India still needs a counter-balancing force from regulation, awareness and active consumer associations, feels Pallavi Srivastava.
As the yellow car makes its way through the dusty and bumpy roads of Paragpur in Himachal Pradesh, a girl, hardly 10 years old, is all anxious. There are other kids in the village running after the car. The girl’s joy knows no bounds when her father drives the family’s new car home. The car in question here – Tata Nano -- is the cheapest car, as of now, in the Indian market and would burn a hole worth Rs 1.5 lakh at least in one’s pocket. But whether the TVC talks about family bonding or indirectly tries to influence kids is, however, debatable.
THE INFLUENCING POWER
If the code is poetry and numbers tell a story, consider the Cartoon Network New Generations 2011 study, which is an indicator of how important kids are for any marketer in India today. The study reveals that about 63% of Indian parents are involving their kids in car purchase decision-making. The number stood at 25% 10 years ago. Similarly, about 48% of parents are likely to consider their child’s opinion while buying a mobile phone.
Another report, IMRB Kidscan, too tells a familiar story – the highest influence of kids is on food and food products, kids’ products followed by household items. The report suggests that 73% of parents buy the food item that the child asks for. Seventy-one per cent of parents feel it’s important to ask for kids’ opinion while purchasing household items.
How ethical is it to market to kids? While globally, particularly in the Western countries, there is a growing awareness amongst marketers to not feature kids in their communication and not try and influence them, the Indian marketing fraternity is just about starting to wake up to the need. Eight companies – Coca Cola India, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, Nestle, Mars, PepsiCo and Hindustan Unilever - have come together to take the ‘India Pledge’, a commitment to change food and beverage advertising on TV, print, radio and Internet to children under the age of 12 years in India. The promise is that there would be no advertising of products to children under 12 years; and that there would be no communication related to products in primary schools.
A good move indeed and something that will fetch good PR for the companies. But these promises come with disclaimers in the order: Except for products which fulfil specific nutrition criteria based on accepted scientific evidence and/or applicable national and international dietary guidelines; and except for products which fulfill specific nutrition criteria based on accepted scientific evidence and/or applicable national and international dietary guidelines.Wait, there’s another clause too: “For the purpose of this initiative, ‘advertising to children under 12 years’ means advertising to media audiences with a minimum of 50% of children under 12 years.”
The India Pledge was to be implemented no later than December 31, 2010. For a reality check, see the comparative data from TAM AdEx for the years 2010 and 2011, to figure out the top 10 brands advertising on kids’ channels. Two companies that do not figure in the list besides Nestle are PepsiCo and Coca Cola. “PepsiCo voluntarily does not use children below 12 years of age in advertising on all products that do not meet its stringent global ‘Good for You’ nutrition criteria,” a PepsiCo spokesperson said. None of the fizzy drinks from the company use kids in their campaigns or advertise on kids’ channels. It applies the same strategy for its snacks brand, Lay’s. A Coca Cola spokesperson adds, “We have a global Responsible Marketing Policy that covers all our beverages, and we do not market any products directly to children under 12.”
Meanwhile, Kellogg’s India continues to spend 20% of its marketing budget on all kids’ channels. “In our advertisements, our messages to children accurately portray our products in a way that is in keeping with children’s ability to understand our intent and use language that is appropriate for this audience,” says Sangeeta Pendurkar, Managing Director, Kellogg’s India, adding, “We do not undermine authority, responsibility, or judgement of parents or caregivers in providing valuable guidance to their families.”
CAN THEY REALLY DECIDE?
At the same time, there is a view that if kids are active influencers in a certain consumption by the rest of the family, even the advertising and marketing of products not meant for kids will have to be allowed for kids. That’s the very foundation of informed choice. Having said that, there is a need for a code of ethics when marketers solicit children’s preferences. “Given the fact that the critical faculties and the cognitive defences take up to 10 years of age to develop, it is necessary to restrict unfair means of persuasion,” Vidyadhar Wabgaonkar, Senior VP - Strategic Planning, Draftfcb + Ulka says.
If an India Pledge is the starting point and the intention is right, the bigger question remains: In a country, which has thousands of brands and ten thousands of marketers taking care of them, only eight advertisers seem to acknowledge responsibility towards kids? A lot of food marketers, both Indian and MNCs don’t even have a separate guideline while marketing to kids.
Take for instance McDonalds. In one of its latest TVCs, in a role reversal, a kid promises his father that if he (the father) takes an injection from the doctor, without crying, he would treat him at McDonald’s. In the past too, the QSR brand has featured kids in its campaigns to market food (mainly burgers and fries), which do not meet any nutritional criteria. The brand doesn’t stop at just that. Its concept of ‘Happy Meal’ where kids get free toys is another example of irresponsible marketing to kids.
In fact, the ‘Happy Meals’ programme has come under attack from health practioners and the general public around the world. So much so that in San Francisco, lawmakers have banned restaurants giving free toys with certain foods (that don’t meet nutritional criteria). When we approached the company for its take on ‘code of ethics in kids’ marketing’ we got the routine reply that the team is travelling for a very long time. Surprisingly, a couple of the writer’s journalist friends have got inputs from the company during the same period! While the parent company has guidelines for marketing to kids in some countries, the brand’s official website in India is mum on the issue.
DO WE REALLY CARE?
“Kids are very impressionable and one can easily mislead them. Use of cartoon characters to market products to kids that are not good for them, is actually unethical,” feels Abraham Koshy, Marketing Professor, IIM-A. “Kids are protected by law, and if the law is protecting them, brands too need to practise fair marketing to protect them from harmful products and harmful behavior,” he adds.
So are Indian brands oblivious of the issue? KV Sridhar, National Creative Director, Leo Burnett, thinks that “Indian companies follow no rules when it comes to marketing to kids”. While Britannia has taken the lead to come up with the Britannia Nutrition Foundation to address the issue of child malnutrition, it has no reference to guidelines on marketing to kids on its website. The same is true for other Indian flagship companies like ITC and Dabur.
Another point of concern is the depiction of kids in a certain manner in campaigns. Experts are of the opinion that kids shouldn’t be depicted in a way that jeopardises their identity or mocks at them. Complan is one culprit here, which repeatedly ridicules kids with short height in its TVCs. Alan Collaco, Secretary General, ASCI, rightly says, “The key thing is that marketers should not exploit the vulnerability of children in any way.”
THE PESTER POWER
Depiction of ‘pestering parents’ in a positive light is another idea, which experts want marketers to avoid. “I feel the marketing concept of ‘Pester Power of Kids’ is itself wrong. It suggests using kids to pester the parents… this is not the right thing because kids don’t know whether that product is needed or not. I think that’s a very unethical thing for any marketer to follow, whether for products targeted at kids or for their parents or household use,” says Koshy. Other than that, making claims frivolously is another issue that needs to be tackled. Wabgaonkar agrees: “Declaration of contents on food packs and other products is still very basic in India. Content claims are allowed on very flimsy grounds. Even when the product has mere micro-grams of an ingredient, the regulation does not prevent the marketer from claiming its presence prominently in the communication.”
While there is a code laid down by the ASCI and even marketers are realising that marketing to kids could get them negative publicity, marketing to kids in India still needs a counter-balancing force from regulation and awareness and active consumer associations. Another set of experts feels that regulation or no regulation, marketers will smarten up with time and markets will make them change. “The world is changing and forcing the marketers to change too and behave themselves. A lot of smart marketers have realized that they cannot make friends with somebody by being rude to them or by not caring about them,” says Sridhar.