THE little cherub with the enchanting smile and innocent eyes is looking more and more like an Onida devil reincarnate. In an upwardly mobile world, where grown-ups chase power, ambition and money, with money predominating, children are increasingly deciding how the cash is to be spent and on what. It's a no-holds-barred assault on the guilt-torn emotions of harried parents, who unwittingly whip up the whims of the aware, alert and active tykes of today. Leading to a war whose only Hiroshima is a Toblerone, a Barbie, or a Baskin Robbins. Make way for the new kids on the block—the Superbrats.
They know and speak about environment, child labour, AIDS, operate computers, are aware of the latest brands in ready mades, eatables, games, comics, entertainment, and have grown up on luxuries. They make decisions on behalf of their family—which is only too eager to please. And are supremely confident of what they want out of their parents, neighbours and the world.
Hyped horror? Infantile inference? Ask those advertisers who now use children to sell almost every product under the sun—chips, soft drinks and cycles to cameras, pagers and cars. They have concrete proof of pester power. In the early '90s, Pathfinders, a market research agency, found that 60 per cent of children knew the type of watch to buy, 39 per cent influenced music system purchases and 55 per cent decided on the brand of motorcycle for the family. A study by ORG-MARG showed that in 33.8 per cent of the cases, children between 7 and 13 years gave their verdict on buying consumer durables. In over half the cases, their suggestions were accepted.
Helping her mother pick up skincare products at a Biotique outlet in south Delhi is Aanchal. "I like green products," says the 12-year-old. Admits Preeti Bahl, mother of two pre-teen girls: "I consult my children on everything from watches, music systems to shoes for myself as I know I'll get an informed opinion." Says Pradeep Kapoor, father of 12-year-old twins Pooja and Megha: "Unlike people of our generation who are converts to consumerism, these kids are born into it. So they make their choices early in life."
Kapoor, who goes abroad often, has Pringles wafers, Peparami salami and the latest Nintendo cassettes permanently on his shopping list. At home, demand ranges from Nirula's burgers and Benetton T-shirts to Woodland shoes. The seven-year-old daughter of Vatsala Mittal, marketing executive with Bharat Petroleum, "wants only Toblerone and Ferrero Rocher chocolates, uses Pantene shampoo and Dove soap, has the complete set of Tom & Jerry video cassettes and now wants the Barbie series. Dinner is time to order a submarine sandwich from Slice of Italy."
While capitalising on the growing power of the child as decision-maker, ads also reinforce it to a great extent. Consider the popular ad for the BPL range of products, which, using the Home Alone theme, shows the youngest member of the house as mature, quick-witted, self-reliant and in charge . As infotainment or a substitute for community life, the television is a close friend to most kids today. While few parents have the time for commercials, children pick up the messages, absorb them and rewind them when purchase decisions need to be made. Says Mittal: "It's a vicious circle. When they see precocious little brats sermonising grown-ups on the virtues of a particular product, they emulate it in real life."
Many superbrats belong to the burgeoning young, neo-middle class, whose fortunes have seen a sea-change over the past few years. With the father at his career peak by 35, the mother often inflating the household kitty substantially, and the credit card invasion, the average family's purchasing power has zoomed in the '90s. Says Mittal: "I prefer a Body Shop shampoo, Revlon lipstick and Christian Dior perfume, for I associate a certain quality with these brands. It's natural that my daughter too wants an expensive brand of chocolates. I don't mind spending a few extra rupees if it makes her happy. That's why I'm working in the first place."
Psychologists attribute such rationalisations to guilt and emotional pressures ( see box ). Research by toy majors Leo and Funskool indicate that parents buy their children a product if it shows promise of shutting them up even temporarily. Says Ajay Manchanda, general manager, marketing with PCL and father of two: "Parents just don't have time and energy to fulfil the emotional and security needs of children. They want to make up by buying them expensive brands. In four out of five cases, I refuse to buy my son his favourite GI Joe toy, but the fifth time it does find its way home."
