Digital

Vaseline and the pitfalls of a borderless digital world

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Vaseline India creates a Facebook application to support Vaseline for Men’s ‘Be Prepared‘ advertising campaign and it’s being talked about across the world. Unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. Blame it on the borderless digital age that we live in, but Shahid Kapoor and the app get mentions in PC World, CBS News and even The Atlantic (!). While some have used strong words to describe the campaign (crowdsourced racism), others have simply called the app ineffective. The Western world’s consternation at this ‘fairness = superiority’ promotion is understandable. But Vaseline India wouldn’t have expected this kind of reaction globally, I am sure.

But in a way the reaction to such an app is expected. People accuse brands like these of reinforcing the notion that fairness is more desirable, superior and causing great harm to society. The counter argument that such brands merely tap into an existing need (long before such products were even conceived or advertised) falls on deaf ears. I have seen educated, metro-bred, ‘cosmopolitan’ folks from North India carry a huge bias against people who are of darker skin (read, South Indians). I have also seen dark skinned folks yearn for a fair skin, almost pitying the way they are. That kind of attitude was not created through advertising. Hindi movies of the 70s and 80s did their bit to promote such stereotypes. Sure advertising attempts to strike a chord in them and taps into a latent need. If manufacturing such products is allowed, why is promoting them not?

Anyway, I am digressing. Over at the Vaseline Men Be Prepared application, many have rated the application poorly and left pretty nasty comments. I didn’t think much of the App as it was it has a gimmicky tone to it. The trick with ‘Simpsonize Me’ or the Obama Hope Poster kind of apps is that there is a fun element to it – they are childishly funny, prankish and encourage sharing. But simply paling your profile picture is no fun.

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9 Comments

  1. Just wondering…why did this campaign alone go international? I mean, we have tons of international brands peddling skin fairness in India – Garnier has John Abraham touting a fairness meter, while Nivea has a range of skin whitening products too. Mankind Pharma has a few products too, besides Fair & Handsome.

    So, is it only because of the Facebook app that this brand is being singled out for international attention, I wonder. As a result, do you think for themes that have a local cultural resonance and may be misconstrued (due to sheer lack of context), is it better to avoid the online world for promotion…particularly platforms like Facebook?

    • Thanks for the comment, Karthik. Yes, precisely what I meant to convey – an not so extraordinary app gets global attention because of the accessibility of Facebook. On your second point, I guess its true of International brands. A local brand using a theme that resonates locally but misconstrued elsewhere has little to lose. Not true for global brands no?

  2. I think the problem occurred here with the basic understanding for the word RACISM in different parts of world.

    While in a country like the US, racism boils down to COLOUR. But here in India it goes to caste, sub-caste, religion etc etc.. The app has been designed as per the brand essence but as you mentioned, it should have been taken the concept in a lighter/funny note, some thing like a comparison meter with their friend’s photo and the result like your your friend scored 21% more than you in the fairness comparison challenge. Now its your time to be prepared. Download this coupon and get free Vaseline hamper.. etc

    This might chopped down the RACISM bit. But might have triggered some other criticism 🙂
    But a lesson learned here for all Indian brands, especially when we target Indian users on a global platform like Facebook, Twitter etc.

  3. karthik perumal Reply

    I have 2 ways of looking at it, one argues that this is the stupidest thing ever and one that proposes that its an extremely smart move. And both are rooted in a common insight – Fairness Cream users dont like to advertise the fact that they use Fairnes Creams even if they are convinced users of the category.

    An FB app tells other people that you used the app, and also conveys to them (in this case) an endorsement for fairness creams. This might inhibit even category users who would love a lighter skin tone on their DP from using the app, as it stands for endorsement of the "fairness idea" and might invite ridicule from friends, esp on a platform like FB. So major instance of insight #fail

    Counter argument: Is it time for fairness to come into the open? Is it time for the the FB generation, which is so fearless abt what they are willing to display in a public space to accept this as a regular category and talk about it. FB lends an opportunity to break the inhibition, after all its only a harmless little app. So then this is a marketing masterstroke, as Vaseline has taken over this category's conversations with a silly FB app and left all other competitors behind.

  4. This is a very odd Facebook advertising strategy, but odd enough that it's getting massive media coverage. I think Vaseline hit a gold mine with this. No publicity is bad publicity, especially on the internet, and this controversial campaign is grabbing people's attention all over the world. In no way do I consider this campaign immoral or racist, though. There is a massive industry built around making skin darker, just walk up the skin care isle at the grocery store; half of it is self tanner! Vaseline has made a product that people might really have a use for and are getting tons of free coverage. Kudos, Vaseline.

  5. WOW this is such a great post! In the US race is a super charged subject. Brands go to great lengths to avoid getting near the subject. Its not shocking that we (in the US) would have a cultural shock to this ad, but its probably not justified. If this ad were to run in the US it would be unacceptable but it isn’t. Going forward as the world continues to get smaller I wonder if this is going to become a bigger problem. It was actually very wise that this was a regional ad… these ads all should be! India has unique issues that americans simply cannot understand without doing research. I am glad this didn’t gain huge traction in the US, because that would have been extremely arrogant.

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