Zicklin Marketing Professor Wins Fellowship for Research on Skin-Tone Perceptions

Tanuka Ghoshal, Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Allen G. Aaronson Department of Marketing and International Business, was one of three Zicklin professors awarded a Eugene M. Lang Junior Faculty Fellowship this year. Prof. Ghoshal received $4,000 to complete her research project, entitled “Light is Attractive, but Dark is Competent: How Skin Tone Influences Human Brand Perceptions in India.” Pending review, Prof. Ghoshal’s research paper is slated for publication in the Journal of Marketing Research. She sat down for a Q&A with Zicklin News.

Woman in black blazer standing before bookcase

Tanuka Ghoshal, Assistant Professor of Marketing

Zicklin News: Tell us about your research. What’s your hypothesis? 

Tanuka Ghoshal:  Colorism, or judging people based on the color of their skin, is a globally ubiquitous phenomenon. In India, light skin is symbolic of beauty and status, often resulting in rampant social discrimination. While literature on the light skin bias (LSB) is abundant, none has systematically explored its mechanism and downstream marketing consequences. The current research investigates the effects of facial skin tone on the three basic dimensions of social perception — attractiveness (beauty), warmth (intention), and competence (ability) in India, and its impact on the perceived effectiveness of “human brands” (wherein an individual is the brand—for example, with matrimonial prospects or service providers).

We find that while there is an implicit (automatic) preference for light skin tones, light skin does not have a uniformly positive effect across all social judgments. LSB positively impacts perceived attractiveness, thus favoring light-skinned prospects in matrimonial alliances. However, people attribute higher competence (for example, skill, intelligence, capability) to dark-skinned individuals. Thus, when competence is made salient, a dark skin-toned service provider is evaluated more favorably than a light skin-toned one. We discuss practical implications for service marketers and social policy.

ZN: How did you conduct this research?

TG:  In our investigation we use a mix of methods such as content analysis of real-world circumstances, as well as field studies and laboratory experiments in diverse contexts.  We conducted five studies to examine the effects of skin tone on the dimensions of attractiveness, warmth, and competence among consumers in India. These included an implicit association test (IAT) to establish that LSB is indeed a form of an implicit bias such that there is an inherent positive association with light-skinned, as opposed to dark-skinned, individuals. Content analysis of matrimonial ads and a field study on a digital matrimonial platform showed that light skin implies attractiveness and therefore increases desirability in the widely prevalent “arranged marriage” market in India. Three additional experiments conducted on a general adult population (in-person and online), in which skin tone was manipulated to appear as light or dark, investigated how skin tone impacted perceived warmth and competence for service providers and professionals.

ZN Did you use your research in class?

TG: Some of my previous students in India have participated anonymously in some of the research studies for extra course credit. Participants are debriefed about the research and hypotheses after participation, and provided with my contact details. I have received many enthusiastic responses and questions from students about the research after debriefing. It is evident that many in India have personally faced the consequences of colorism, hence interest in the research is always high. In class I have discussed some of the studies to illustrate how experiments are designed in order to establish causality. I have also occasionally mentioned this research in the context of colorism when discussing social inequalities in my consumer behavior class at the Zicklin School.

ZN As a Eugene M. Lang Junior Faculty Fellow, you won $4,000 to further your research. How will this award help you do that?

TG: The award will fund the new studies requested by the Journal of Marketing Research to test additional hypotheses and boundary conditions — such as specifically examining gender effects and testing our hypotheses in a larger variety of service provider scenarios.

ZN Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

TG:  Our research has important social implications in the prevailing context in which passionate protests against inequalities due to color are ubiquitous globally (#blacklivesmatter) as well as locally (#darkisbeautiful, a Facebook campaign in India). In our paper we suggest some specific strategies for policy makers for deconditioning skin tone biases in the Indian context.