Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CONSUMER : October 31, 1999
Catching 'em young
The author received a Government of India National Award for Consumer Protection in 1994.
A little girl lisps "I love you" and names a brand of synthetic soft drink concentrate. Sales shoot up. There is no real fruit juice in it, no nourishment for growing bodies, yet no children's party is complete without this drink. The girl in the ad goes on to make the kind of money that even tenured professors do not earn, and lured by this money other parents try to push their pre-school progeny into advertising offices.
A beverage promoted as a "complete food and nourishing drink" puts out an advertisement with the photographs of six toppers of the higher secondary examination, implying that drinking the product ensures a high rank. Following a complaint by the Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) of Ahmedabad, pointing out that the ad plays on the anxiety of children as well as parents and that it is hard work rather than merely consuming some brand of drink that determines rank, the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTP) ordered the withdrawal of the advertisement. The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) also agreed that the use of the photographs of rank holders was misleading and an unfair practice.
These are but two examples of how children are targeted and manipulated for the sake of profits. Children under the age of 15 make up nearly 40 per cent of our population. That means close to 400 million, a constituency of consumers larger than the population of the U.S., Canada and Australia combined. Apart from being a large potential market (for everything from bottled drinks to instant noodles and soaps) children also constitute tomorrow's generation - and advertisers know that consumption habits and preferences developed in childhood get carried into adulthood.
We arm children with road sense so that they will not be run over by speeding traffic outside, but we do not think of arming them in the same way against bulldozing ads or unscrupulous commercial practices that seek to manipulate their priorities and desires. And with television now in every home, the inveiglement is taken right into millions of living rooms where children become a captive (and impressionable) audience. Even toddlers who cannot yet read, have been known to recognise catchy jingles and visuals.
Which may not be a bad thing, provided ads gave out unbiased information. But do they? Cola drinks contain synthetic chemical sweeteners (far cheaper than conventional sweeteners) which are merely empty calories and provide no nutrients. Their long-term effects on human metabolism are also not fully known. With the equivalent of eight teaspoons of sugar a bottle, these bottled drinks also pose a threat to teeth. The caffeine content in them likewise is unhealthy for children. Yet children go for cola drinks because of massive advertising, sponsorship of sports events like cricket matches, the use of sportsmen as models in ads, and contests with attractive prizes.
In one such contest which promised mini-bats signed by Gavaskar in exchange for bottle caps, schoolboys in the posh Cuffe Parade area in Mumbai began to drink fizzy cola by the crateful (thereby spoiling appetite and health) while their peers, from middle-class families, began to rummage through garbage dumps looking for bottle tops, till a group of horrified mothers complained to a consumer organisation about the warped sense of values that such contests were promoting.
So who safeguards children's interests as consumers, in terms of health, quality of life and value systems, in a scenario where the annual outlays on advertising run to several hundred crores? In a country where children's per capita consumption of milk is 10 per cent less than the nutritional requirement, how ethical is it to target and lure them with fizzy drinks?
Our Constitution enshrines the state's obligations towards children and we have ratified international conventions and covenants that seek to uphold children's rights to safe growth into adulthood. Yet, their interests get eroded when lack of awareness on the one hand and lax enforcement of protective laws on the other result in the sale of sweets and ice lollies containing prohibited colours (sunset yellow, for example, which is a carcinogen) outside school gates. Often "medical" formulations banned abroad are permitted to be prescribed here. (Periactin, promoted as a "growth stimulant", is banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, yet it was prescribed for my son by a doctor in Mumbai.)
Lead in the paint on toys can cause brain damage. A TV ad on Doordarshan used to show a little girl pretending to have a cough because she wanted to suck lozenges with a pepperminty taste - but cough drops which contain subclinical doses of epherdrine or menthol which can harm. Monosodium glutamate, which enhanced flavour, added to instant soup packets can harm infants. It was only after consumer activitists' pressures that the packets now contain labelling warning that it is "unsuitable for infants under 12 months and pregnant women."
Growth hormones in chicken feed led to 3,000 children in Puerto Rico developing abnormal sexual changes, after eating chicken. Recently Germany banned the use of soft plastic teethers containing the chemical pthalates. Clear plastic feeding bottles are also banned due to the possibility of the plastic leaching while heating the formula but, the Consumer Guidance Society of India points out that most people in India do not even know of these hazards.
The Thalidomide tragedy is perhaps the most horrific example of how children can be harmed by new chemical formulations of which we do not know the long term effects. Thousands of deformed children were born to women who were prescribed the drug as a cure for morning sickness during pregnancy.
Children become victims in another sense too - one boy jumped out of a window last year in U.P. and died while imitating a TV stunt in an advertisement. Another was grievously injured trying to "fly" out like Shaktimaan in the popular TV serial. Children "consume" not only food and formulations but also attitudes and ideas, in the name of fantasy, without knowing where to draw the line.
Advertisements for a variety of "institutes" that promise to offer courses of study that "guarantee a job" proliferate, but not all such institutions are genuine. Gullible students and their parents, under tension, enroll and pay up fat fees, often to discover that the deal is bogus. Claiming a refund is often a futile exercise. This is a particularly reprehensible rip-off. CERC took one such institute, which was trying to cash in on the IIT aura (by naming itself the Indian Institute of Computer Management) to court and obtained a ruling asking the institute to change its name to avoid misleading students. Many "diplomas" and "certificates" from dubious institutions are worthless, but lack of awareness leads to much avoidable distress and loss of money.
Sweden has banned all TV advertisements aimed at children. Germany had an entire batch of bicycle helmets for children recalled after Test magazine found them substandard. We too have broadcasting codes and laws for protecting consumers, but we have not thought of initiating imaginative measures using modern communication techniques, to develop consumer consciousness in children. In England, for instance, a school teacher asked a boy who lost a tooth during class, to put the tooth in a cup of cola drink and leave it over the weekend. On Monday morning the class could see that the tooth was not only discolored but also corroded. The message, about the effects of cola drinks on teeth, went home clearly, without a didactic lecture from the teacher.
Children in a Bangalore school did a "project" where they counted the number of pages in notebooks and found that there were only 186 instead of the 200 printed on the cover. At a national seminar on "Children as Consumers" held at Ahmedabad by the CERC, students came up with perceptive comments and suggestions - one 9-year-old asked why Sachin drank cola if it was bad for the teeth; another wondered why his syllabus taught him about our Constitution in civics but not about consumer awareness "which would be more useful." Another wanted to know if she could "go to the police" to complain about cheating, when the grocery store sells flour that has worms.
Children learn young. And if the sellers seek to catch them young, why can't we catch them young too, arm them against practices and pressures that are not in their best interests?
(A Consumer Education Series booklet titled Children as Consumers is available from the Consumer Education and Research Centre, Thaltej, Ahmedabad, 3800054, at Rs. 40 per copy. CERC also has a video tape "Rattle with Unsafe Toys", 25 minutes, Rs. 350, that schools and voluntary organisations could use, for awareness creation. Also available is a poster kit, on Consumer Rights for children, Rs.125)
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