Oh, the Web Woven by Unilever

Here I am this afternoon, writing in a conscious effort to stumble back towards relevancy on this blog. I sat down with the idea of commenting on this recent article from the New York Times Magazine about the intersection between public health and marketing for Lifebuoy soap in India. It opens with the idea that corporate social responsibility is not just the domain of large, Western-owned corporations charitably distributing part of their profits to the poor around the world. Another model is to sell to the poor directly, while supplying some sort of benefit to them along the way. Sounds a lot like Grameen Bank’s yogurt (see my post on February 7, 2007).

So, rather than just sell their Lifebuoy soap in India, Unilever has simultaneously run a pro-handwashing campaign that, quite rightly, reminds people that soap can prevent many of the myriad communicable diseases in this country. Another part of their scheme was to introduce smaller bars of soap that would be more affordable. I remember several years ago when I sat in the library of Seva Mandir, an NGO that advocates for the poor in Rajasthan, and read about their efforts to educate village midwives about the benefits of washing their hands before delivering babies. Certainly, it’s not a given that rural people will know how important soap is.

But I couldn’t get another New York Times article, published only two weeks ahead of the Lifebuoy piece, out of my mind. This one had rather a rather creepy analysis of India’s fondness for skin lightening creams, including prominent coverage of the Fair and Lovely brand owned by…Unilever. The article proposed that such creams might in fact be empowering to women, because their new light-skinned selves would be more likely to win competitive corporate jobs previously open to men. Hmmm….

Which brings me to the Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. In the United States, Dove has embarked on a grassrootsy-flavored marketing blitz to reassure women that diversity is beautiful. Dove is also owned by Unilever.

But while researching the Dove connection, I ran into this little gem. From Axe, a men’s body spray owned by…Unilever.

Axe

But wait! It gets even more confusing. Back to India, where I’ve happened upon several postcard ads for Axe displayed outside the bathrooms of Delhi nightclubs. I can’t find the images online, so I’ll just describe in brief. Basically, they’re mug shots of women who’ve been arrested for molesting, stalking, and otherwise pursuing men saturated with the scent of Axe. Their catch phrase for this irresistability, worldwide, is The Axe Effect. If you just glance quickly, though, it’s easy to mistake the postcards as commands to molest or stalk the woman pictured.

Unilever, my brain hurts.

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