A boy and a girl are sitting on a bench. The girl asks the boy if they are ‘girlfriend-boyfriend’ and the boy says no. He says that girlfriends are very demanding and that does not suit him. The girl coos that all that she needs is an Aloo Tikki. Then a very tempting and ‘affordable’ Aloo Tikki of a well-known fast food chain flashes on the screen. The boy suddenly changes his mind and tells the girl that they are ‘boyfriend-girlfriend.’ The boy and girl in this ad are 10-year-olds!
This ad may seem cute and innocent to watch, but the message it conveys is not that innocent. Ten-year-olds talking about a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is not the kind of message that parents want their children to absorb.
Certainly the power of persuasion of ad messages is compelling. Studies have shown that after just one exposure to a commercial, children can recall the ad's content and have a desire for the product.
Lack of adult reasoning is a concern because young children tend to accept ads as fair, accurate, balanced and truthful. They are not in the least aware of their persuasive intent. They do not see the exaggeration or the bias that underlies the claims. As such, they tend to believe all the commercials they see, which can lead to unhealthy habits and choices.
“Children have a natural affinity and attraction towards visual communication. There is movement, colour, characters and sound. Children recognize these products at stores and start asking for them. This phenomenon has opened up a whole new target group for advertisers,” says Mahima Bhanukumar, an advertising professional in Bangalore.
Negative impact of ads on children
Children in modern homes have assumed larger roles. They have a say in buying household items, consumer durables, and even high-tech electronic gadgets. Television has come up in a big way over the last 20 years. Advertising is a mammoth industry with an enormous impact on the development of children. TV ads target unsuspecting children and as a result, kids nag, pester and demand that their parents purchase the advertised item.
“Children less than 5 years of age are the ones most affected by ads. At that age, images they see get fixed in their mind. It is called object permanence. When they go to the supermarket, they choose the product which is fixated in their mind and the parents are more than happy to indulge, unaware whether that product is actually reliable or not,“ explains Dr S Yamuna, consultant paediatrician and adolescent physician in Chennai.
“Ads have no positive impact on children as far as I know. An ad may be played for a maximum of 20 seconds and children get used to such short attention-paying spans. They tend to lose their patience very soon, the possible beginnings of an attention deficit disorder,” she says.
Most of the ads are totally misleading. Dr Yamuna explains, with a couple of examples:
A milk food ad claims that children who drink it will grow taller than those that drink other beverages. The truth: Height is largely determined by genetic factors, and no health drink can influence it.
Any cereal ad implies that if the child has the cereal, there is no need for any other foods for the rest of the day. The truth: What they forget to mention is that the cereals are meant only for breakfast. The contents of the cereal contribute about 10%–15% of the daily dietary allowance.
Such is the impact of ads on children that it blurs the line between reel life and real life. “My children are now at a stage where they want everything that is advertised, from an Exo dishwasher to nappies (though they have outgrown them),” says Gayathri Pannicker, a mother of two children.
Children start believing that the glamorous family setting shown in TV ads is how a family actually is. It is important for their self-image to have a similar family. “I once had this seven-year-old boy hitting his mother. He used to tell his mother that she was not like the moms in the TV ads as she did not dress up like them, have a hairstyle like the ones shown, or speak polished English like the moms in the TV ads do,” says Dr Yamuna.
Couch potato syndrome
Perhaps the most harmful effect of TV ads is on middle-class parent-child relations. Some children have become couch potatoes, watching too much television, and unavoidably, too many ads. Lured by these ads, they develop a craze for fatty, fast foods further affecting their health and growth.
Working couples do not have the time to attend to their children.
Instead, they give hefty pocket money to please their children, who spend it on pizzas, soft drinks, chips and chocolate, and munch endlessly while watching TV.
Poor diet and lack of exercise are some of the common factors associated with non-communicable cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes, which cause around 60% of deaths worldwide. The World Health Organization says a large share of unhealthy foods is marketed through TV commercials.
A recent study by the Diabetes Foundation of India found that schoolchildren consider eating fatty foods fashionable. At least 54% of children surveyed preferred buying foods shown in commercials and 59% said they would continue to buy such foods.
While some countries have banned advertisements of such products from prime time television and radio and regulated their marketing, a large number of countries, particularly developing nations such as India, are yet to take proactive measures.
The positive side
As rare as it maybe, a few ads do have a positive impact on children.
“Milk food ads is a category that has greatly benefitted consumers. Mothers had a difficult time getting children to drink milk. Aggressive advertising by milk food companies appealed to children and made life easier for the mother. Whether this is clever marketing and advertising or exploitation of children, is debatable. But as long as it is not negative or scary, it is acceptable. Advertising also helps in inculcating good habits in children. For example, the toothpaste ads make the children aware of dental hygiene. It makes parenting easier and it is a win–win situation for the family,” says Mahima.
Reiterating this fact, Gayathri says, “My daughter insists that she takes time to wash her hands like they show on television. It is such a blessing. She also understands that she needs to brush her teeth in order to keep them bacteria-free. Yes, she uses words like bacteria-free in LKG.”
According to a study, children in India watch about 28 hours of TV per week and are exposed to 20,000 ads a year.
Regulations on ads must be tightened. Until this happens, it is best for parents to do their bit, however stressed they may be for time .
5 ways to insulate your child from TV ad blitz
- Limit TV time: Limit the amount of time your children are allowed to watch TV. This is especially necessary for children under the age of 5, who have a hard time distinguishing television programmes from commercials.
- Use record mode: Record TV programmes and watch them later, so that you can skip the advertisements.
- Teach media literacy: When your children are old enough to understand, teach them media literacy. Explain how companies try to influence people into buying a product to improve their profits. Examine how advertisers exaggerate. Talk about the words used in advertisements, such as ‘made with real fruit’, when the total fruit content is just 2%!
- Teach value of money: When children understand that products are not free, and that money is hard to earn, they tend to buy only what is needed, rather than buying everything appealing.
- Fight consumerism: Explain that wearing famous brand names or having the latest gadgets does not improve social status. Coveted things do not necessarily improve overall happiness. Make an effort to find other families with this approach, and encourage your child to spend time with children who are not acquisition-oriented.
Support other parents in fighting against the consumer culture.