From cradle to counter : The Must-buy generation
“Got late again today,” moaned Neha, to Aparajita during the lunch recess in school, “My watch-alarm is always running late!”. “My grandmom is my alarm clock...she is up at the crack of dawn.”, said Aparajita. “So is mine. But I bought more than 50 packs of sugar cookies only to get this watch as a free gift. So I better make good use of it,” said Neha, as she traipsed off to fetch a can of cola from the canteen counter.
She returned as Aparajita was taking a sip of her homemade lemonade. “Why do you drink that? This cola company is giving away special discount coupons for meals at McGerald’s fast food outlets—to all school students!” said she. “These colas make me queasy,” said Aparajita, “And I don’t want to drink a lot of sweet soda and grow fat!”
“If you are worried about your weight, then try those amazing diet pills I saw on the Net, last night. Ruksana Hussain uses them…and she really looked good in her last film, didn’t she?,” said Neha. “Yes,” cried Aparajita, now as excited as her friend, “Her hair is so thick and lustrous.
Why can’t mine be like hers?”. “Try the new Curls and Locks shampoo brand. It has a chemical that makes hair grow faster. I have bought a bottle already!.” Aparajita was speechless with wonder. “How do you know all this?” she asked.“Just keep your eyes and ears open,” said the smug Neha, “Look out for the advertisements, read beauty care magazines, and search the Net! But you don’t even watch TV…tch!!”. Aparajita saw Neha shake her head in disgust. Doubts had finally begun to creep in. Was she really missing out on all the fun and excitement?….
The 15-year old Aparajita never really stood a chance. To resist the volley of missiles (of temptation!) that are being hurled at her, constantly—via television and mobile phones; life size billboards, newspapers and magazines, and, of course, the ubiquitous Internet. She is by no means being singled out as a victim. In fact, she is only one of the billions of targets, across the country and around the world.
Ling in Beijing, China; Lucy in Sydney, Australia; Marylin in Connecticut, the US, have at least one thing in common with Lajwanti in Ropar, Haryana; Prema in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu; and Hetal in Surat, Gujarat. Besides all of them being of the same age group, that is. They are, today, prime marketing targets of the corporate world. Companies everywhere, are spending enormous sums of money to entice them to buy their products.
From fast food (burgers, pizzas, fries), soft drinks, biscuits, and ice creams to fairness creams, shampoos, and motor bikes—commercials for almost all categories of consumer goods are created with a specific age group in mind, say market experts. The target ranges from three-year-old tots to seventeen, eighteen-year-old young adults
Effort and expense no bar
This strategy to ‘get ‘em while they are young’ (so labelled by two North American media experts, Kathleen Kerwin and David Leonhardt) is extremely well researched and thorough. Advertising agencies employ an army of professionals to gather information about children’s preferences, and then hire psychologists to analyse the data.
The scale of this operation is gigantic. For instance, Nickelodeon, a popular television channel in the US, reportedly ‘surveys’ more than 4,000 children every week in its office, at schools, over the phone and on the Internet. Now lets take a look at the expenses that advertisements of this scale incur. According to consumer activist, Juliet Schor, who has authored the book, Born to Buy:
The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, expenditures for advertising and marketing aimed specifically at children have risen to a whopping over US$15 billion a year in the US. And this amount is likely to grow. Why? Because children are considered to be the most ‘malleable’(pliable) of all categories of consumers. They are also emerging as the most influential, and the most lucrative.
Schor estimates that in North America, children influence around US $670 billion worth of parental spending, which is in addition to about US $30 billion a year they spend in direct purchases! Yes, the buying power of the kids’ brigade is not to be scoffed at. If you think that this is a typical Western trend, then let me tell you what is happening in China. “In modern China, children are becoming the most favoured demographic for advertisers and television producers,” says Tang Min, columnist with China Daily.
Yao Jingyuan, an economist working with the Chinese Bureau of Statistics, believes that this is because Chinese children are exerting greater influence on their parents’ choices of commodities. “If you have seen how many moms bring their kids to the supermarkets, you would have a better understanding of the child-centred commercials,” Yao explained, “The way to a kid’s heart is the way to the pockets of their parents.”
And in India?
