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What is “Flesh” Color? The History of Skin Tone Band-Aids

Band-Aid brand finally being released in broad skin tones, but they weren’t the first in the market.

bandaid color shades
Johnson & Johnson have just announced new darker skin tone Band-Aid products, in the midst of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

Apex Hides The Hurt by Colson Whitehead - book cover

Double-Pulitzer winning author Colson Whitehead’s 2007 satire novel Apex Hides the Hurt centers around an African American nomenclature consultant, whose crowning achievement was naming a new multicultural bandage that revolutionized the adhesive bandage industry. Flesh-colored be damned – no matter your skin tone, Apex will match it, or your money back.

The discussion over “flesh-colored” band-aids is not new. In 1968, African American comedian Nipsey Russel asked the following question of Band-Aid salesman Both Cuthbert during an episode of game show What’s My line?

Nipsey Russel: “Do you have a flesh colored band-aid?”
[Audience and Cuthbert laugh.]
Nipsey: “I dare you to say yes.”
[Audience laugh, applaud and cheer.]
Bob Cuthbert, donning a perfect salesperson’s smile: “Nipsey, we make Band-Aid brand sheer strips which blend with any color skin.”

Of course no transcript can ever do a heated moment justice, and the clip is well worth watching.

So it is with great pride that Johnson & Johnson announced this week, that it will “embrace the beauty of diverse skin” and release BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages* not just in transparent plastic, but also in a variety of light, medium and deep shades of brown and black skin tones. The timing is perfect, coming in the midst of the current (June 2020) Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the US.

A 1955 ad for J&J Band-Aids. “Neat, flesh-colored, almost invisible”…if you’re white.

Ebon-Aide packaging
Ebon-Aide: hindered by terrible distribution AND packaging

It is worth noting, as pointed out in reactions on social media, and covered in HuffPo and other sources, that competitors Browndages and Tru-Color have been available for years. They’re sold both direct to consumer and through big chain stores like Target, and there is something to be said about supporting smaller companies over congolmerates. What current coverage fails to mention is the history of one such failed competitor, Ebon-Aides, which in the late 90s not only led the way with darker toned products, but successfully convinced national chains like Walmart and Rite Aid to stock their range. Unfortunately, the stores didn’t place on shelves with the Johnson & Johnson items, instead placing them in specialty sections for African Americans and Hispanics. No doubt also hindered by the poor branding (name, logo, design) within a few years the company had only sold 2% of the 1 million boxes made, and the company folded in 2002.

For Johnson & Johnson, I have no doubt other color band-aids were already in the works, especially after one man’s social post on the emotional impact of having a Tru-Color brand band-aid in his skin tone went viral, just 14 months ago.

Proving that the post went truly viral, emotional replies and reactions themselves also went viral.

Was Nipsey Russel’s public question to Johnson & Johnson in 1968 heeded? To quote LA marketing consultant Harry Webber, the person responsible for the advertising of Johnson & Johnson’s Band-Aid from 1963 to 1968, the product’s “flesh color” shade was “a non-issue” during his the time he was promoting it. “Johnson & Johnson’s consideration was this was a mass market product, and as mass market product you look at what is the largest faction of that market and you create the product for that faction,” he said. “So for non-whites, at that time being between 12 percent and 15 percent of the total population, there was no way anybody was considering making a Band-Aid Brand adhesive bandage to mask the color of skin that is the complete spectrum, from pink to ebony.” Read the full piece at The Atlantic

For comparison, in the 2010 US census (the most recent year for which data is available), 28% of the population identified as non-white, and white births have been the minority since 2012. With 64% market share in 2013, it’s great to see Johnson & Johnson, the market leader in adhesive bandages taking this step, even if it is a century late.


* Confused about the term band-aid? Originally a protected trade-mark of Johnson and Johnson, the term has become genericized, making its way into everyday English in the US and Australia, along with other terms like “hoover” to mean vacuum cleaner, and “kleenex” to mean facial tissue. As a result, Johnson and Johnson always use the special capitalization and full phrase “BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages.”

Crayola skin color box Colors of the WorldFurther reading:

Crayola Launches Box of Crayons with Diverse Skin Tones to ‘Advance Inclusion in Creativity’ | People.com
Crayola also plan to sell a 32-count pack, comprised of 24 skin tone colors plus an additional four hair and eye colors.

What do you think?

Written by David Frank

David Frank is a Seattle-based marketer, writer (co-founder of Good/Bad Marketing) and public speaker. Originally from Perth, Western Australia, he has also lived in the UK, Japan and Vietnam. He has a Master of Science in Marketing degree from Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland.

He tours talks on marketing for the general public. His current talks are:
- Dangerous Products: The History and Present of Products NOT Safe to Consume
- Sensory Marketing and the Subtle Science of Packaging
- Sex, Love & Marketing: How To Market Yourself On Online Dating Sites​
- How to Market Tobacco (Despite Those Pesky Advertising Bans)
Learn more at http://www.thedavidfrank.com/talks.html

In his spare time, David is an avid gardener. https://instagram.com/seattlefoodgardener

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