Sucheta Dalal :Need to monitor advertising for children
Sucheta Dalal

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Need to monitor advertising for children  

June 18, 2002

Motherhood, pester power and emotional blackmail - Indian marketers have cottoned on to the fact that these three themes can sell just about anything - from food and toys, to insurance products, tonics, televisions and air-conditioners.

Several months ago I wrote about Novartis India telling school children that they need two calcium tablets (Calcium Sandoz) a day to develop healthy bones. After complaints by the Consumer Education and Research Centre of Ahmedabad, Novartis dropped the exaggerated promotional campaign it was conducting inside schools.

Today, you have LG doing much the same with televisions. The advertising theme is a paranoid young mother who refuses to let her moppet watch television in order to protect his vision. Result: the kid turns dumb and thinks that natural geysers are found in bathrooms instead of New Zealand.

On the other hand, the class nerd fed on a diet of intense television viewing has all the answers (he is apparently allowed to watch LG television whose Golden Eye™ protects optic nerves). Wow!

I wonder why nobody figured out that the information-challenged kid probably inherited a bad set of genes from a dumb mother. Instead, in comes LG and presto! - little dumbo is now a walking endorsement for Discovery and Natural Geographic combined.

Another advertisement has a hysterical mother looking for her child who hasn't returned from school. The kid is discovered gawking at television displays in shop windows. "But you don't let me watch television," whines the brat explaining his after-school pastime. The emotional blackmail works - and the brat happily skips home to a LG TV. Does anyone want to place bets on whether he will watch cartoon network and MTV, instead of National Geographic and Discovery?

Whether one likes it or hates it, the LG campaign certainly stands out in the clutter. And that is three-fourth of the advertising battle.

Companies know that children have disproportionate influence over their parents' purse strings. Media studies reveal that children influence a stupendous $500 billion worth of purchases in America; that is why advertising is aimed more at kids than at mommy dearest. They not only influence the purchase of children's products but also apparently have a say in everything from cars to toothpaste.

US studies on the impact and influence of advertising on children show that:

  • An estimated $12 billion a year is now spent on advertising and marketing to children (The Kids' Market: Myths and Realities; McNeal, James; 1999)
  • Young children are not able to distinguish between commercials and TV programs. They do not recognise that commercials are trying to sell something (Television and the American Child; Comstock, George, 1991; Academic Press Inc)
  • In 2000, teenagers, ages 12 to 17, spent a record $155 billion (New York Times; Salamon, J. March; 2001).
  • In 2001, children ages four to twelve spent an estimated $35 billion (Tapping the Three Kids' Markets. American Demographics; McNeal, James; April 1998).
  • In 1997, children 12 years and under, directly and indirectly, influenced the household spending of $500 billion (McNeal, 1998).

In Britain too the numbers are startling. That is why advertising agencies such as McCaan-Erickson and Saatchi and Saatchi have launched separate divisions to produce advertising aimed at children.

Advertisers with their bag of goodies and promotions have entered classrooms and begun to put up billboards and posters inside schools. They persuade cash-starved schools into opening their doors to them by paying for access to classrooms and space for their advertising material and promotions.

Others are ensnaring them through Web-based groups providing free e-mail accounts and contests with tempting prizes.

Naturally, concerned society has begun to protest. Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Austria have even imposed an outright ban on advertising during children's television programmes.

In Britain, The Independent Television Commission's code on advertising clearly says, "No method of advertising may be employed which takes advantage of the natural credulity and sense of loyalty of children."

LG's advertisements do just that; in the process they also target credulous parents.

Another rule says: "No advertisement may lead children to believe that if they do not have or use the product or service advertised they will be inferior... or liable to contempt or ridicule." The LG advertisement would probably not make it past this rule too.

Many parents in Britain, however, argue that the ITC code is not as effective as it ought to be. In New York, activist parents got together to form an alliance called Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children.

They held conferences and protests and also countered the advertising industry's Golden Marbles awards with their own five "Have You Lost Your Marbles?" awards.

There were five recipients. Reebok, for footwear ads featuring nude and bikini-clad models; distributors of 'Teletubbies' TV show, for promotional campaigns with McDonald's and Burger King; two market research companies which studied child psychology to boost sales; and the Channel One Network, which includes commercials in a daily newscast shown at 12,000 schools nationwide.

The protesters who included several top psychiatrists in the United States and children held placards that read: "I am not a target market. I am a child," or "What's worse than taking candy from a baby? Selling it to her," and "Happy meals are not on the food pyramid," et cetera.

Typically, US business lobbies are working hard to ensure that there will never be a blanket ban on advertising aimed at children as in Sweden and other countries. They argue that many things that are good for children are supported by marketing dollars.

That could well be the case in India too. But who is to decide what is good and what is not? How do we protest against subtle and insidious campaigns that promote excessive materialism, poor eating habits and other insecurities?

Clearly, rules governing advertising aimed at children differ dramatically from one country to another. At the same time, multinational companies are selling their products across the globe. The need, therefore, is to evolve an international code on such advertisements.

But that seems an impossible task, because such a code would have to take into account different cultural traditions and national priorities and it will also have to battle powerful manufacturers' lobbies that spend millions of dollars on breaking down such codes and restrictions.

In India, we are only just beginning to get used to the idea of having multiple purchase options on our shop shelves. We are still basking in the buy-one-get-one-free promotions and goodies that come along with almost every purchase, from durables to soaps.

The pressure of emotional blackmail (or pester power) has yet to reach the stage where it seriously harasses parents and drives them up the wall, but don't worry, it will happen soon enough - after all, a newly opened market is the happy hunting ground of aggressive marketing companies.

Until then, it would be a good starting point if concerned parents become vigilant and begin to protest the most blatant forms of exploitation of their children's' credulity.

-- Sucheta Dalal