A Long Overdue “Topical” Change: Johnson & Johnson announces discontinuation of skin whitening products

July 10, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The American health product giant Johnson & Johnson has announced discontinuation of certain product lines sold only in Asia, advertised as dark-spot reducers, but commonly used by purchasers to lighten skin tone.

What does this mean?

Following a week where Quaker Oats removed its Aunt Jemima logo after calls that her character was based on a racial stereotype, Johnson & Johnson joined a number of companies in changing its business tactics to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Johnson & Johnson discontinued its Neutrogena “Fine Fairness” line sold in Asia and the Middle East, as well as the Clean & Clear “Fairness” line, sold only in India. The advertising campaigns for both product lines have been criticised for depicting the idea that customers should strive for fairer skin, promoting the “fairer and brighter skin” the fairness line helps to achieve, and boasting that the Neutrogena product “doubles your skin’s whitening power”.

What's the big picture effect?

The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2024, the skin-lightening industry will be worth $31.2bn, and by removing itself from this market, Johnson & Johnson may be disadvantaged. Nonetheless, with the two product lines representing less than 1% of Johnson & Johnson’s 2019 global beauty sales, it can be presumed that stopping its production will not be too detrimental to revenues. Public debate about the decision has taken two different viewpoints. Some see the decision as a powerful move, praising Johnson & Johnson’s choice to stop producing products that are seen as racist and stop projecting the message that Western beauty standards should be global standards. On the other hand, some think that consumers should not be stopped from buying such products if they wish, with one twitter user arguing that “colorism is extremely complex and predates colonialism and contact with the West”. Supporters of this argument have also said that “addressing Asian problems with more colonialism isn’t helpful”, and that the power of a Western multinational corporation to dictate which products can be used in Asia could be seen as a form of neo-colonialism. Being at the centre of this sensitive argument, Johnson & Johnson will need to take legal advice about how to address criticism wisely.

The decision taken by Johnson & Johnson may give it the upper hand over other companies who have been criticised for expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, while continuing to sell skin-lightening products. Over 11,000 people have signed a petition to stop Unilever from selling its product “Fair and Lovely”, advertised in India and the Middle East as helping women become more successful. The petition says the “product has built upon, perpetuated and benefited from internalized racism and promotes anti-blackness sentiments amongst all its consumers”. Amidst global debates recently fuelled by the murder of George Floyd, such associations for a company are hugely undesirable and could potentially have detrimental impacts on the reputation of a large corporation. Johnson & Johnson has mitigated this risk by its decision to remove its skin-lightening products, adding credibility to the claim that they “stand in solidarity with… Black colleagues, collaborators and community in the fight against racism, violence and injustice”.

It could be said that Johnson & Johnson has paved a positive path for many other Western pharmaceutical giants to follow, albeit one that is arguably long overdue.

Report written by Sophie Falk

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