Unilever accused of racial bias over ad for Thai whitening product Citra

Critics say the advert discriminates against dark-skinned people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 12:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 4:31am

The "Citra search for clear, soft and glowing skin" asked female students to submit photographs of themselves in their university uniform along with a bottle of Citra Pearly White UV body lotion, for a reward of 100,000 baht (HK$25,000). Citra is a Thai subsidiary of Unilever.

The advert - broadcast on Thai TV and YouTube - showed two female students, one lighter-skinned and another darker-skinned, who were asked what could make them "outstanding in uniform".

The darker-skinned girl seemed incapable of answering, while the fairer one - whom presenters described as "beautiful" - said Citra products could help.

The advert sparked a debate over skin tone and education levels. Many believed the inference to be that darker-skinned students are less intelligent than lighter-skinned colleagues in a country where fairer skin has long been equated with higher class - as a whiter complexion suggests a life not spent toiling on a farm.

Although the advert was withdrawn last week, the scholarship competition still stands.

Contestants have until 31 October to enter, and their skin will be judged on "product efficacy", with winners allowed to spend the funds as they choose.

Skin-whitening products abound in Thailand, as they do across much of Asia, with pale models advertising cosmetics, pills and diet supplements to lighten dark complexions.

Products promise "the miracle of white skin" at the same time that common Thai insults use darker skin as a subject of denigration, like dam mhuen e-ga - "black like a crow".

Much of the debate over the Citra advert raged online in popular forums such as where users questioned why a skin-whitening product should even be related to a university scholarship.

"Now you can get a scholarship because of white skin - not because of good studying, not if you are poor and dark," user MyOwnDream was quoted as saying in the Bangkok Post.

Unilever Thai Trading said it never intended "to suggest racial discrimination" and apologised for "any misunderstandings".

It said: "The Citra brand will exercise greater sensitivity for brand activation campaigns that take place in the future."

Thailand is no stranger to race-based controversy.

In September, a Dunkin' Donuts ad had to be withdrawn after human rights groups complained about a model in blackface make-up advertising a "charcoal donut", while in May an advert for a skin-whitening drink that featured a brown bear, a black doctor and a Thai woman in blackface was also deemed racially insensitive.