The modern art of mindful manipulation

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As your child has their eyes glued to the television, be aware that their minds are being manipulated for commercial ends — sometimes, even in innocent cartoons.

“Integrated” marketing involves a TV channel allowing its content to be used as a vehicle for a brand or product. | Pixabaythr

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It's one of those mornings. I'm listening to my favourite FM Radio channel. The friendly banter between the two co-hosting RJs is balm for my harried soul, as it is for lakhs of fellow citizens stuck in morning rush hour. She has a totally wacky laugh, matched ably by his quicksilver wit and zany sense of humour.

In between the popular songs and the laughs, she exclaims about a well-known brand’s new range of bejewelled watches. "These are so beautiful,” she says in her trademark zingy tones. There is no "ad-break" or pause in their conversation to indicate that this is a "marketing spot". And listening to her gush over the new collection, I immediately want to see what she is talking about. So I "google" the brand. The chirpy RJ is right, the watches are lovely! Maybe I should pick one up too. The thinking part of me knows the RJ was doing an "advertorial" or paid-promotion on her show. But no matter, I still want to check out those watches. They do look really good, after all.

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Your child is having a massive meltdown. She wants more chocos (that wildly popular sugary, chocolatey breakfast cereal found in most urban homes) now! And is throwing a screaming, full-volume tantrum over it. Scolding her isn't working, nor is trying to soothe her down. You’re rapidly losing it.

While you’re taking deep, calming breaths, counting one to 10 and re-assessing your life and parenting strategies, take a look at the image above. Didn't quite notice it, did you? It is a familiar one. You've seen it countless times and, possibly, dismissed it as part of the usual “safe” kiddie fare your child watches on television.


Guess what, your child’s reaction is not that dissimilar to mine. Except that I am being much more grown-up about it. Another crucial difference is that, being a grown-up, I can go and buy exactly what I want, when I want it, no matter how expensive it is — unlike your child, who has to resort to sulks and hissy-fits and get you to buy it for him/her.

It’s conditioning…

Actually, you and I, your child and mine — we all are being manipulated and doing some manipulating ourselves. In fact, the child and I are behaving just like Pavlov’s Dogs. Remember the conditioning experiments conducted by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) — which demonstrate the way “classical conditioning (also referred to as Pavlovian conditioning) could be used to cultivate a particular association between the occurrence of one event in the anticipation of another.”

Over a period, Pavlov’s dogs started salivating for food at the ringing of a bell. Here, we are being conditioned, slowly but surely, to want (and buy and consume) more and more — be it bags, watches, chocolatey cereal, soft drinks, so on. And how is this happening? Through innovative and insidious marketing and advertising that is now so much a part of our lives we don’t even notice it any more. This new kind of hidden-in-plain-sight promotion/advertising or marketing is all the rage today in print, on air, on television, and yes, on social media.

That’s why your child is having a meltdown. And that’s why I often shudder to read my monthly bank statements.

Yep, there’s a name for it

This is intuitive advertising that’s "integrated" into popular TV and Radio programmes/shows/social media. Enmeshed into your child's TV-watching habits, for instance, are "co-branded" shows by companies that make high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) food or drink products. HFSS refers to salty snacks/chips, soft drinks, noodles/pastas and that cereal your child WANTS RIGHT NOW.

Basically, every time your child and mine watches his or her favourite TV show, he/she is also bombarded by messages touting the goodness of all this highly addictive junk food. And, what's more, her favourite cartoon characters (be it Motu-Patlu or Chhota Bheem) is telling her that. So, the message is being received loud and clear.

Similarly, popular RJs can be hugely influential — they have captive listeners, after all. So, instead of going into advertisement breaks, with integrated marketing, a radio channel will get a popular RJ to talk about a product as if he or she has experienced or tried it. Because, some of those listeners will go on to check out the goodies/products being talked about. Just like I did. On social media, it’s even easier — all the social media star needs do is pout with the product in question, take some videos, and post tags or links on their Facebook/YouTube/Instagram pages. His or her followers will do the rest, knowing well (at least, I hope so), yet indifferent to the fact that this is a promoted post.

Insidious or innovative?

Advertising, all said and done, has always been about selling something, always been aspirational (be it centred around beauty, glamour, success, etc.). But this new kind of marketing is both insidious and ingenious. And yes, it certainly has an impact. When aimed at adults, there is always an element of choice involved. You could call it "mindful manipulation" — we know we are being suckered, so to speak, but we choose to buy it (the product) anyway.

But what about children, who are infinitely more vulnerable, and so much more gullible? Children often believe everything they see and hear, especially if it is something associated with a favourite cartoon character. For example, Pogo, a children's channel, often shows Chhota Bheem episodes created to specifically showcase Kellogg’s Chocos (yes, that chocolatey cereal again). This is done by crafting a story that features Coco, the Kellogg’s mascot, fighting the bad guys alongside Bheem.

How do I know this? Well, I realised that many of the shows my son watches features blatant product placement. Why was Chhota Bheem, along with his gang, eating chocos to fight bad guys? I found myself wondering. And why were Motu-Patlu (popular cartoon characters) telling kids to eat more salty Yellow Diamond Rings? That’s when I decided to find out more.



Junking healthy living

Turns out this kind of marketing is especially evident across children's programming in India, because children heavily influence their family's spending habits. And today what our urban children want, they usually get.

But wait a minute, isn't it unethical for advertisers to actively target children and encourage them to eat junk food or soft drinks on a regular basis? Nutritionists and doctors stress that inactive children who also eat sugary, salty food/snacks often are at risk of becoming obese. That is why the British government has already banned television advertisements for HFSS products aimed at children. What's more, from July 2017, such adverts will be banned in Britain from print and social media too. Why? Because childhood obesity is a growing problem there, literally.

In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) also strongly believes that "children need to be protected from pervasive junk food adverts in apps, social media and video blogs", and urges parents to be wary about the invasive nature of such advertisements.

Eat more junk, kids

In India, such bans don’t exist. Just the opposite, in fact. Popular children's channels tie up with junk-food manufacturers, who are heavy advertisers. That is how Pogo and Kellogg’s Chocos have created their branded mini-series featuring Chhota Bheem and the Chocos mascot, Coco. In advertising industry parlance, this is “integrated” marketing — where the channel produces child-friendly content, that basically acts as a vehicle for the product.


The "brand is integrated into the storyline" and it's a win-win situation for both channel and advertiser, points out industry newsletter Animation Express. “This is an unconventional route to engaging children with entertaining content that also subtly reinforces the brand’s attributes”, stresses an article in the newsletter.

And that is where the above image featuring Coco and Chhota Bheem comes in.

By this time, some mindful manipulation will have already taken place in your home. Quite possibly, you will have given in to your pesky mini-me and bought him/her Kellogg's Chocos Chhota Laddoos (cereal shaped like laddoos) that are the very latest offerings from this co-branded promotion. That you bought it for her simply goes to show just how successful “integrated” marketing really is.

And I have a confession to make as well. I too succumbed to my favourite RJ’s pitch.

And I am now the proud owner of a classy, elegant, bejewelled watch. My husband bought it for me as an anniversary gift!

Who manipulated whom, I wonder.

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