Saturday, September 17, 2005

Soft targets for hard sell

Soft targets for hard sell -- Imaging by Gaurav SoodThanks to aggressive and smart advertising on TV, youngsters have never been more aware and assertive about what they want and how. Even as parents dither over their children’s never-ending demands, it remains the advertisers’ day out with kids, says
Priyanka Singh

It is there for everyone to see. Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults. Catching them young makes good advertising sense. Thus we are faced with a torrent of advertisements aimed at children. As prime time audience for market goodies, children are all too aware of being center-stage. They see themselves as individuals and not merely as an extension of the family. And, the signal sent out by them as well as the advertisers is that their opinion ought to matter — that is, if it doesn’t count already.

The reasons for this are a plenty. Dynamic market forces have been exerting an active pressure and unlimited exposure to information has created infinite choices. Exclusive clothes boutiques for children like Li’l Tomatoes, Weekender Kids, G&J, Benetton and Nikaki abound. Branded footwear like Reebok and Nike are here too. Round-the-clock cartoon channels that cater only to this section — hitherto dismissed as insignificant — have generated the idea of "kids space."

Television programmes are interspersed with ads that feature children with the aim of targeting them, at times subtly and more often than not blatantly. Be it a disinfectant for floors, washing powder, paints, confectionery, milk powders, additives, soft drinks, noodles or even Hajmola, children are roped in to promote and sell all kinds of products.

Generation-X is increasingly getting involved in the decision-making process and becoming more assertive of its choices. Children nowadays are more brand conscious, sure about what to shop and where. It could be hi-fi top Bey Blade, Superman costume, Barbie and Powerpuff girl accessories, Bob the Builder series, Winnie the Pooh range, selection of gifts or books, venue for the birthday party and even the colour of the new family car, children are exercising their choices as mini adults. In a nutshell, they are forming views and firming them up.

Advertisers have been cashing in on the fact that most children turn to the idiot box during their spare and non-study time, which generally adds up to a couple of hours. To expect that children should remain unaffected by the ad messages they are being bombarded with day in day out would amount to asking for the impossible and shutting one’s eyes to actuality.

Brand power

Children also get carried away seeing their favourite stars endorse products. Be it Amitabh Bachchan campaigning for chocolates or posing as a principal to sell the idea of Rin to a tiny tot seeking admission, or a Shah Rukh Khan singing the "bubbly" jingle to promote a soft drink or taking a joyride to sun city with a child to endorse Sunfeast biscuits, the children lap it all up. Rani Mukherjee too is not far behind with her Munch act and Suniel Shetty is the latest on the ad scene with a tooth powder.

Advertisers are aware that nothing works with kids as well as freebies. Clever schemes combine small gifts with products to attract kids and impact their choices. McDonald’s "happy meal" entices them with attractive toys as does Bournvita that offers free glares with every buy. It is not surprising, therefore, that 40 per cent of McDonald’s profits come by ‘happy meals’. Some products like Cheetos lure kids with an odd tattoo or tazo.

"It gets tough sometimes with my daughter wanting practically everything she sees on TV. She is clear on what kind of a school bag or stationery set she wants. If she is not allowed to have her way, a tantrum follows. The kids may not be able to read their alphabet but they can identify a Noddy. And it isn’t easy to fool kids anymore," says Shivani Vats, a teacher in Army School and a single mother to a four-year-old daughter.

Trying to get a toehold in this flux are parents who can’t decide whether they should be friends first to their children and ride along the tide or stick to their traditional parenting role even as there is a visible shift in the approach of parents who are becoming more realistic and flexible. How much to give in to the children’s demands is hard to arrive at but many parents feel that a free hand will not do.

"It’s okay to meet the demands for Pokemon cards and tazos, GI Joes and Hot Wheel cars and some odd snack that catches my son’s fancy on TV, but even that isn’t always possible. They are glued to the TV sets most of the time and the ads don’t go unnoticed. The children are vulnerable and don’t realise the market strategy to create brand loyalty," says Monica Malik, an HCS officer and mother of a 12-year-old son.