While exact figures are not available, the scenario is almost identical. Parag Paul Choudhury of Voluntary Organisation in Interest of Consumer Education (VOICE), a Delhi-based NGO, traces the track record of the Indian advertising industry. It focussed on women who were at home during the early 1960s and 70s. Then it shifted attention to the ‘youth’ population, and finally focussed on the children.
And its interest in this category of consumers has not flagged since. It’s not difficult to figure out the reason. “Today 84 per cent of Indian parents take their children along to purchase goods which are not even child-products, simply because they have a big say in buying decisions,” says Chaudhury. (Remember the car commercial where two kids compare whose daddy has the bigger car?)
Couch potatoes or sitting ducks?
So, targetting children is an immensely profitable short term and long term investment for the companies. Children now have money to spend, influence family purchases, and are future customers. A sort of cradle-to-grave market, say experts. No wonder commercials are flowing in fast and furious. All kinds of consumer items are vying with each other to occupy larger ad space—to appear more alluring than their competitors. But I don’t have enough space here to talk about all of them. So I will focus on one particular category.
Food ads. Not because they are among the most visible ones, but because they have a direct impact on our health. Now what could be more important than that..right?.
So do you want to know just how intense this food campaign is? Read on… A junk food advertising audit conducted by the Australian Divisions of General Practice National Youth Alliance in January 2003 analysed 50 hours of child targetted TV on commercial stations. The audit found that during children’s TV programmes there was an average of one junk food (food high in fat, sugar and/or salt with little nutritional value) advertisement per ad break and in some cases three per ad break.
According to a paper published by the Prevention Institute for the Centre for Health Improvement, children in the United States spend more time watching television than they spend on any other single daily activity except sleeping. And what do they watch? Commercials, of course, and primarily those of delectable looking high-fat, high-calorie food!
In an assessment of food advertising during Saturday morning children’s programming, 52.5 hours of viewing netted 564 food advertisements, comprising more than half of all advertisements. Of these ads, 246 (43.6%) fell into the fats, oils, and sweets group, promoting foods such as candy, soft drinks, chocolates and pastries.
As if this was not enough, fastfood restaurant commercials also took up substantial air time— nearly 11 per cent of total advertisements. Interestingly, there were no advertisements for fruits or vegetables. Now let’s consider how this blitz of ads has affected the target group—the children.
Today, around 17.6 million children younger than five are estimated to be overweight, worldwide. Obesity is the most prevalent disease among children and young adults in the US, and health experts believe that constant promotion of high-calorie food is the prime force driving this raging epidemic.
The UK government is seriously considering banning fast food ads during children’s programmes, after a House of Commons health committee report revealed that obesity in the country has risen by 400 per cent in the past 25 years, in the country.
In Australia, over the past 20 years, there has been a 2.5- fold rise in number of obese people identified in its major cities. The country also has one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in children in the developed world. There is really no room for any doubt, any more. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declares that studies and research conducted by various agencies in different parts of the world have come to the same conclusion. That each additional can of soft drink that a child consumes increases her risk of becoming obese by 60 per cent!
Is Aparajita listening?
It happens only in India
You would of course want to know how India fares in this ad race. Again, there is very little documented information available on fast food commercials. But the signs of addiction—of Indians to these ‘modern’ food stuff are unmistakable. Why else would companies of all hues and sizes, including multinationals, pull out all stops to extend business across the country? For example, Pizza Hut has opened fully vegetarian eateries only in one place in the world. Sorry, no prizes for guessing where that place is… But our changing eating habits are not reflected only through a chain of restaurants anymore. The onslaught of fast food and soft drinks is actually beginning to affect Indians in places where it hurts most.
Their purses and their health. Today, an average Indian family spends less on cereals and more on packaged refreshments (chips, cookies and salties), and processed food. The household budget has been reworked to spend less on milk and milk products and much, much more on beverages and soft drinks.
Obviously, we Indians have begun to believe what we see, on TV, in magazines, and on hoardings. We believe that packaged ‘atta’ noodles are more nutritious than fresh rotis, and that sugary cookies will provide more energy to the school going children, than plain homemade fare. The trendy cola vending machines in the school canteens add to this delusion. No wonder Neha with her cola can finds Aparajita’s love for lime juice hopelessly ‘uncool’….
