Saving My Child From Advertising

Posted: January 28, 2011

Many Indian moms worry about parenting in this consumerist era. How to mitigate the impact of advertising on children?

The child has a group of friends who are currently enamoured of Beyblades. What are Beyblades, you might ask. They are little plastic and metal tops featured in a cartoon serial and these children, the protagonists of a competition which involves pitting them against each other. Each Beyblade costs approximately Rs. 350 and a kid goes through them at the pace of a couple per week, unless you get into China duplicate territory which can set you back a hundred each.

They sit in the building lobby fighting ferocious Beyblade battles. Having learnt the art of one-upmanship, they began scoffing at the poor sods who bought the duplicate ones. Until us mothers put a stop to it. No more Beyblades, we said. You will go down to run around, cycle and play football. The Beyblade craze, unfortunately, has not waned a wee bit.




The rise in advertising to children

Switch on any Indian TV channel and you are bombarded with messages about foods you would not want your child to get within a foot of, loaded as they are with ingredients that offer a growing child – precisely nothing.

You see children in advertising campaigns they have no business being in, simply because they’re bringing in the cute factor into the ad. You have kids shrugging off an apple or even a sandwich because they would rather snack on noodles which they have been told “won’t get sticky even if eaten cold”. Damn the nutrition level. And you have wise guys like my son telling me earnestly that I have to use Mr. Muscle to clean the toilets because Mr. Muscle is a superhero.

The impact of advertising on children

When children are young, it is very difficult for them to distinguish between an advertising message and the content of a programme designed for them. Research has shown that children between the ages of 2 and 5 cannot differentiate between regular TV programming and commercials.

 Research has shown that children between the ages of 2 and 5 cannot differentiate between regular TV programming and commercials. 

Interestingly, Sweden has banned all advertising targeting kids below 12 and is lobbying for all EU countries to follow suit. This might be difficult to implement given that products targeting children are such a huge market, and also that children are emerging as the biggest source of pester power in the modern urban and semi-urban markets.

Kids’ influence on purchases extends beyond the products targeted at them to others such as vehicles, mobiles, air conditioners and home decor, areas one would think they didn’t even think about. In her 1997 book on modern family life, The Shelter of Each Other, author Mary Pipher worries that our consumer-saturated culture may be breeding feelings of “narcissism, entitlement and dissatisfaction” in today’s kids.

About parenting in consumerist India

Coming back to us, it was easy for us to slip into the role of the typical Indian urban upper middle-class family prone to weekends at the mall, where much mindless shopping and junk food eating happened. The child would be bought toys he really didn’t value because he had never longed for them. He would be eating McDonald’s Happy Meals every alternate day because he ‘needed’ to collect the entire set of whatever toys it was for the month.

Marketers obviously feed on something we all knew as children. Collecting. Children are collectors. We collected coins and stamps. Children today collect toys and action figures. The marketers feed on this collecting impulse to market ranges of Barbies, Pokemon cards, Ben 10 action figures and now, Beyblades. Interestingly, the marketing strategy behind the Pokemon was simple – introduce 150 Pokemon characters, then launch a marketing campaign called “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” to encourage children to collect all 150 of the cheaply made, overpriced figures.

Children are collectors. We collected coins and stamps. Children today collect toys and action figures. The marketers feed on this collecting impulse…

Because these collecting crazes are so shortlived, the next trend moves in quickly enough for boxes of the old craze to be discarded like so much junk. In her book Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, Juliet Schor writes, “This relentless assault on children’s psyches is not good for them. Research suggests that aggressive marketing to kids contributes not only to excessive materialism, but also to a host of psychological and behavioral problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, childhood obesity, eating disorders, increased violence, and family stress.”

Teaching kids to deal with marketing

Here’s how I began dealing with the onslaught of marketing messages that were influencing my child. I began actually began sitting with the child figuring out his need to collect, and to interpret and filter the messages he was getting from the television set and the hoardings around him.

First, I cut down on his TV time. I allowed him to watch a little programming targeted at him, but insisted he combine it with watching some educative programmes on channels like Discovery or National Geographic.

Whenever he saw an ad exhorting him to buy something he didn’t need, I began asking him why it was that he thought he needed whatever it was being sold. I spoke to him about advertising, (which was easy because I run an advertising agency) and explained to him the process of making ads and why they are created in such a way as to appeal to him.

And yes, I do talk about the need to not buy without a valid reason. I try to substitute experiences rather than just buying toys for him. I teach him how there are people around who don’t have the things he does and that he should be grateful for what he does have. He is encouraged to donate his old toys and clothes and sorts them out himself.

I try to substitute experiences rather than just buying toys for him. I teach him how there are people around who don’t have the things he does and that he should be grateful for what he does have. 

He gets a pocket money allowance which he is free to spend on anything he wants – after I am satisfied that it is money spent wisely. He needs to convince me first. And I do not hesitate to tell him that I cannot afford something he wants, and whether it is more important than XYZ which are priorities.

Most importantly, I have downscaled my own consumerism. I lead from the front now. I am not compelled to buy that latest handbag or a new pair of shoes “just because”. I will buy them when the ones I have are used to the fullest. And yes, we stopped going to the mall.

What has changed? For one, the child doesn’t feel entitled to a new toy anymore, just because he feels like one. He chooses the toys he wants to receive carefully and with much thought, because he has to wait for it, and very often these days, earn a new toy through either good behaviour or good grades (admittedly, the latter are few and far between!).

He does not feel defined by the toys he has amongst his peer group; he is confident enough to say he (perhaps the only one amongst the kids his age) does not have a PSP now and will get it only when his parents decide he is old enough for one.

And yes, I might get flak for being the stingy mom in the neighbourhood, but it is okay. I’d rather be the stingy mom, than the mom who cannot afford to keep up with her kid’s ever escalating demands.

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Comments

2 Comments


  1. what a useful well-written article! I agree with every word and try to follow most of the things you say you do too.

    more power to us stingy moms 😀

  2. Beautiful article and good suggestions, Kiran! I so agree with you- if we joined the rat race of giving into our kids’ demands just because the other parents are, it would become hell and would never stop. Pats the brat on the back for being a good understanding boy. Advertising is unfortunately hell bent on catching them young!

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