Seven-year-old Dhruv Guleria pestered his mother to buy the Y Gen model of Hero cycle after he saw the ad on a cartoon channel. Talking about ads, he says, "I like to buy Uncle Chips because of the exchange offer under which I could get Batman stickers and a T-shirt depending on the number of wrappers I collect. After I saw the ad for Knorr soup which shows a boy doing the ‘sher’ act, I have been asking my mom to buy it even though I don’t like to have pre-made soup."

He believes that having a "happy meal" at McDonald’s or buying products which come with a free toy or gift is sound economic sense!

"I also tell my mom that noodles and pasta are no more junk as the ads show milk, atta and vegetables going into their making," he beams.

Col V.K. Batish, a neurosurgeon at the Command Hospital, Chandimandir, is of the view that there is no escaping the market forces in a changing environment.

"Buying knick-knacks is one thing but pampering kids is quite another. Influences will be there and even as the children must have their opinion heard and some demands met, parents mustn’t let go of control. This would only undermine their authority," he says.

This exposure has had another fallout. It has enhanced the confidence of children who seem more aware of their surroundings. They are into gadgets in a big way and have a better understanding of technology. Children-specific software has enabled children to handle computers from a very young age onwards. A child can now easily access the Internet and sift information for school projects.

On the flip side, when their demands for seemingly small things get met, they begin to feel they are capable of making choices and can understand their own needs better. This may be worrisome for parents as the demands would not always be about the choice of cartoons, candies or shoes. There would be bigger issues as the children grow up and there could be conflicting views.

Chandigarh-based psychologist Rajshree Sarda feels succumbing to market frenzy may not augur well for the future. "Since children can’t analyse, they can’t sift right and wrong choices. A parent must be at hand to offer guidance. Once in a while, it is justified to accept their demands as there may be no reason to deprive a child of small joys," she says.

Parents’ dilemma

Would letting children take decisions, howsoever small, not make them more responsible? Rajshree doesn’t think so. "Deciding about clothes or video games is a non-issue but if parents allow this attitude to extend to other issues too, a child would want to take decisions on all matters that affect him or her and that will not be easy. We send confusing signals to the children when we encourage them to exercise their judgment on some matters but put our foot down when it comes to certain other issues.

"I am of the view that the choice of words should be sensible. For instance, instead of asking where a child would want to host a birthday party, it would be better to ask ‘where do you think we can have your birthday party?’ This way a child would have a say in it but at the same time know that it is a family decision," she adds.

Some parents, however, feel it is essential to initiate the child into the decision-making process during their early years, as it would help them to make choices and exercise options later on in life.

"Children are so much more aware than we were in our times. Now, we can safely leave it to them to decide what they wish to wear or buy. If there is a divergent view, the options can be spelt out but the final decision should be of the child. I think they should be allowed to take small decisions as it would give them a greater perspective on things and issues," says Anshul Sahu, a teacher at a Kendriya Vidyalaya.

Pritika Gulati, a counsellor, feels that parents must not repress the choices of children as it would mean preparing a rebel for a later stage. "Allow them to go up to a certain point and buy things that they require. If their views and demands are always shot down, they would have adjustment problems in adolescence. At the age of five upwards, get to their level and explain things to them. You’ll be surprised how easily they adapt to logic," she says.

The market forces are here to stay. For parents, now more than ever before, it is about balance and "adapting" to your children’s dreams as you fall a step behind them on the road that takes them there.

Buy buy kids 

There are no checks and balances to counter advertisers who zero in on kids, writes
Charumathi Supraja

About 15 years ago, when there was no cable TV in India, children used to be bright-eyed, and interested in playing outdoors. They had more "real" people than gadgets in their lives; and their favourite words weren’t "free" or "buy".

