper pockets, with disposable incomes ranging from $4,400 to $21,900 a year - is expected to swell to 583 million people by 2025, according to the New York consultancy McKinsey and Company.
The country's per capita disposable income, currently at $556 per annum, is expected to rise to $1,150 by 2015. The consultancy firm Boston Consultancy Group says an average Indian spends about 40 per cent of his income on groceries and about 10 per cent on FMCG products.
The trend captures the zeitgeist of modern India dominated by young people - 45 per cent of the population is aged below 25 - where materialism has trumped the austere lifestyle of previous generations.
In India, skin tone makes a statement - it reflects aristocracy and superiority in the country's hierarchical social order. It is a deeply ingrained cultural neurosis that cuts across social classes. Newspaper matrimonial columns routinely and unabashedly carry advertisements by people looking for "fair" or "very fair" brides and grooms.
A market study by Hindustan Unilever, which dominates the market for fairness creams, last year revealed that men in southern Indian states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka - where the majority is dark-skinned - are the most avid purchasers of whitening creams. Tamil Nadu accounted for the highest sales of Narayanan, a Hindustan Unilever skin lightening product.
"These products and their advertisements reinforce an old south Asian bias that you have to be fair to be beautiful," Prahlad Kakkar, a well-known advertising consultant, said in 2007. "Sunscreens, skin-whitening, fairness creams - they are all the same."
Television advertisements promote fairness products depicting lighter-skinned women as more desirable than those with dark-complexions. Fair-skinned males are depicted as more successful, walking down red carpets and facing the cameras.
Males are believed to account for one fifth of total sales of skin-whitening products. In 2005, Emami, based in Kolkata, signed up India's biggest Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan as brand ambassador for its fairness cream, after which sales jumped by a fifth. Shahid Kapoor, another actor, recently signed a deal to promote Vaseline men's face-whitening lotion.
But such advertisements have also stirred consternation across the country. In 2005, Brinda Karat, a member of the upper house of parliament and a women's rights activist, protested against Hindustan Unilever's advertisement for Fair & Lovely, which implied that women with lighter skin had access to more lucrative jobs than their dark-skinned counterparts. Hindustan Unilever eventually shelved the ad campaign, although it is not clear if it did so under pressure from Ms Karat.
In 2008, Aishwarya Rai, a leading Bollywood actress, declined a multimillion-rupee advertisement for a fairness product. Such ads, the actress said, encouraged "racism".
Bipasha Basu, a dusky-hued actress, declined similar offers. "You'll never find me endorsing fairness creams," Ms Basu said. "I was offered a product endorsement for a fairness cream ages ago, but I declined. In India, dark-skinned girls are still subjected to taunts and pity. In the matrimonial columns, people still advertise for a fair bride. I'm dark-skinned and very proud of that."
In 2009, Anbumani Ramadoss, India's health minister, asked companies marketing fairness creams to furnish "scientific evidence" of their claims. "This needs to stop. They cannot say within one week - you will be white and all this," he said. "They need to back their claims with scientific evidence."
However, Mr Ramadoss's efforts did not yield much cooperation from companies.
But beyond the obsession with fair skin, the commercial success of such products reflects the rising consumer confidence in India, analysts say. With 129 points, India topped Nielsen's global consumer confidence index in the October-December quarter, a strong 12 points ahead of Thailand, which came in second.
Globally, consumer confidence fell three points to 90 amid growing concerns in developed economies about poor economic recovery. Consumer confidence declined in 19 of the 53 countries surveyed by Nielsen, but the mood was strikingly different in the booming Asian markets. Nine out of the top 10 countries on the ranking are in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to Euromonitor International, a global business research company, consumer expenditure in emerging-market economies such as India, China and Brazil grew by 66 per cent to $7.5 trillion between 2000 and 2009.
"Indians appear to have loosened their purse strings compared to previous quarters," Justin Sargent, the managing director for consumer research at Nielsen India, said last year. "While some of this propensity to purchase can be attributed to the advent of the festive season, a combination of factors will lead to greater spending and more enthusiastic buying behaviour as marketers tap into the confidence that the Indian consumer seems to be exuding."