Childrens advertising: are we losing the plot

Written by Geeta Rao | Updated: Nov 18 2004, 05:30am hrs
Wedged in between news of the Shankara-charyas arrest, Sauravs ban and the combined euphoria of Id and Diwali, Childrens Day came and went in a bit of a stupor. Even Shwaas, both a universal film and a heartrendingly celebratory childrens film, could not raise enough money for its cause. No big Childrens Day celebrations, no promotions, no special messages. Unlike the hype associated with Womens Day or Valentines Day, Childrens Day stayed within school compounds, unsponsored and unsung. Except Parle, which did announce the launch of three new flavoured creams in their biscuits on the occasion.

Ironically, children are everywhere in advertising. But all of them are being used as effective ways of grabbing adult attention. In products targeted at adults. Children by themselves, for themselves, for childrens products, feature less and less. So there is Videocon with both Shahrukh Khan and a bunch of moppets, there is Hutch with a little boy and dog giving truth to the old maxim about dogs and children always working in advertising. Close-up has now entered the fray with two cute tykes, Tata Steel uses children symbolically to show how their company works and even Subhash Goyal is featured in a commercial for Zee TVs Business Baazigar, on helping dreams come true, with children as the background designscape.

Children are now the chief design element of commercials. Get a child into a commercial and viewer attention is usually ensured. Get a child and a celebrity and you multiply chances. Get a child, a celeb and a dog and you may romp home safe. While we know both pester power and pesky power, as in childrens ability to influence adult household decisions, is extremely high, what about pester power to influence other pests Mommies, we know, melt at the sight of little bachchas. But what about the little bachchas themselves What makes them tick What makes them choose the games, the clothes, the shoes, the computers and all the things that represent a huge market for us And when we do have advertising for children, like Britannia or Hajmola or Cadburys, then the kids are propped with celebrities: Sachin, Yuvraj, Amitabh Bachchan. Cadburys has recently run a commercial with Rocky, the Bournvita boy who looks like the sweet chocolate-box boy of old 70s commercials, but lacks any real character.

This is the age of casting children with character and unconventional scripts. Where are the brats, the rebels, the nerds, the dudes and all the other real-life kids we see every day Where are the smart kids Why arent they in kids commercials

Some time ago, Johnson and Johnson ran a series of commercials featuring a young boy for Band-aid. Tejan, with his cute face and devil-may-care fast talk, became a celeb of sorts. Choc mania, a promotion we had devised with Cadburys in the days when it was pretty much for kids and not for appeasing the guilty eating of adults, drove all of us crazy with the immense response it had. No adults, no celebs, just a bunch of basic gifts and a crazy film that, on the kids inter-school grapevine and secret tom-tom, became a mega hit. Sanjiv Sharma, the film-maker, who had a wonderful way with children, has now grown up to making Indian Idol! Whitelight films made interesting testimonial-style childrens commercials for Britannias big relaunch in the 90s.

It was considered a considerable skill to be able to script ad films for children. It still is. Working on Cadburys Gems and Parle products for some years, and very briefly on the Mattel business, I sat through many focus groups with children and realised that even the research was being conducted in predictable adult ways, rather than specifically tailored for children. But the children knew their advertising.

If advertisings most loyal watchers are kids, then we owe them some more entertainment. On the childrens channels, the stories are the same. Ariana Kewalramani, a 10-year-old student of Mumbais JB Petit, said she hated the dubbed cartoons, because the same voices were used for characters across all childrens channels. I followed this up and true enough, not only were there the same voices, but the Hindi translations were literal, and in many cases, boring. Plus, the voices seemed to be the same high-pitched adult voices, which could also be heard on the tele-shopping channels.

There is an ICICI commercial on air currently, that says bachpana kabhi retire nahin hota, i.e. the child in you never retires. A wonderful insight about adults, but what about children Is anyone listening to children at all

The writer is a Mumbai-based advertising professional