Indian children today—meaning all those who are reached through the 80 million TV sets that are avidly watched—not only spend several hours a day watching the idiot box, they also tell their parents where to bank, and which water purifier, soap, toothpaste and airline to buy or use.

The USA woke up to the effects of advertising on children way back in the 1970s. And although it still epitomises consumer culture, the media and social scientists have kept the issue alive. The UK, faced with an obesity epidemic in children, has strictly regulated TV advertisements that target children, especially food advertising. In other countries like Sweden, advertisements targeting children below 12 have been banned.

In India, as in other Third World countries that offer little resistance in terms of awareness or discussion, "hard-sell" is that much easier. While a majority of the parents are scarcely aware that their children are the targets of a multi-million dollar sellers’ conspiracy, the lack of laws regulating advertising ensure unscrupulous manipulation of the target audience. Until now, the government hasn’t reflected any inclination to address this issue seriously. Worse, there is a paucity of social research that looks at the negative impact of advertising on Indian children.

Namita Unnikrishnan and Shailaja Bajpai conducted a study titled ‘The impact of television advertising on children’. "In 1992, an estimated 35 per cent of all TV ads were using children to attract consumer interest and a larger portion were targeting the child viewer specifically," says Unnikrishnan. According to the study, which was based on a survey conducted in Delhi (later published by Sage in 1996), …Almost 75 per cent of the children in the 8-15 age group say they want to own products advertised on TV. Their 10 favourite ads include even detergent and airline ads."

The study also pointed out that "the average Indian child" is very different from "the images of affluence and consumer culture" portrayed in TV ads. Urban children are being brought up with false images of "Indian families".

Children generally are very perceptive and intelligent but the fact is that they are considerably less informed—as compared to adults—and are a largely vulnerable audience for hard advertising. Social scientist Felix Greene wrote more than 30 years ago that advertising converts a child’s natural energy into "a permanent state of itchy acquisitiveness". It moulds the self-hood of a child on material acquisitions. A spokesperson for a popular US-based toy manufacturing company admits the selling strategy is to make children who do not have their products feel "uncool or inferior".

Schools aiding sales promotions or tying up with international food giants have become a common occurrence in Bangalore and other Indian metros. Promotional song and dance campaigns where the children are given product samples are allowed on campuses. The accent is on "buying" health, financial or other considerations be damned.

Deepa Sridhar, Principal of Sri Kumarans Children’s Home in Bangalore says, "Though we tell parents not to send junk food, children bring instant noodles. So, (and this sounds like a justification) we have a Nestle booth on campus."

Child psychiatrist S.M. Manohari says, "Parents use TV as an electronic babysitter and bribe them using TV toys or chips seen in ads to get children to behave, eat or cooperate. Children get into a rut of wanting things all the time." On the long-term effects of advertising on children she says, "What they see, they learn. Advertisements also encourage children to be fickle in their loyalties. They don’t develop long-lasting values and children mature in skewed patterns."

Many ads sell food and toys that parents may not be able to afford or want to give their children. This often leads to conflicts in parent-child relationships. "While we haven’t had any study to prove this, we have found that materialism is creeping into parent-child relationships in a big way. TV time is offered as a reward for attending tuition," says Dr H. Uma, a child psychologist at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences).

To counter the detrimental effects of food adverts, Kala Krishnan Ramesh, a mother of three, says, "We have to provide them with exotic snacks if we don’t want to buy them what they see on TV. I’ve also seen that involving children in the kitchen makes them very interested in food."

Nazarius Manoharan, creative director with a leading advertising agency and a father of two small girls, says "My wife and I have taken a conscious decision to combat (these parenting) problems by supplementing our daughters’ education at home and leading by example."

Sweden is the only country in the world to provide consumer and media education to schoolchildren. America and the UK, however, are grappling with child obesity, school shoot-outs, disillusioned teens and broken families. Child consumerism seems to have exploded in their faces. Is that where we want Indian children to go? — WFS