Sucheta Dalal :Should marketers be allowed to influence your child?
Sucheta Dalal

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Should marketers be allowed to influence your child?  

January 24, 2002

As a parent, would you not endorse a decision by your child's school, which encourages her to read a newspaper everyday? In fact, you would be even more approving if the prescribed newspaper was a leading national daily.

However, what about this situation? An elite school in Jaipur asks students to subscribe to a leading north India-based national daily in school. The paper has to be bought irrespective of whether the child's family already subscribes to the daily at home.

There is no choice, nor any test based on reports carried in the particular newspaper. The absence of choice smacks of coercive marketing and aggressive hard sell by the newspaper company with the school colluding in the promotional pitch.

The beauty of this sales gimmick is that most parents do not even dare to protest; after all, reading newspapers is a good habit and which parent would dare to antagonise the school principal over a good habit?

But the promotion of "good habits" also has its limitations and rules. And parents need to pay closer attention to the manner in which companies are influencing tender minds by entering schoolrooms to hawk their products. Often, they are only creating false demands and encouraging questionable habits - and it is time to analyse their subtle influence and persuasive messages or simply halt their efforts.

From toothpastes to crayons, instant noodles, chocolates and energy drinks, corporate India is now promoting these in schoolrooms. In one case, some children of one school even fell ill after eating free samples chocolate from a leading international brand.

Often enough, promotional gimmicks by manufacturers are merely aggravating - for instance, companies which hold competitions in schools where participation is allowed only on buying the company's products or being aware of its advertisements. They force you to shell out extra money or encourage your kid to watch too much television.

Everybody loves to receive gifts and free goodies, and often parents are loath to look out for hidden strings attached to corporate freebies.

But take a hard look at what is going on.

Promotions by drug companies are downright worrisome. For instance, Novartis India Ltd ? the manufacturer of Calcium Sandoz ? has been visiting schools in Ahmedabad to conduct promotional pitches for the product. The company asks children to consume two calcium tablets a day in order to develop strong bones and a sharp brain. The sales talk was accompanied by a bunch of goodies, such as a 15-tablet doggy pack of the product with a pencil and an eraser with the same doggy symbols.

The mother of one student, who took pride in ensuring that her child ate a healthy calcium rich diet, consulted a paediatrician about this propaganda. She was told that Calcium Sandoz contained salts in addition to calcium carbonate and its indiscriminate use by children who did not suffer from a deficiency could cause the intake of excess salts and lead to the formation of kidney stones.

The Consumer Education and Research Centre of Ahmedabad, with which I am associated, has written to the Minister of Human Resources Development, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, calling for an immediate ban on promotion of fast moving consumer goods and drugs in schools.

CERC has also asked for a ban on the distribution of free goodies, display of product banners and promotional material in schools, and a ban on competitions that require purchase of products or for children to watch television programmes.

CERC has also separately complained against Novartis asking for action against the company so that no other manufacturer would adopt the same route. (Incidentally, Novartis has not responded to CERC's attempts to contact it).

Preeti Shah, Senior Director of CERC, has alleged that "Novartis has been exploiting the natural credulity of children and their lack of experience to further its own commercial interests".

Clearly, if Novartis wanted to push its product, its target should have been the children's parents or their doctors. That it should approach kids without parental approval or a doctors' recommendation is reprehensible, so is the role of the schools that allowed the promotion.

Are there no rules against influencing innocent minds? In fact, there are very clear and specific rules that govern advertising aimed at minors, but schools that encourage corporate promotions are either ignorant or have become silent partners to these business houses.

Chapter III, Rule 2 of the Advertising Standards Council of India clearly says that "Advertisements addressed to minors shall not contain anything, whether in illustration or otherwise, which might result in their physical, mental or moral harm or which exploits their vulnerability".

The International Code on Advertising too supports this rule. Article 13 says, "Advertisements should not exploit the natural credulity of children or the lack of experience of young people and should not strain their sense of loyalty".

The British Code on Advertising is even more specific. Rule 50.16 clearly says, "Advertisements for medicines should not be addressed to children". Rule 50.21 says: advertisements for vitamin supplements "should not suggest that there is widespread vitamin or mineral deficiency or that it is necessary or therapeutic to augment a well-balanced diet".

Other than this, there are provisions in the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, which prevent games, contests and lotteries to be held for promoting the "sale, use or supply of a product".

CERC had demanded that manufacturers should not be allowed to enter school premises at all and should most certainly not have free time with children without parental permission. This may seem like an extreme demand, but is necessary when schools and teachers who take the place of parents do not use due discretion in discharging their duties.

The problem is that schools too are increasingly driven by commercial interests or are probably tempted by goodies from the companies. Thus, unless the new tendency to market children's products in schools is nipped in the bud, it wouldn't be long before classrooms and notice boards are sponsored and decorated by various corporate houses.

Instead of changing school curricula to promote Hindutva, the government will be better employed purging school premises of corporate houses. And only a specific government order can act as a check because parents are usually reluctant to take up cudgels against school authorities unless they are part of a large group of protesters. This is especially true in elitist schools where admissions have to be procured by paying hefty donations.

(Anyone who has similar objections or examples of such exploitation can contact Preeti Shah at [email protected])

Email: [email protected]

-- Sucheta Dalal