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Here's Looking at You, Kid
By Dharen Chadha

"**The Indian child today is pretty much the eyes and ears of his family. In many homes, his is the most expert opinion**"

The idea of marketing to kids makes most people uneasy with thoughts of manipulating and corrupting the innocent. Indeed, the media has been responsible for fueling some appalling aspects of peer pressure among kids.

Having said that, it is perhaps simplistic to think that the urban Indian child is a soft target for marketers. That would be underestimating the power children hold in what is a complex dynamic at work.

Market research reveals that children play a powerful role in influencing their family's purchases. In a focus group that we conducted recently for a leading consumer durable, this was effectively summed up by a gentleman: 'While I was growing up, every time we went shopping my father would ask me to shut up as I didn't know anything. Today, my son tells me the same thing.' We have found children influencing not just food and drink purchases but even big-ticket products such as paints and TVs.

So what is behind this? First of all, the fact that the Indian child is pretty much the eyes and ears of his family. Technology and the information revolution are an obvious agent of change, with kids getting comfortable with all sorts of gadgets, computers, and the internet from a very early age. Most children will quite matter-of-factly say to you in focus groups that their parents do not know as much about a lot of products. It is the child who operates all the gadgetry. Not surprisingly, in many homes, his is the most expert opinion on gadgets and he can actually blow a brand or two, right out of the purchase consideration set!

Add to this the scarcity of time and emotional energy that most parents have to cope with and you have a situation where a guilt-ridden, indulgent parent is eating out of the hands of an increasingly manipulative child, adept in the art of negotiation.

Changing family structures are the other mega trends. With more nuclear families with single children, the child grows up much more rapidly today. Parents find themselves involving their kids in fairly 'adult' conversations, sharing vulnerabilities with them from an early age and developing a more equal, 'friend-like' relationship. A bizarre moment of truth occurred in one of our recent focus groups when a seven-year-old boy informed the moderator that soya bean was good for women going through menopause! The little fellow had picked up this gem from his own mother.

However, while the parent is now a friend and hence the need to 'rebel' against him or her may well have disappeared, there still comes a time when the world of the parent starts to become a bit restrictive and 'uncool'. Once a child has outgrown the dependence of early childhood, the influence of the parent starts to get limited. Further, with the decline of the joint family and the relative lack of sibling bonds, the peer group assumes paramount importance. The need to be accepted by a group of friends is stronger than ever before.

And it is here that children become susceptible to all sorts of irrational pressures, insidiously mounted by cynical marketing. For instance, in one focus group we had children talk about nutrition. They talked extensively about essential vitamins and minerals. They also knew about the illnesses one suffers from eating an unbalanced diet. Yet, they argued and pleaded with their parents to take them to a fastfood restaurant. The fastfood culture is propagated continuously through the media. The child feels tremendous peer pressure to have a 'fastfood experience' and is soon addicted to it. Therefore, in spite of knowing as much as they do about health and nutrition, the consumption of junk food by children is at its highest.

Evidently, there is a difference between knowing something at an intellectual level and having the emotional maturity to deal with it. Thus, there are limits to all this business of 'mini-adulthood', with the little person surprising us often as he or she toggles constantly and unpredictably between being a knowledgeable adult and an emotionally vulnerable child. The irony is not lost on the child: I found myself feeling bemused recently when my 11-year-old niece told her dad off in my presence—for giving in too easily to peer pressure!

Published in The Times of India, Mumbai Edition