Posted by: cochinblogger | August 29, 2011

Invasion of the Mind Snatchers

Long, long ago, in the 1950s, a book appeared in America that shocked the nation and sold more than a million copies. The book was to advertising what Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking Silent Spring (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Spring) was to the pesticides industry. The book laid bare the disquieting psychological stratagems employed by advertisers. The book? The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vance_Packard#The_Hidden_Persuaders). Another later development in advertising was product placement, where the product is displayed unobtrusively in a nonadvertising setting such as a movie.

Of course, marketers also deploy more direct methods. Take a look at how the morning paper looked a few days ago. In place of the front page news was a full-spread ad for a five-star resort on the banks of Ashtamudi Lake that was reportedly inaugurated by none other than SRK himself. The actual front page with the news was relegated to page 3. This was not a wrapper that could be discarded; the back page had news. I wonder why the oldest continuously circulated Indian newspaper had to resort to this abominable practice? The unkindest cut was the product being advertised: a five-star hotel on the banks of the Ashtamudi Lake, the second largest water body in Kerala after the Vembanad Lake. I don’t think the lake is in too good a shape to begin with.

I can understand a stricken U.S. newspaper doing this to keep afloat, but Indian newspapers are financially healthy. Here is an Indian take on this loathsome (my opinion) advertising practice:

You Can’t Judge a Newspaper by Its Cover

And a couple from overseas:

Newspaper Wrap-Around Ads Can Dilute Brands

Hope Reborn? Not at the Daily Express

The newspaper audience at least is made up of adults who can recognize a sales pitch when they see one. But kids, who form a substantial market for all kinds of products ranging from toys to clothes to games to educational products, are vulnerable. The cartoon channels are awash with commercials that unabashedly target kids directly. Again, it can be argued that this is a legitimate practice. But what about tie-ups between schools and marketers?

Companies selling educational products meet the school principal, and a mutually beneficial deal is struck. With the ostensibly laudable motive of helping the kids entrusted to them fare well in the competitive world outside, schools expose their charges to advertising by companies in the educational space, especially children’s magazine publishers and test prep companies. One can even have such magazines delivered through the school. This is fine, I’d say, but the line between right and wrong is often not so clear. Test prep companies are allowed to collect information by distributing questionnaires to students. The carrot dangled to school principals by the company is special batches exclusive to the school. The principal also has nightmares of competitor schools accepting all the carrots dangled by these test prep companies, their students surging ahead in a competitive world, and his own school and students falling behind.

One wonders at how much child psychology these test prep companies know. Here is the first question in a questionnaire that my son, now in the sixth standard, had to answer: “Are you passionate and self-motivated towards learning science and mathematics?” The only appropriate answer an eleven-year-old can give to such a question is “Stuff you!” Another breed of companies that invade schools offer enrichment programs of various kinds. A case in point is a program for “motivation and personality development” covering the “development of confidence, communication and public speaking, leadership, team building, stress control, dynamic memory training, and effective learning strategies.” For God’s sake, this sounds more like a training program for managers than for school kids!

The last straw, however, was a class being given over to the filling in of a questionnaire from an electronics multinational that would go into a lucky draw, the winner getting a free ticket to watch a 3D movie in a mall. I asked my son what the questions were. He said they were all about this company’s (let’s call the company GL) products. I asked him how he could possibly have the requisite product knowledge. He smiled knowingly and said the company had a very high opinion of itself and its products and so he selected the options (need I even say the questions were of the multiple choice type, where most of the thinking is already been done for you by the question setter?) that would make the company feel good about itself. I asked him for an example. One question asked which company had introduced 3D televisions to India. The usual suspects were lined up as options, including GL My son chose GL.

What next? Product demos in the classroom?

And even if I could, I wouldn’t stay at the Raviz.

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Responses

  1. I stopped taking “The Hindu” some months back. The massive front-page adverts are both intrusive and crass.

    The newspaper’s willingness to accept all those fawning congratulatory advertisements, celebrating various party leaders and State-run agencies, is also shameful. By resorting to craven flattery, and trying to appeal to politicians’ infantile vanity, can the sponsoring organisations not see how ridiculous they make India look?

    And, having worked myself into a right, royal rant, stuff “GL”!


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