Women are a huge market segment around the world, though they are targeted in varying ways, dependent on the culture of their location. Skin care is also a large target market that overlaps with both genders; however, cultural and societal norms dictate different approaches for advertising to target skin care products towards women. In the United States, skin care is sold as being important for your health, wellness, and beauty – if you don’t take care of your skin, the results could vary from having acne to becoming a cancer statistic. In Thailand, and the majority of South East Asian countries, skin care products have one purpose: to whiten your skin. A visit to the beauty aisle in any Thai store will prove that it is ridiculously difficult to obtain a lotion or skin care product that is not whitening. While male skin care is often labeled as being whitening, the advertisements that surround female skin care products are particularly intriguing, as they clearly link femininity with have light skin. Commercials, print ads, and even publicity stunts for whitening products are constantly on display in Thailand, and the overwhelming majority of them dictate that only light-skinned women are attractive.
The Thai obsession with light skin is a deep-rooted cultural norm that extends back throughout centuries; skin tone used to be a clear-cut signifier of social class. Being dark-skinned meant that you were of the lower class, and thus had to work outdoors, usually in the fields. Light-skinned people were of higher socioeconomic status, and did not earn their money through manual labour under the sun. While it is ridiculous to assume status from something as arbitrary as skin tone, this is an ideology that still permeates Thai culture, especially through advertising. Skin care and lotion products are marketed as being “whitening,” but just slapping a label on the bottle is not enough. Commercials regularly play upon a specific stereotype of an attractive Thai girl: skinny, well-dressed, wealthy, and of course, with pale skin.
Nivea is a German-based lotion brand that is arguably the most popular seller of whitening skin products in Thailand. Fittingly, yet slightly ironic, the name Nivea is derived from the Latin word niveus, which means “snow-white.” Globally, Nivea is a regular lotion brand, but in Thailand, the brand truly lives up to its moniker. Throughout the past few years, Nivea’s lotion advertisements have not changed much – they all follow the same essential storyline with an attractive woman who is only worried about how her skin tone is not light enough. Once she uses Nivea’s whitening skin product, her skin becomes whiter, and she is rewarded with a man who is now attracted to her. The target consumer is your average, middle- or lower-class Thai woman, who has grown up with a societal pressure to have light skin. The beauty industry is Thailand is huge, as it is a culture where appearance is everything. Female models play the main role in each of these ads, and men – who are also light-skinned – are represented as shallow lovers who reward the women for fixing their “problem. In terms of semiotics, it is very clear that light skin is a signifier; having light-skin is heavily desired, and it is associated with wealth, style, and a sense of cosmopolitanism. In Thailand, cosmopolitan women only really exist in Bangkok, the capital, and they serve as idols for other women in the rural towns. The country is a great example of the idea that taste is specific to culture – Thai ideals of what is attractive or appealing are clearly different to ideals within the United States. According to Pierre Bourdieu, the way that people consume and the things they consume tend to match up with their social class. Upper-class, educated Thai women would not be purchasing Nivea products, which are typically found in grocery stores and mini-marts. However, the ads portray women who seem to be wealthy, and who have fulfilled a specific ideal by having whiter skin. Rather than targeting the “alienated spectator,” these ads are meant for an audience who is willing to buy in to this ideology.
Furthermore, the product is surrounded by well-framed scientific evidence; essentially, the science is explaining why sunscreen is important in order to protect the body from the sun. These skin care products claim that their “whitening” ingredients can significantly alter a woman’s skin tone in only 14 days. This skin-bleaching claim is unrealistic, though the buffer of scientific jargon works well with with the before-and-after visuals in order to convince less educated women that this product could truly affect their social ranking. Similar to the plight of Latina women as outlined by Arlene Dávila, the concept of “white-washing” is heavily at play. Thai models are encouraged to look more like white models, and often white models or half-Thai models will actually be used in commercials. The model in the second ad is half-Thai and half-British, and thus is naturally light-skinned. Goldman & Papson would argue this as a disguised contradiction, used to further the “white is better” ideology. The first ad does not even require words to sell their product – rather, it sells a lifestyle, by showing that other darker women as jealous or in awe, and that all men will be visibly attracted to lighter skin. The ad socially and culturally constructs an ideal world for the viewer, and promotes a normative vision of our world and our relationships. Ultimately, it implies that women and men alike should prefer white skin. The second ad uses an egg to demonstrate Nivea’s prowess over other brands – eggs are also inherently linked to women, as a signifier of fertility and womanhood. This is a subtle example of commodity feminism, where the brand is endowing feminism upon a products. Every ad in this campaign employs commodity feminism, as they explicitly outline important behaviours and traits that Thai society expects women to exhibit. Additionally, all of the ads use a similar colour scheme: blue, as the colour of the Nivea brand; gold, which signifies money and wealth; and white, which is associated with purity, high social class, and beauty. The ads are targeting women who are looking to lighten their skin in order to be more beautiful, by selling the old cultural belief that lighter skin is attached to higher class, more wealth, and the ideal life.
In order to expose advertisements like these to the world, culture-jamming has become a manner of appropriating brands for subversive means – “subvertising.” By critiquing power structures in normal advertising, culture-jamming voices the truth in order to take back power from the advertisers and put it in the hands of the audiences. Sarah Haskins, of “Target Women” fame, uses the detournement strategy of taking a genre of ad and twisting it back on itself in order to shift the meaning and call out the ridiculousness of the message. A spoof video that calls out Nivea whitening products would go as follows: a woman who is mildly tanned would be ignored by men while her paler friend is adored by them. She would purchase Nivea products, and after 14 days, her skin would be as pale as her friend. The men would shift their attention to her. She would become obsessed with the products, and continue to use them, as she gets comically paler and paler, until she vanishes entirely. She is so pale that she can’t even be seen. This exposes the ideology by pointing out the absurdity that men are only interested in pale women – which is ultimately an insult to the male gender. The spoof video is helpful to the cause as it is useful in exposing ideological and representational tactics – a longer video would be able to underline all of the flaws and suppressed injustices within these ads. Advertising has the ability to maintain a destructive social and cultural ideology and utilize it the promote the logic of capital and promote spending. These Nivea advertisements in particular target less educated women of lower social class and economic standing, and essentially promise them that by spending money to magically whiten their skin, they can fix all of their problems. These ads are not only misleading and disingenuous, but they work by preying on the insecurities of women.
– Natalie VJ