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Heed, need, feed - kids gorge on food ads, say studies

The pocket monsters have just been dealt a punch in the solar plexus.

For the numerous Pokemon-panicked parents in the country, reeling under a barrage of products that flog the popular brand to severe advantage, two just-released studies in the US should come as a boon. While a similar study on the effects of advertising on children in India begs to be done, the American example could well set a benchmark for broadcasters and advertisers alike here.

Chewing gum for the soul? - APA says children under eight are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful...

Restrict advertising targeting kids

A task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) has recommended that advertising targeting children under the age of eight be restricted. In a compilation of studies done on children's media habits spanning nearly four years, the APA has deduced that children under eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased, leading to unhealthy eating habits.

Food advertising linked to obesity

Another study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Wednesday, says children’s exposure to billions of dollars worth of food advertising and marketing in the media may be a key mechanism through which media contributes to childhood obesity. The report, which also reviewed more than 40 studies on the growing phenomenon of childhood obesity in the US, indicates that children who spend the most time with media are more likely to be overweight. Contrary to common assumptions, however, most research reviewed for this report does not find that children’s media use displaces more vigorous physical activities.

The findings of these two reports may lead to a new wave of regulatory or legislative actions that could have a profound impact on the estimated $12 billion spent each year in the US on kids-oriented media buys - especially on TV. The report is especially damning for food advertising aimed at kids, a category that is expected to emerge as the No. 1 ad category aimed at kids 2-11 in the US.



How much is too much? According to the Kaiser Foundation, a typical US child watches an average of 40,000 ads in a year

The key indicators thrown up by both reports are daunting, to say the least. The typical American kid sees about 40,000 ads a year on TV. Advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to target the youth market. Children aged 14 years old and under make $24 billion in direct purchases and influence $190 billion in family purchases. According to the APA, companies now recognize that brand loyalty built at an early age may reap economic rewards over a child’s lifetime.



The APA, which pondered several studies in the last three years, a representative survey of children’s media use across the USA, found that nearly half (48 per cent) of 8–18-year-olds live in a home with a computer linked to Internet access, while households with younger children aged 2–7 years are just slightly less likely (40 per cent) to be online. Roughly one in five (19 per cent) of eight–13-year-olds reported visiting a website on the previous day, and more than one in four (28 per cent) of 14–18 year-olds indicated such use.



And one in my room too.... 53 per cent of US kids aged 2-18 have a TV in their bedroom

With this growth in children’s access to the Internet, thousands of child-oriented Web sites have sprung up, and many are laden with commercial promotions. 53 per cent of all children aged two–18 years have a television in their bedroom, with substantial proportions of 2–4-year-olds (26 per cent) and five to seven year-olds (39 per cent) enjoying such privilege. Another common feature of advertising to children is the use of product disclosures and disclaimers such as “batteries not included” or “each part sold separately.” Studies make clear that young children do not comprehend the intended meaning of the most widely used disclaimers.

Interestingly, popular programme figures are frequently used in advertising directed to children, often used in separators that distinguish the content from the commercial. Evidence also indicates that most children below four to five years of age do not consistently discriminate between television program and commercial content. The ability to recognize persuasive intent does not develop for most children before eight years of age. Even at that age, such capability tends to emerge in only rudimentary form, with youngsters recognizing that commercials intend to sell, but not necessarily that they are biased messages which warrant some degree of skepticism, the APA report says.

The key findings of the Kaiser Foundation's study say that

* The majority of research finds a link between the amount of time children spend watching TV and their body weight.

* Experimental interventions that reduce children’s media time result in weight loss.

* Most research indicates that time spent with media does not displace time spent in physical activities

* Studies indicate that children’s exposure to food advertising and marketing may be influencing their food choices



* Leading policy options promoted by public health experts include: reduce or regulate food ads targeted to children, expand public education campaigns to promote healthy eating and exercise, incorporate messages about healthy eating into TV storylines, and support interventions to reduce the time children spend with media.



Kids in India hooked to television - is anyone keeping a watch?

The two reports may not be music to the ears to the advertising and television industry in India, which is poised to launch at least three to four children's channels this year, apart from existing player Nickelodeon turning Hindi. While no Indian agency has undertaken a similar study here, broadcasters and regulators too, are yet to take cognizance of the issue. Kids channel leader Cartoon Network which has also recently spawned a sibling, Pogo, undertakes regular research into viewer behaviour, but this does not much touch upon the effect of advertising on children. Its New Generations survey, an annual feature, studies changing demographic patterns of viewers and the kind of programming preferred, giving advertisers an idea of the bands they can zero in for the kill.

