Babes in the advertising wood

THERE was a news item, recently, regarding a case filed against a bottled-drink maker by a child labour activist at Hyderabad, for glorifying child labour. The irony is that everyone closes their eyes to one industry that uses a significant amount of child labour — the advertising industry. The discussion on child labour (generally working children between ages 5 and 14) is focussed in our context on many of the industries where the proprietorship and partnership sector is dominant.

It deals with the children rolling matchsticks in Sivakasi (Tamil Nadu) or preparing slates/pencils in Mandsur (MP) or doing quarry work in Haryana or washing hide in the tanneries of Ambur (Tamil Nadu) or rolling bidis in Belgaum and Mangalore (Karnataka) or helping diamond-cutters in Surat (Gujarat) or constructing buildings in semi-urban and urban areas or washing plates and serving customers in restaurants, or working as `mechanics’ and helpers in automobile workshops or as “sales boys” for the retail and wholesale trade across the length and breadth of the country.

Article 39 of the Constitution requires that “the tender age of children is not abused” and that anyone “is not forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age or strength”. Children under 14 are banned from working in factories, mines or hazardous industries. Child labour per se, however, is not illegal. It is interesting to note that children of any age, may work in family-based industries, in agriculture, in small units or in industries not categorised as hazardous.

The important laws are the Factories Act, 1948 and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986.The former bans children below 14 from working in factories employing 10 or more persons with power, or 20 without power. The latter Act bans employers from hiring children in 25 industries and occupations, including hazardous occupations such as bidi rolling, making matches with toxic substance, tanning, etc. The penalties for non-compliance are 3-12 month’s imprisonment or a fine of Rs 10,000- 20,000 for first offence, and a mandatory jail term of six months to two years for repeat offences. Of course, the advertising industry is not covered by the said Act.

Ad business is big business

Advertising is one of the largest service industries in the country.

Table 1 shows the ad-spends in different media in the last few years and it reveals that TV constitutes the largest segment of the ad-spend by all categories. Table 1 also shows that the TV medium has overtaken the print medium in overall advertising revenue in the last few years. TV channels consider the 30-second ad the basic unit of television commercial airtime. According to an analysis by AdEx India, which monitors television advertising across 100 channels and 650-plus product categories, the average ad duration has risen in 2003 compared to 2002 (Indiantelevision.com).

In 2003, about 25.2 per cent of the ads were of 30-second duration followed by 20-second ads, with a 21.61 per cent share. Hence, the need for the persuader to capture your attention in this short span, without the viewer switching channels. The intense competition for attention induces advertisers to use infants, babies, toddlers and older boys and girls in the hope that it will catch the attention of both youngsters and elders.

Table 2 lists some of the products for which newborns, babies, toddlers and older children have been extensively used by the advertising industry on television. This is only an illustrative list and is not exhaustive. We can safely say that children are not used for pushing three products — cigarettes, liquor and contraceptives. The first two are supposed not to be advertised at all. The extensive use of children of 0 to 14 years by the hidden persuaders has several implications. Normally, child labour issues are regarding 5-14-year-olds, but in this industry even newborns and babies/toddlers are used.

Impact on the children who act

There has been a lot of debate on women being used as `commodities’ in advertisements, and various concerned organisations, including women’s groups, justifiably protest against this. But the same groups are silent on the use of newborn infants/toddlers/babies/children in advertising for assorted products. There are two inter-related issues. One, using child labour to promote products. The second is luring young children to buy/demand these products.

These two are inter-related as, unless children are used, the persuasion may not work with the children who are watching it.

In other words, the impact is much more if the child is persuaded by another child and, of course, even for adults, being persuaded by a child is relatively easier. These are the arguments given in Europe and the US in regulating this area. Though the industry is not classified as hazardous as per Indian laws, the extensive use of children raises several important questions.

What is the psychological impact on these children who have to act after several practice sessions and perhaps some gentle corporal persuasion? The education of some of these children gets affected as they hop in and out of studios in the midst of their studies. The most important issue is the complete loss of innocence at a tender age, being exposed to the vagaries of the money-spinner “professional” world, where the language and culture and ethos all pertain to the adult world.

The worst is the issue of rejection after the so-called ” screen test”. So much is talked about rejection of children by pre-primary schools after interviews but nothing on this elite profession. The glitz and razzmatazz associated with this industry has made the average citizen become oblivious to the insidious use of child labour. The use of children is all-pervasive in this industry and the silence of the elite only reinforces the point that we are concerned with only obscure issues and not the obvious ones.

International practice

There are regulations in the EU pertaining to advertisements aimed at children.

For instance, the Self-Regulation Code of Children’s Advertising prepared by the industries group of Europe, based in Brussels (November 2001 code), suggests that the advertisement should not exploit the inexperience or credulity of children. It also clearly enunciates that the advertisements should not undermine the authority or responsibility of parents. It should not include any direct appeal to children to persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them. Programme personalities, live or animated, should not be used to sell products in or adjacent to programmes in which the same personality appears. The list is long and runs to several pages.

In Sweden, the regulator has banned TV advertising ” aimed at attracting the attention of children under the age of twelve ” and recently introduced schemes to prevent children being used to lure other children into buying products. In the US, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureau was established as early as 1974 by the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) to promote responsible children’s advertising and to respond to public concerns.

The NARC’s board of directors comprises key executives from the Council for Better Business Bureaus, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the American Advertising Federation, and the Association of National Advertisers. Seven basic principles underlie CARU’s guidelines for advertising, which include the special responsibility of advertisers to protect children from their own susceptibilities. Incidentally, these guidelines apply to advertising using children under 12 in all media, including print, broadcast and cable television, radio, video, point of sale, online advertising and on packaging.

Need for self-regulation

The existing laws in India do not prohibit using children in advertisements as the subject is covered neither in the 1948 Factories Act nor in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986.

It does not come under hazardous category. Metropolitan elite may smile at the mention of dharma in relation to an industry like advertising. But Madison Avenue has adopted self-regulation and that may induce our industry to think on those lines. In our context, government-imposed solutions may not bring the desired results. Self-regulation by a body, consisting of the doyens of advertising as well as other related industries, may be the answer. Are the not-so-hidden persuaders listening?

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