Photo from the controversial Maliban ad that ran in late October.

Responding to Public Outrage, Sri Lankan Biscuit Maker Pulls Ad Playing on Preference for Fair Skin

Fair skin has been prized in Sri Lanka since the colonial era, cultural experts say. Colloquial Sinhala phrases equate fair skin with beauty and specialness.  
Sri Lanka

Indignation voiced on social media spurs the removal of a biscuit commercial that depicts fair-skinned women as more appealing than dark-skinned women.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – A 30-second ad for a white chocolate confection instantly left a bitter taste in the mouths of Sri Lankan TV viewers this fall.

The ad for Maliban White Chocolate Puff, produced by Maliban Biscuit Manufactories, one of the country’s oldest biscuit makers, plays on a widespread local preference for light-skinned women.

It depicts a visit by a prospective bridegroom, his parents and a marriage broker to the home of a potential bride. Upon seeing the young woman, the prospective groom voices disappointment.

“She’s rather dark, isn’t she?” he says to the broker. “She is much darker than I.”

The broker replies that the young woman has dark skin because she has eaten a lot of chocolate.

When the girl’s lighter-skinned sister comes into the room, the young man smiles and comments on her fairness. The broker says the younger sister is fair because she instead eats Maliban White Chocolate Puff biscuits.

The bridegroom asks the broker if he can arrange a marriage with the fair-skinned sister, but the broker says he is already discussing her marriage into another family.

The ad, produced in Sinhala, a language spoken by most of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese population, ends with an image of the white chocolate biscuit and the tag line “For those who crave white.”

The ad began airing Oct. 25 on four TV channels. Viewers immediately registered their outrage on social media, posting comments on their personal Facebook pages as well as Maliban’s page.

Maliban pulled the ad just four days later, on Oct. 29. The biscuit manufacturer and TBWA\TAL, the Colombo-based advertising agency that created the commercial, issued public apologies the same day.

Although the ad only aired for a few days, a 45-second version of it was posted to YouTube, where viewers have engaged in spirited debate about whether it promotes colorism – discrimination based on skin color.

The ad prompted many Sri Lankans to speak out against colorism.

Kumudini Samuel, co-founder of the Women and Media Collective, a Colombo-based organization that advocates for women, says she is heartened by public response to the ad.

“This was probably the first time that online social activism has seen such a rapid response – on any issue, not merely a gender or colorism issue,” Samuel says. “It was a remarkable achievement.”

The color bias began during Sri Lanka’s colonial period, which began in the 16th century and lasted until the mid-20th century, Samuel says.

“The origin of the preference for fair skin comes from colonial times, where we, the dark-skinned natives, had less power than the colonials, who were lighter-skinned,” she says. “So to be fair-skinned was preferred, and it became something that was prized, even sought-after.”

Many Sinhala phrases equate fairness with beauty and specialness, Samuel says, underscoring the extent of the bias.

“I don’t think that we even stop to think about the preference for fair skin,” she says. “It has become ingrained in our culture.”

TBWA\TAL says the ad is based on an irrefutable cultural preference for fair skin.

“It’s a fact, a truth, whether we like it or not,” managing director Renuka Marshall says.

The ad was meant to be light-hearted.

“It was not to make dark skin and fair skin a big issue, because the intention was not to discriminate color,” Marshall says.

But some Sri Lankans are fighting back, saying the ad sanctions skin color discrimination.

“I was appalled to see this ad,” says Chathuri Jayasooriya, a psychosocial practitioner and child rights advocate in Colombo. “I was so infuriated.”

Jayasooriya was one of the first Sri Lankans to register a protest on the biscuit manufacturer’s Facebook page.

A fair-skinned woman, Jayasooriya has only received complimentary comments on her skin color, she says. But she has seen the negative impacts of skin color bias on girls in her practice and her research.

One dark-skinned teenage girl Jayasooriya counseled was always unfavorably compared with her fair-skinned older sister, she says.

“She’s a shy girl, has a confidence issue, and believes that she will be accepted and considered pretty only if she is fair,” she says. “You can imagine how it will affect her relationships in the future.”

Even Keith Wijesuriya, a director at TBWA\TAL, says he recognizes the “reality” of color bias. His dark-skinned wife is often asked if their children are adopted because both he and the children are fair, he says.

“Colorism is very prevalent in Sri Lanka,” he says. “The push towards lighter skin is very much there.”

Not all Sri Lankans prefer light skin.

Rajitha Dias, a fair-skinned corporate executive in Colombo, has been dating a dark-skinned woman for five years. His previous girlfriend also was dark-skinned.

“Personally, I don’t think skin color should matter, especially if you are looking for a partner,” says Dias, 24.

A woman’s character and personality are far more important, he says.

Dias thinks fair skin is prized in Sri Lanka because it’s rare.

“One of the reasons why more Sri Lankans prefer fairer skin may be because the majority of Sri Lankans are dark-skinned,” he says. “So they are attracted to what they do not have.”

Dias knows of no one in his family or circle of friends who has suffered from color discrimination.

“Your skin color absolutely does not matter to being successful in Sri Lanka,” he says. “I know many people of a dark skin color who are tremendously successful, high achievers.”

Samuel says the Maliban ad does not reflect a national trend.

“The indigenous ads, developed by and in Sri Lanka, have been largely sensitive to various issues, whether it’s the skin color issue or some other,” she says. “A lot of the ads for fairness products that we see in Sri Lanka are produced in India, and it reflects a thinking and a stereotype from India. It is not our own.”

The advertising agency, which is discussing a new ad campaign with Maliban, says it learned a valuable lesson from the controversy.

“When addressing a subject with cultural sensitivities, we need to think through much more and do a bit of research, so that we don’t get carried away by a creative idea,” Marshall says.

The agency did not anticipate the backlash because most Sri Lankans are dark-skinned, Marshall says.

“We are who we are,” she says. “Personally, to me, skin color is no big deal because it’s the person inside you which really matters.”