Last year's survey had one aspect of advertising touched upon, when it registered that children viewers in India are usually perceived as 'ad avoiders'.



"Advertising targeted at kids in India has changed for the worse in the last few years" - Prahalad Kakkar

Ad man Prahalad Kakkar who is a veteran at making advertisements for children's products, says,"In the Indian advertising industry, there are no set of standards and practices followed as far as advertising for kids is concerned."

Starcom India MD, West and South, Ravi Kiran puts the adspend per year on products that are for kids' consumption but bought by mothers (parents) like Horlicks and Complan is 12 to 15 per cent of the total Rs 38000 million pie, close to Rs 5000 to 6000 million. "Ad spend per year on products targeted for kids' consumption and also bought by them like chocolates, wafers etc is seven to eight per cent, that is around Rs 3000 million," says Kiran.



'Advertising targeted at kids in India has changed for the worse'

How is this huge sphere tackled by advertisers? Kakkar, himself a parent of three, opines that advertising targeted at kids in India has changed for the worse in the last few years. "Children don't have the power to rationalize and ads are becoming more and more sophisticated these days which do impact the kids. Unlike the West, in India there is no psychological help that is provided to advertisers to tell them what is right and what is wrong for the kids to see."

He adds, "Advertising today interferes with the value system and morality of kids. Since there is no regulatory check on what children watch on television apart from the parents, it can't be said in so many words that this specific thing is meant for kids to watch and this is not."

There are others in the advertising sector who disagree. "We do follow some guidelines in the sense that we cannot show a child talking back to his parents or being a rebel. the guidelines for us is to keep in mind while making an ad targeted at kids that we don't start a new trend that is socially unacceptable...," says an adman who's worked on many ads targeting kids.

While Kakkar may not agree, other ad professionals say that with pester power increasing, it is the kids' choices that drive brand preference. "Earlier a brand such as Horlicks used to talk to mothers through their ads about the nutritional values of Horlicks. But now the same brand has started talking to kids. Even Nestle for example only talks to kids but there is an 'inclusive audience' that is also being spoken to in the ad and that is the mothers, as at the end of the day it is the mothers that are the buyers of the products. So the brand though specifically targeted at kids 'has' to speak to the mother too," says one.



Ad spending on products targeted at kids has more than doubled - but has the advertising of these products improved too?

India's top advertising spenders have included Nestle India at Rs 1507.1 million in December 2002, Britannia Industries which spent Rs 906.3 in March 2002 and Cadbury India which spent Rs 876.7 million in December 2002 - MNCs all which push products consumed predominantly by children.

According to Kiran, ad spending on products targeted at kids has grown in the last few years by at least more than double of the overall television growth. Most marketers are no longer ignoring the role of kids in influencing parents / adults to buy products. 'It may not be the product itself that a kid favours but he will definitely have a say in the colour of the product... like for example a car… so even that is kept in mind by the marketers. The influence of kids on purchase of commodities has really increased in the last few years," he feels.



The Pokemon tazos that come with the Cheetos chips packets - cashing in on the frenzy

At the release of the Kaiser Foundation report, Nickelodeon officials said that the channel's efforts have included six months of "reconnaissance" on the issue through conversations with trade associations, nutritionists, marketers, government officials and others; the introduction of a campaign with the theme "Let's just play," to encourage more physical activity among children; and restricting commercials during programming for preschoolers to the very beginning and very end of shows. Procter & Gamble, one of the world's biggest advertisers, also said it was working to market itself fairly and responsibly. "We feel we need to have responsible marketing, especially in this obesity environment," according to Gary Dowdell, director for external relations.

Even in the US, after the release of the two reports, marketers rejected the premise that advertising, marketing and promotions aimed at children made up the "main mechanism by which media use contributes to childhood obesity," as the report says is likely.

As an ad professional in Mumbai too puts it, "When you say that kids are influenced by advertising and it leads to obesity in them, it depends on what amount they are consuming. Anything in excess is bad. So I don't really see advertising as a cause of this."

For Pokemon harassed Indian parents, then, the torture may just be beginning.

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