Over 80 per cent of children aged 8-15 and 56 per cent in the age group of 5-8 years told researchers Namita Unnikrishnan and Shailaja Bajpai that their parents bought them what they asked for. Some 75 per cent of children in the first group and 64 per cent of the smaller kids wanted to own the products they saw on TV. "The vision of good life being drilled into viewers' minds is better internalised by children than the older generation," says Unnikrishnan.
The growing number of nuclear families is an important social factor. Says Kapoor: "Indian mothers traditionally buy things that are acceptable to the whole family. Since most families today have two kids, the father is out vetoed in the numbers game." Research in the UK reveals that a mother of a 1-4 year-old-child is likely to buy what the child wants and will buy any cereal as long as it gets eaten. The other significant factor is that 48 per cent of the Indian population is below 19 and 39 per cent under 14. This is a vast market.
Consequently, consumer goods marketers are mapping little minds with the precision of seismologists measuring earth tremors. Consider the details of Leo's research into the toy buying patterns. The pre-school segment accounts for 40 per cent of the market, where parents are the chief decision-makers and safety is the primary concern. But in the 5-10 age group, children decide. Here the challenge before marketers is to deal with low boredom thresholds and the reward lies in unending excitement. Teens and pre-teens are obsessed with being treated as adults, and marketers, therefore, have to compete with different products and not just brands.
Makers of children's products are, however, not the only ones monitoring the change in their attitudes, likes, dislikes, icons and totems. "Shoe companies, food firms, home appliances companies, toiletries marketers are all increasingly deploying market research agencies to study child behaviour. I see the trend strengthening in the future as products proliferate and competition hots up," says Neerja Wable, senior vice-president and general manager at IMRB.
While TV, print media and hoardings are employed for wooing from a distance, an increasing number of marketers are making a beeline for schools, neighbourhood parks and clubs to grab the attention of the enfant terrible . Pepsi has turned the Mr and Ms High School personality contest into an annual feature. Heroes like Sachin Tendulkar are being used to promote credit cards and music systems rather than only health drinks. In recent years, kids have been the mainstay of the success of Hollywood movies like Jurassic Park and Aladdin . Smelling the potential, marketers have descended in droves to woo the young with freebies bearing film motifs.
Expectedly, this marketing onslaught has ruffled more than a few feathers. Consumer activists argue that many ads using children, be it colas or noodles, violate the Advertising Standards Council of India code because the ingredients of the products they sell are harmful to kids' health. Psychologists warn against the inevitable disillusionment of an impressionable mind when the fantasy reflected in an ad does not happen in real life. Sociologists worry that the child will grow too individualistic to bother about social responsibilities. Are we unknowingly building a nation of remote- controlled zombies, that is inheriting a value system shaped by an 'alien' culture?
Parents are the strongest critics. "The case of the little boy who was killed trying to bungee-jump in the way shown in the Thums Up ad proves how irresponsibly a company can act to sell its products. Now the ad is back with a disclaimer that flashes for half a second. Can't the company have thought of a less damaging trick to woo its audience?" asks an agitated Sunil Nijhawan, marketing consultant and father of five-year-old Ishan. "There should be a regulatory body to ensure that marketing efforts are directed more positively at children," says Manchanda.
The Code for Commercial Advertising on Doordarshan warns advertisers against creating such ads as might lead children to believe that if they do not own or use the product advertised they will be inferior to other children. But there are many products which, parents claim, flout the norms, overtly or covertly. The Barbie doll ad, for instance, which says that "every doll deserves a Barbie".
"Everything should be within limits. Using kids in advertising should be curbed in case of misuse," agrees Mukesh Gupta, chief executive, iB&W Communications. "But maturity should prevail over the critics.
Should a candy floss seller stop selling his wares outside schools? It's very easy to pass on the buck when your child goes haywire: TV is bad, education is bad, friends are bad, neighbours are bad...it's endless. Parents must understand that the buck begins and ends with them."
