Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Selling Soap and Stardom: The Story of Lux

Sabeena Gadihoke
Maybe fifty years ago, country-folks sometimes believed the advertisement. I don’t think that during the last twenty years or so that I have been seeing the ad, anyone believes a word of it. Even countryside folks are not gullible enough to believe that the Cine stars use the soap, but the farce continues! Even the Stars know that, people know that, even HLL (Hindustan Levers Limited) knows that everyone knows that, nevertheless, every ad is made as sincerely and as devotedly as the previous one. The very fact that from Devika Rani onwards every star has been starring in the ad, has perhaps made it a “must-do” thing. Every aspiring starlet must be making it her career goal to appear in the Lux ad. Has it become a kind of a benchmark?"1



Here is a monochromatic image of actress Meena Kumari (Fig. 01) in a 1954 calendar from the Priya Paul collection advertising Lux toilet soap. As the quote above suggests, her appearance in this advertisement had a long history. Devika Rani may have been one of the foremost stars of early talkies cinema but in 1941 the distinction of being the first Lux model went to her contemporary, Leela Chitnis. Appearing in a Lux advertisement was indeed a “must do” thing for a female movie star in India, a way of announcing her arrival in the industry. One of the longest running campaigns the world over, Lux, an international venture of Levers Brothers, featured Hollywood stars in most parts of the world. This is not surprising since Hollywood was the only global film industry at the time. Lux entered India in 1929 and while its early advertisements would feature Hollywood actresses, they would eventually be replaced almost completely by local stars. This essay tracks why and how this happened and the implications of this repetitive campaign. Viewing the advertisement as a cultural commodity that sold stardom more than soap, I trace the Lux campaign through various stages of production and consumption.2 Marked by its use of the portraiture of known faces, Lux can be seen as one of the earliest forms of celebrity endorsements. As an extra cinematic site that showcased female stardom for its consumers, the repetitive advertisement could also be situated within practices of cinephilia.

Early Illustrated Advertisements for Lux

Early Lux adverts in India featured painted portraits of Hollywood stars. Some of these were printed in English newspapers and magazines. Of course the westernized and elite movie-going Indian audience reading these newspapers would have been able to identify known faces.3 These two images for instance featured in the Times of India Annual of 1937. (Figs. 02, 03) While their faces may appear vaguely familiar, they do not seem to belong to any recognizable star. Perhaps some of them were just generic images of "glamorous women," the presumed visual iconography of stars.


Surprisingly in early years Lux would target a vernacular public using the same imagery! The reverse of the Lux advertisement reproduced here as figure 04 and featuring a rather risqué image of presumably a "foreign actress," bears an Urdu text announcing cash prizes worth ten thousand rupees (fig. 05). This advertisement is credited to the Indian branch of Levers established in 1933. Consumers in different localities were asked to collect four paper wrappers with numbers printed on the inside. Every week individuals with the highest figure after adding these numbers would be awarded Rs.100. Besides giving us information about the interactive promotional strategies of the company,4 this advertisement also points to the geographical dispersal of Levers in India before Independence with a reach extending to Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and Karachi.


Anne McClintock offers a fascinating account of how the humble bar of soap would become a major item of imperial trade in the late nineteenth century.5 Its origins lay in the home. Housewives would first be persuaded to use soap and later taught that the same soap was damaging their hands. Thus by the 1920s, Lux, which had originally targeted housewives to wash their gentle fabrics with flakes, was encouraging them to preserve their hands (“soft, youthful, lovely, feminine”) and later, their skin, by using its soap.6 From the mid-nineteenth century, soap was one of the most potent signs of modernity’s global imaginary implicated as it was in multiple discourses of cleanliness and public health. It was also one of the first products to be sold widely, so advertising is often referred to as "selling soap." Mcclintock points out the discourses of power inherent in this small but potent commodity that could address a range of concerns during its journey: “The emergent middle class values-monogamy (“clean” sex, which has value), Christianity (“being washed in the blood of the lamb”), class control (“cleansing the great unwashed”), and the imperial civilizing mission (“washing and clothing the savage”) could all be marvelously embodied in a single household commodity.”7 It might be useful to remember that most soap was represented by imperial companies that sent their products all over the world. By the mid nineteenth century there were about ten such large players.8 While some of them used the same advertising strategies as those for their domestic markets, their encounter with the colonies would necessitate some changes too. As has already been indicated before, Levers would do the same but before turning to how they changed their campaign in India, let us look at some strategies deployed by other soap companies.

1 Posted by Raghav2k on Mouthshut.Com, a product rating site where members reviewed Lux on April 23rd 2001. Last accessed April 29 2010
2 See earlier work on stardom by Richard Dyer and Christine Gledhill. This essay is especially indebted to Neepa Mazumdar’s book on female stardom in India, Wanted: Cultured ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India 1930s-1950s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
3 Hedy Lamarr and Pola Negri were among the early Hollywood Lux women in India. Theirs were recognizable faces having appeared in big hits of the time. I am grateful to Shyam Benegal and Gautam Rajyadhaksha for their insights on early Lux campaigns.
4 The very first Lux advert in 1941 with Leela Chitnis encouraged viewers to send postcards requesting a free autographed photo print of the star.
5 McClintock, Anne. “Soft Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising” in Double Crossings: Madness, Sexuality and Imperialism. Vancouver, Canada: Ronsdale, 2001
6 Sivulka, Julianne. Soap, Sex and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of Advertising. Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1998, pp 206
7 McClintock, p. 208
8 McClintock, p. 211

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