Whitening ads and wounded pride: Belo whitening ads pulled out amid criticism

By Krysty Choi
Originally posted at Whitening ads and wounded pride: Belo whitening ads pulled out amid criticism

In what seems like yet another advertising campaign gone bad, Filipinos are once again up in arms – this time over a Belo whitening ad targeted towards men. Belo Men is a line of skin care products for men, produced by the popular Belo Medical Group. Cristalle Henares, daughter of the eponymous Vicky Belo and representative of the company, has already apologized, reiterating that the goal of the campaign was to be humorous and not offensive.

Perhaps what made matters worse is the fact that the Belo Men ads are the latest in a long line of offensive and “racist” ads to appear this year. There is the Bayo “What’s Your Mix” campaign, the much derided Block & White whitening lotion TVC, and the Executive Optical billboard that shows a pretty young woman with poor eyesight choosing a dark-skinned man over her mestizo suitor.

10% lighter, 100% more sosyal

The Belo Men ads promote the brand’s latest skin whitening line for men, as Vicky Belo noted that one of the biggest draws of her clinic was its whitening procedure. Henares echoed the sentiment, specifically noting that Filipino men wanted light skin but didn’t want to be direct about the matter, hence the need for the line to resort to a more humorous approach. The offensive ads, therefore, were supposed to be tongue-in-cheek.

And they are, if you look closely. One of the ads show the male model throwing his keys to the valet and speaking in what is most often referred to as coño speak – a derisive term for the accented speech of wealthy, young mestizos. The very word “coño” is outright vulgar but has come to be an accepted colloquial term for a uniquely Pinoy stereotype: the wealthy, arrogant, and disconnected young man or woman who cannot speak Filipino straight and has to resort to a sing-song accent and language peppered with words like “dude” and “pare”.

The fact that the “coño” is a caricature should be factored in when analyzing the Belo Men ads. Take note that the model isn’t literally more sosyal – he just thinks he is. As Liz of Project Vanity astutely points out, his car is a KIA – definitely not the most sosyal of cars. It’s definitely attempting to elicit laughter from its viewers, but the other two ads from the same Belo Men whitening campaign don’t really get the same treatment.

Whereas the one with the valet can be described as a smart move, the other two ads are outright presenting the now fair-skinned model as moving “up”. He is accepted by his mestizo future father-in-law and in another ad is shown getting more attention from women. The humorous treatment is lost.

Insensitively accurate

Belo and Henares have both pointed out that the goal of whitening, as far as their understanding of their market is concerned, is related to an increase in confidence. Belo explained, “They don’t want to be really white but they just want to be fairer kasi sabi nila parang mas clear ang complexion, parang they feel more confident.” It’s not just wanting to be lighter in skin tone; the goal is to have skin that looks even and therefore appears smoother.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and even the light-hearted and humorous treatment ended up leaving Belo Men with egg on its face, so to speak. The ads have been met with harsh criticism, with many commenters wondering about the spate of offensive ads and commercials appearing in quick succession this year.

There are several primary criticisms lobbed against the Belo Men ads, chief of these the supposed “racist” undertones they present. But is it really racist? Calling the ads racist means that viewers only identify themselves with dark skin (i.e. Filipinos equals moreno) and that people with light skin are not Filipinos. This is patently untrue, given that Filipinos come in a variety of skin colors, which makes claims of racism far-fetched.

To call the ads discriminatory and offensive is a lot more realistic. The last two ads do show obvious preference for whiter skin, claiming, in effect, that lighter skin will bring you attention and acceptance. The first ad, however, is actually bang on in identifying a piece of the Filipino psyche.

The truth is that a lot of Filipinos still associate fair skin with wealth. Call it conditioning, or colonial mentality, or whatever you want – there’s no denying that this exists. In a way, the Belo Men ad shines a light on Filipinos’ love-hate relationship with fair skin. On one hand, it is impossible to deny that a large portion of the population actually wants to be fairer, seeing as whitening products and procedures (as Belo has pointed out) remain very popular.

On the other hand, any suggestions that Filipinos want to be lighter for various reasons (vanity, confidence, etc.) are viewed negatively and immediately shut down. This is why the “coño” is a caricature – it is a stereotype that people make fun of. It is someone derided and insulted. Nevertheless, half of the country’s most popular celebrities would fit the “coño” stereotype.

How’s that for complicated?

Brown and white

The Belo Men ads were undoubtedly an attempt to market products in a humorous manner. Unfortunately, the execution has failed to send across the brand’s message, leading to a rather offensive ending. The maelstrom of criticism, however, also seems disproportionate. Do people really have to burst a vein over ads that offend their sensibilities?

It’s disheartening to note that even when there is legitimate reason to be offended (as in the case of the Belo Men ads), some of the critics go overboard and outright insult fair-skinned people (“brown is better”) and the people who do like to be fairer. Live and let live seems to be a forgotten phrase; if people want fairer skin then no one should be able to tell them otherwise. Unless there’s an actual health risk involved in the process, there’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t achieve the skin tone they want.

Skin color will always be a matter of contention and sensitivity in this country. There’s no reason to spew hate to be “nationalistic”, though. These ads may be offensive, but they’re only reflecting the unhealthy relationship this country has with skin color. These ads will keep cropping up, and will keep offending sensibilities, as long as this country’s issue with skin tone and identity remain unresolved.