Vaseline Facebook Whitening App Makes America See Red

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“One time a thing occurred to me. What’s real, and what’s for sale?” That’s the opening line from the rock band Stone Temple Pilots’ song Vasoline. But it works nearly as well as a line of questioning regarding the Vaseline brand’s latest social marketing campaign in India: A Facebook application inviting Facebookers to lighten their skin.[more]

The Vaseline Men Be Prepared page (with about 550 “fans” so far), offers users an avatar-tweaking application to create a fairer-skinned and spotless profile picture. The example features Vaseline spokesman Shahid Kapur, with the Bollywood heartthrob’s face divided into dark and light halves with the tagline, “People see your face first.”

According to reports, the app has been a hit, which comes as no surprise. The men’s skin-lightening market in India is exploding, after decades of whitening products primarily targeting women. The category took off in 2005, when Emami introduced a male-targeted cream, and a cavalcade of brands followed.

Not surprisingly, some are upset. Gawker Media-owned Jezebel, with its characteristic nuance, called it “crowdsourcing racism.” Besides the product targeting a single race, and thus impossibly racist, Jezebel’s outrage has been shared around Western blogs, with very few attempts to understand all the complex elements of the situations.

Much ado about nothing? Maybe. But regardless of differing cultural norms in far off markets, Vaseline marketers must be aware that this is the age of the Internet, and reaction to a product on the shelf in India is not the same reaction that product will get on a consumer site.

Meanwhile, Vaseline (ahem) faces a brand challenge: a happy target market in-country, a rattled consumer base beyond its borders. It also comes at a time when Facebook is making inroads in India, opening its first office in the country as it looks to boost its growth there.

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