However, in the face of criticism, smart corporates are moving fast to protect their ambitious expansion plans and an almost captive market. "The biggest challenge is that any effort targeting children is viewed as commercial activity with attendant ethical and social implications," says Naveen Anand, product manager at Reckitt & Colman India (RCI). RCI is distributing environmental awareness booklets and sponsoring issues of NewsJoy, a children's newspaper. Says Editor Nandini Oberoi: "By sponsoring our issues, companies get the benefit of brand building."
The latest—and effective—strategy: 'socially responsible marketing'. Fast food makers, chip giants, shoe companies, and even toothpaste companies are cottoning on. Nirula's has instituted a Scholar's Award for schoolchildren: a free triple sundae to any child who secures above 90 per cent marks or an A grade. The response is tremendous, says Samir Kuckreja, technical adviser: about 24,000 free sundaes were distributed last year compared to 600 in 1991. Nirula's maintains a databank on 55,000 children, their birthdays and special achievements. "When a child gets a free scoop of ice cream, Nirula's creates in him a feeling of warmth, it ensures a brand loyalty in the child and his family. He or she is likely to return to Nirula's," says Kuckreja.
Chip giant Intel has opened a Cyberschool at the National Science Centre, Delhi for hands-on benefits of multimedia education to schoolchildren who lack access to it. "Cyberschool is an asset and stands for the commitment of our company to the community. In the process, if a market is created for multimedia, it helps us," says CEO Atul Vijaykar. Intel plans to open more cyberschools and get into regular schools to promote the latest in education technology. Fitness giant Reebok has initiated neighbourhood sports and fit-ness programmes which have been incorporated by some schools, in their physical activity plans. "As opposed to 80 per cent Americans who are into some kind of a fitness programme, only 20 per cent Indians are into physical activity. We intend to change this. Our aim is to inculcate in the young more proactive values on fit-ness," says Siddharth Verma, general manager, marketing.
Nestle is reportedly chalking out a nationwide programme involving school kids in quizzes, debates and awareness campaigns on environment and heritage. Pager companies like Motorola and RPG are holding 'Infofun' camps, where kids are quizzed on the basics of telecom through games and contests. Colgate is running dental hygiene workshops in municipal and government schools. "When Colgate educates low-income or rural children on dental hygiene or Reebok on physical fitness, they are using children as triggers to kickstart a nascent market. I see rural children as key change agents
in the coming years as often they are the first in their family to be exposed to the changing economy through education," says Wable.
"When business starts associating with causes—environment, education, fitness—it finds itself in a perfect win-win situation," says Prof. S. Neelamegham, Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi University. Says Usha Bhandarkar, group creative director, Ammirati Puris Lintas: "The child should be exposed to the market place and should learn to understand not only the plea-ure that products yield, but price and affordability too, and learn concepts of quality and value." Avers Shyama Chona, principal, Delhi Public School: "If a pager company were to distribute free pagers
to the kids, it would be objectionable and ethically wrong. But when RPG Telecom came to us with a proposal of an intelligently-crafted educational quiz, I saw no reason to say no. Life is real. You can't say a blanket no to marketing and advertising. You simply have to be clear about what is beneficial for the kids and what is not." And parents couldn't agree more. "If a Reebok or a Cadbury's is adding value to my child's life and in the process getting mileage for its brand, I have no objection," says Mittal. "To ban a child from watching ads is like never taking her to a shop, never allowing her to see newspapers, cutting her off from television, and covering her eyes every time she passes a hoarding," says Bhandarkar.
But the future of kiddie marketing may be indicated, more than any debate on ethics, by the current dilemma that a transnational chewing gum company is facing. The company is inundated with letters from their consumers, aged 6-12. Children from across the country are sending in gum wrappers and pictures they have painted asking for gifts in return. The trouble is: the company never promised any free gifts, yet kids in housing blocks across the country are ganging up to pressure the company into extending freebies.
Till now sugary responses have kept the problem at bay, but the company will soon have to decide whether to bow to the pressure. Obviously, the child consumer is not only smarter than his parents, he's getting smarter than even his enticers.