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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Fair and Lovely Debate Continues

By Rob Katz

Andrew Leonard, author of Salon.com's excellent "How the World Works" column, continues to track the Fair and Lovely debate between C.K. Prahalad and Aneel Karnani. His latest post, from February 22, is definitely worth reading (sorry I haven't stayed up on this as much as I should have; we've been proofing the final copy for our forthcoming report on the size and scope of BOP markets all week.)

I think it would be more accurate to say "Fair & Lovely would not be a commercial success if it was not advertised." NextBillion's defense of HLL's actions understates the role that corporations play in the manufacturing of desire that is not rational. To say that the market "worked" because after years of struggle two advertisements were banned, long after HLL had generated considerable revenue by pushing the message that lighter skin equals happiness, seems a bit disingenuous.

One of the crucial points of Karnani's critique was to demonstrate that just because there may be opportunities for profit in the poorest sectors of global society does not necessarily mean that corporations are improving the circumstances of the very poor by successfully marketing products to them. The success of an advertising campaign does not equate to rational behavior on the part of a consumer -- it is, instead, a successful seduction of the consumer. And I would think most people who have been around the block once or twice would agree: Allowing oneself to be seduced isn't always an exercise in good sense.
What I found interesting about his latest installment, in addition to the text copied above, were some of the comments posted by Salon.com readers. One reader, Praktik, argues that Fair & Lovely is the outgrowth of rational choice for consumers of all income levels. Read his full comment, but the final thought really sticks out:
The lesson is not that consumerism is manufactured, but that it is an outgrowth of scarcity and status in society. We are all "keeping up with the Jones", even those that loudly proclaim they aren't. Indians can't simply decide not to pay attention to skin tone, its a feature of their society that dictates income, respect and position. There is no way for them to "opt out" of desiring a product like "Fair and Lovely" without the whole structure of society also changing.
The whole debate - between Prahalad and Karnani, with Andrew Leonard and NextBillion.net weighing in, tells me that there's a lot more to learn about the "base of the pyramid" as both a market and as a strategy. There's academic work going on in this area, with Cornell and Michigan leading the way. And our upcoming publication - to be released on March 19 - will hopefully add some empirical levity to the debate as well.

Skin-lightening cream is always going to be controversial, but if a private sector-led solution increases access to healthcare, clean water, energy, transport, and other "basic goods," will the debate persist?
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