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‘Addiction’ is a term generally linked to smoking, drinking, and drugs. There is another kind of addiction that children today have—addiction to ads on television. It is a largely ‘invisible’ addiction; so, parents ignore it as they do not consider it nearly as dangerous as addiction to smoking, drinking, or drugs. Yet, the effects of addiction to television ads are more long term because the addiction itself begins much earlier in small children than do addiction to smoking or drinking.

Lisping children jump at ads showing Govinda and a beautiful model gyrating on the qualities of a “thanda thanda cool cool” brand of hair oil; or at a little girl praising her mother’s beauty to advertise a particular brand of soap. They go ga ga over ads for mosquito mats and coils, not realizing what these products are all about. Slightly older ones insist on imitating the antics of some film star or cricketer endorsing a garment or a health drink. Parents find this an easy escape from nagging questions thrown up by growing children or smaller ones getting into this or that mischief. “The main function of advertising is to stimulate the psychological needs and desires of the audience. While adults are discriminating, in case of children, stimulating needs or desires tend to acquire the form of powerful imperatives,” says Dr.J.J.Yadava of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication.

‘Addiction’ is a term generally linked to smoking, drinking, and drugs. There is another kind of addiction that children today have—addiction to ads on television. It is a largely ‘invisible’ addiction; so, parents ignore it as they do not consider it nearly as dangerous as addiction to smoking, drinking, or drugs. Yet, the effects of addiction to television ads are more long term because the addiction itself begins much earlier in small children than do addiction to smoking or drinking.

Irrespective of age or sex, children watch ads on television with a high degree of interest. They are acutely aware of even small and trivial changes in brands advertised repeatedly over a period. During a phase when a certain brand of noodles was being advertised over a long period on the small screen, a large number of children would have nothing on their plates but that particular brand of noodles. They would also insist that their mothers must prepare the noodles precisely the same way in which the model-mother does it. Insistence on identical crockery is another example of imitation. The small screen, thus, can affect children of today who are couch potatoes before they learn the meaning of the word.

Experts opine that the trend of targeting children through ads is traced back to the campaign for a particular soft drink powder. A little girl wondered what the mother would serve her dad when he came home (“Papa ghar aa gaya, ab mummy kya karegi?”). This campaign reportedly boosted the sales of the synthetic soft drink product by around 50 per cent. The more dangerous element of these sexist ads is that the girl-child is conditioned to believe that it is the mother’s duty to stand waiting for the husband and to please him when he returns from work. This is called transgenerational socialisation of the girl-child— injecting in her, sexist ideals at a time when the democratic pattern of behaviour is the call of the day. Such advertisements preclude the fact of a working mother. It ignores the now-accepted ideology of the man making his own tea when he comes home from work. Ads like the one where the husband makes tea for his pregnant wife are few and far between.

An ad for glycerine soap shows a little girl insisting on wanting to be “soft soft” like her mother who uses the soap. The lighting, with the cinematography in soft focus, creates a kind of appeal that children are easily charmed by. Thus, advertisements today form a major slice of attraction for young viewers of television, cable, and satellite. Ad agencies are aware of the power of ads to influence young minds. These often influence the lifestyles of entire families whose lives revolve around those of their children. Many ads featuring adult products, not directed at kids at all, feature kids as models and endorsements. These set off a chain of desire among children who create demand within their parents for such products. The ability and willingness of parents to buy these products do not, in any way, feature in their mindsets.

The average child’s level of information on different products is higher than the knowledge he gleans from subjects taught at school. Detailed questioning of students and their mothers has proved that the entry of around 70 per cent product brands into the household is the result of constant persuasion by ad-addicted children. At any given point of time, ad-addicted children are aware of around 10 to 15 brands and qualities out of the 20 products advertised across the television channels. Children between the ages of 2 and 10 are more deeply influenced by these ads than older children are. This is because they are still very vulnerable to fantasy and make-believe and accept everything in commercials as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Advertisements today form a major slice of attraction for young viewers of television, cable, and satellite. Ad agencies are aware of the power of ads to influence young minds. These often influence the lifestyles of entire families whose lives revolve around those of their children. Many ads featuring adult products, not directed at kids at all, feature kids as models and endorsements.

An experiment revealed the pattern of recall in children less than 11 years of age. They were asked to recall brand names of products advertised on television within a 15-minute span. The youngest, aged six, could recall 20 names while those who were touching 11 could recall 50 names. Interestingly, however, few of the products recalled were linked directly to children. Among the products they recalled were beer, cigarettes, detergents, foodstuff, cosmetics, textiles, noodles, chocolate, ice creams, juices, dolls, and mechanical toys. What was amazing was that the same children who found textbook vocabulary difficult to spell, could spell the names of the ads and the brands correctly!

In a beautiful film, Kitaab, directed by Gulzar, a bunch of naughty schoolboys are shown making up an entire song in the class with only advertisement jingles, complete with the music they repeat with their voices. Ad jingles carry a greater retention span and children keep on singing these jingles even after the television set is switched off or the ad has gone off the air. According to a study on the impact of television on children in the Philippines, a major section of children showed their preference for Coke to milk and some of them refused milk altogether. We are facing cultural parallels in our country now with children refusing this or that food or drink in preference for what they have seen in the television ads.

In India, many children are reportedly revealing a choice for fizzy colas over ice cream. Does this mean that the colas are tastier than ice cream? No. It means that the cola ad campaigns have effectively interfered with the effect of ice cream ads on children. This means that if advertising strategies are conceived and designed to promote natural and organic health drinks like natural milk or fruit, in a way so as to make the campaigns more attractive than the cola campaigns, then children hooked on colas will make the switch to milk and fruit smoothly and easily. Thankfully, natural products like egg and milk are now within the framework of ad campaigns. But the very fact that one has to think of advertising strategies for milk and fruit is a pointer to the tremendous impact that television ads have on children. With children’s relatively shorter retention spans and their vulnerability to suggestion, and their ability to totally recall those 15-second doses of visual and auditory confections, market researchers are kept constantly on their toes about how they can use children in ad campaigns and how they can direct ad campaigns at children, never mind the target audience the product is originally aimed at. Some parents opine that ads could be converted into a learning experience for a child by training the child to evaluate an ad from a critical point of view. Though there is a grain of truth in this line of thinking, the problem is that how would parents ‘train’ children to critically evaluate condom ads alongside ads of chocolate and ice cream? Got the point?

Dr Shoma A Chatterji
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