TV ads hard sell to children

IN Media Practice | 15/08/2004
In India, "hard-sell" is that much easier. The lack of laws regulating advertising ensure unscrupulous manipulation of the target audience.

But the advent of cable TV, the steadily growing impact of attractive and persuasive TV adverts and the targeting of children through "hard-sell" has changed all that. Indian children today - meaning all those who are reached through the 80 million TV sets that are avidly watched - are evolving differently. They 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. Thanks to unregulated advertising on private TV channels, children seem to be in a perennial state of want.

Like many trends and patterns related to the increasing influence of the market, even this one is a spillover from the West. The US, however, woke up to the effects of advertising on children way back in the 1970s. And although the USA 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.

But 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. Up 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.

In the early years of cable TV in India, Namita Unnikrishnan and Shailaja Bajpai conducted a study titled `The Impact of Televison 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. The study, which was based on a survey conducted in Delhi (and later published by Sage in 1996), says, "...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."

More than a decade later, with no regulations, more TVs, more channels and slicker ads, the figures are bound to be substantially higher. 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".

Although children generally are very perceptive and intelligent, 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 toy manufacturing company based in the US admits that their selling strategy is to make children who do not have their products feel "uncool or inferior".

Chandra Ravikumar, an experienced teacher in Bangalore, recalls that years ago in the US, a cola company gave out feeding bottles free with their product; the design of the feeding bottle was exactly like the bottle in which the cola was sold. "The idea was based on research which indicated that the child would choose their cola by age nine or 10, when given a choice." Ravikumar adds, "I once taught at a school where a new principal threw out the sugarcane juice vendor from near the school gate and allowed a cola booth to be set up within campus."

Schools aiding sales promotions or tying up with international food giants have become a common occurrence in Bangalore and other Indian metros. Schools and day cares often allow promotional song and dance campaigns where the children are given product samples. 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, (she justifies) we have a Nestle booth on campus."

Child Psychiatrist Dr 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 adverts 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 having gone to 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, who was creative director with a leading advertising agency, says that although Indian ad agencies haven`t gone into targeting children as in the US, "we do seriously look at children". As a father of two small girls he 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 problems like 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?

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