It is a multimillion-dollar industry that panders to those obsessed with achieving a lighter skin tone, but India's advertising standards authorities have now stepped in to make sure its ads are, well, fair.
Take this commercial: A young woman in a dance show is relegated to a corner, all because of her skin colour. After using the ad's fairness cream, she becomes the centre of attention.
The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) - which regulates print, radio and TV ads - issued guidelines this month to ensure that ads do not discriminate against darker-skinned people when it comes to dating, finding a spouse, securing a job or getting a promotion.
"There has been a proliferation of advertisements for fairness products," said ASCI chairman Partha Rakshit. "Many consumers and consumer activists wrote to us to say such ads are degrading. That's why we took this up.
"Basically, one should just advertise a product and not attach any value to a person's skin colour - that if you are not fair, you are not good enough in some way."
In this country of more than 1.2 billion people, the perception that those with fair skin are more successful in love, marriage and career has spawned an industry in fairness products that generates more than US$400 million (S$500 million) in revenue every year.
Advertisers pay big bucks for Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, John Abraham and Deepika Padukone to endorse their products.
The bigger makers of fairness creams say they will follow the new guidelines. Hindustan Unilever, which makes the popular cream, Fair & Lovely, said it had been consulted on the guidelines and was fully committed to them.
Emami Limited, the maker of Fair and Handsome which is endorsed by Shah Rukh Khan, said the guidelines would provide clarity.
Said Mr Mohan Goenka, a director of Emami: "The guidelines, which did not exist before, give clarity on how we show the benefits of using a fairness product. This will help in creating socially responsible campaigns."
While the fairness cream industry has boomed, counter-campaigns with names such as "Dark is Beautiful" have emerged in recent years to dispel the deeply entrenched notion.
Bollywood stars such as Ranbir Kapoor, 31, and Kangana Ranaut, 27, have refused to endorse fairness creams. Ms Ranaut's reason is that she would be insulting her sister who "is dusky, yet beautiful".
Actress Nandita Das, 44, has lent her star power to the "Dark is Beautiful" campaign, which was launched in 2009.
She revealed that, as a child, she often got comments like "Poor thing, she is so dark". She said she had said "no" to directors who wanted her to use make-up to look fairer.
Campaigners welcome the new guidelines. Ms Kavitha Emmanuel, who started the Women of Worth group and launched the "Dark is Beautiful" campaign, said: "We hope that some of the blatantly discriminatory advertisements will find their way out of our television channels, hoardings and other print media.''
But she added: "Even so, we wonder if advertisers will find loopholes to keep discriminatory messages on the screen."
Shah Rukh Khan, like many others, says there is nothing wrong with using fairness creams, while advertising executives insist the ads should not be blamed for perpetuating stereotypes.
"In a culture where mothers-to-be take huge amounts of dairy products in the hope of having a fair baby, I would say the obsession with fair skin is already deep-rooted," said Ms Zenobia Pithawalla, executive creative director of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather India.
This article was first published on Aug 31, 2014.
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