No, this is not a trend that is visible only among urban middle class and rich. Rural India and poor households, both in villages and cities, are also under the spell of this fast food phenomenon. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), in rural households, where as little as Rs 225 per month is available for each member of the family, Rs 6 is spent on processed food and beverages!! No wonder the fast food and soft drink majors are fighting with each other to grab the rural market.
The Atlanta-based Coca Cola, in fact, was the first to spot the potential of the rural markets. And images of the most popular movie stars of the day, guzzling colas were Gobar Times July 31, 2006 Down To Earth supplement 65 unleashed on village folks, through hoardings, handouts and of course, the omnipresent television. Result? Today, Coca Cola India claims that 80 per cent of its new consumers are from rural India. It introduced a 200 ml bottle, priced at Rs 5, only to cater to this crowd.
Eating ourselves sick
Yes, that is exactly what we are doing. The drastic change in what the Indians eat has had an impact on their health, especially the younger ones. With the advent of this pizza, burger and chips culture, the average per capita fat consumption has risen sharply, both in rural and urban India. Result? “An increase in calorie intake which disturbs our metabolic activity. This, along with a sedentary life style, lead to an increase in chances of obesity, which has become a rule, rather than an exception in the upcoming generation,” says Navjeet Talukdar, heart specialist at the Batra Hospital and Research Centre, Delhi.
Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases, which come as ‘free gifts with obesity, are also on the rise. So in India, we not only have diseases of the poor (malnutrition, child mortality), now the diseases of the so-called rich are growing enormously. Most rampantly among the young. It will be really foolish and blind to deny that the current advertising-saturated culture contribute heavily to this unhealthy trend.
Who is responsible?
Actually all of us. Let me tell you how.
Certainly the advertising agencies and the companies who employ them—to find new and more effective ways of ‘hooking’ the kids—must shoulder a major share. Are they ready for it? Let’s take stock. In the US, during the 1970s and 80s several attempts were made in the US to institute restrictions on advertising to children and to require nutrition information in certain food ads. These efforts met with strong opposition from the food industry and eventually failed. Even now, the sugar and food industry dismiss any link between diet and obesity as bad science.
But consumer and parent advocates have taken up this issue with great vigour now. And the pressure is mounting. In India, the advertising agencies have formed an association called the Advertising Agencies’ Association of India (AAAI), which is supposed to function like a watch dog body. It formulates rules, regulations and guidelines to be followed by the AAAI .
‘But in practice it has no teeth at all, and succumbs to pressure from any of the members,” laments Chaudhury of VOICE, “The most they do is to withdraw ads if there is an uproar over them”. Clearly, ad makers and sponsors—who are actually raking in the lucre from the commercials—are unwilling to reverse the trend.
The WHO declares ‘that governments have a responsibility to ensure that advertising is not misleading, is informative, and is unlikely to contribute to ill-health and obesity, a particular concern in the case of children’. While many countries are taking there job very seriously, many of them are not. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland do not permit commercial sponsorship of children’s programs.
Sweden and Norway do not allow any television advertising to be specifically directed to children under12, and no ads are allowed during children’s programming. Australia does not allow ads during programmes for preschoolers, and the Flemish region of Belgium disallows any ad in the five minutes immediately preceding and following children’s programs. In other countries like Finland and Germany no direct add on offers (like discounts or free gifts) are allowed, and Italy prohibits using cartoon figures is prohibited.
In India, the scenario is rather pathetic. Here, there are no specific guidelines about what is ‘acceptable’ for advertisements aimed at children. If there is a serious complaint about a particular ad by a consumer forum or an individual, it is vetted by the Advertising Standards Council, and withdrawn if required. So, again, it is left to consumers to keep the pressure on...
We, the consumers
Yes, the solution lies with us. We are vulnerable to the attack of the ads, only if we allow ourselves to be the victims. The key strategy is to become ‘ad literate’. Confused? Let me explain. As I have told you earlier, ad agencies use every trick in the trade to promote their products—often sending out messages that can at best be called half truths. Ad literacy will help us not to take everything that we see at face value. It makes us think and view critically and then make choices. In other words, it will protect us from being manipulated by the media. And not let brands control us or our self worth.
Consumer awareness is the key to bust this world of ad make-believe.