How Cartoons Affect Children (And You)
Childhood has become a Blitzkrieg of cartoons. With a sizeable bandwidth of television dedicated to kids, India has more than 15 channels for the 0 to 14 age group. Between Motu Patlu and Chhota Bheem on TV, Frozen on the big screen, and online, Peppa Pig, our kids are surrounded by their favorite animated characters at all times.
While these seemingly innocuous characters are entertaining, perhaps even educational, they are also meticulously and calculatedly made to appeal to children. Today’s cartoon characters ride on hardcore research. From the look and feel of the characters to the storylines, nothing is fluky. The quintessential kids’ corporation, Disney, collaborates with pre-schools and primary schools to test-drive new characters and concepts before going full blast. (The incentive for children: Disney Junior stickers; for the schools: $100 per visit.)
If children find the cowboy protagonist of Toy Story appealing, that’s because developers created a series of sculpted busts capturing him in every possible angle before locking down his look. More recently, the curly hair of Princess Merida in Pixar’s Brave took almost three years to master. (Not a bad investment when box-office returns equaled US$540 million — and millions more were made in merchandise sales.)
The small screen uses these tactics, too. To get a deep insight into its target audience — and its purchasing power — Cartoon Network conducts one-on-ones with children aged 6-15 years across the world. The children are interviewed about an array of topics: their influences and sources of information, their aspirations — and their ability to exercise pester power over their parents’ bank accounts.
The kids’ entertainment industry in India — which includes Cartoon Network — takes their characters just as seriously.
“Shows with Indian characters, and action- and comedy-oriented plots click brilliantly with children,” says Shaheen Dawood, assistant manager of programming at Discovery Kids. “The key is relatable characters and simple, almost slapstick, storylines. Kids don’t like preachy figures in animation.”
What works and what doesn’t is constantly monitored using viewership data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council India, she adds.
If this number-crunching for eyeballs seems a bit over the top that’s because the bigger, more insidious picture is this: India’s animation industry is booming; it generated revenue worth Rs 4,490 crore in 2014 — from our pockets.
Two-thirds of this revenue – over Rs 2,922 crore (and growing at 15% every year; not including piracy) – comes from licensing and merchandising. These are fancy terms for stamping your kid’s favourite characters onto every conceivable thing he uses and — more importantly — will continue to use, once he sees the toons endorse it.
Pogo’s Chhota Bheem and its myriad offshoots, for instance, hold three of the top five spots for the most watched kids’ shows in India, and the little mythological character earns its creators the biggest chunk of merchandise sales; Motu Patlu holds the other top two spots in most-watched programming, and its channel, Nick, takes home the second biggest chunk of merchandise sales.
How cartoons affect children might feel obvious at this point. Characters may hit parents in the pocket, but really – what’s the harm?
“Cartoon characters have become logos. And when you are constantly exposed to them at a tender age, they become a part of you,” says Dr. Dayal Mirchandani, a Mumbai-based consulting psychiatrist and author. “Owning their merchandise makes kids feel no less among peers and sows the seeds of a lifetime of consumerism.”
Leaving aside a discussion on values, consumerism is a dangerous thing to instill in kids, who can’t discern what is good for them and what is bad. Very young children can’t distinguish between program content and commercials, and when popular cartoon characters become brand mascots – a practice known as brand integration – it’s even more difficult. (An example is a Chhota Bheem storyline co-scripted with Kellogg, in which Chhota Bheem cavorts with Coco, a Kellogg mascot; or when characters in Motu Patlu episodes consume branded snacks like Horlicks and Diamond Rings.) This makes it easy for kids to be influenced into wanting things that are not good for them. And the loyalty they feel toward these characters makes it difficult for parents to keep saying no.
Food is a good example, actually. The food industry relies on mascots heavily because studies show kids have a preference for character-branded food. (When given the same food in clear packaging and character-branded packaging, they find the latter tastier.) But these characters aren’t marketing fresh vegetables or fruit; most are attached to cookies, candy, chips, popsicles and other fried snacks with little nutritional value.
In the West, childhood obesity has risen with this phenomenon, and it is unreasonable to expect a different trend here. But while the West is slowly moving to counteract the reach of lovable cartoons and the corporate behemoths behind them (places like Quebec, in Canada, and Sweden have banned advertisements aimed at children under the ages 13 and 12 respectively), regulation in India, if any, is self-imposed.
Cartoon branding can also mislead on the educational front. Spin-off books may seem better for kids than passive TV consumption, but since they are often not developmentally suited to the age group at which they are marketed, they are more likely to frustrate and repel young readers than help them build skills.
“Many of these early readers — sometime referred to as ‘easy’ readers — are not easy,” writes Amy Broadmoore, a K-5th grade librarian in the US, on her blog delightfulchildrensbooks.com.
“Take, for example, Best Dad in the Sea, an enticing looking book featuring one of our family’s favorite movie characters: Nemo. Best Dad in the Sea is billed as a Step Into Reading Level 1 book intended for preK and K. Yet, this book includes very challenging multiple-syllable words such as ‘different,’ ‘careful’ and ‘caught.’ … My first grade daughter is learning to sight read words like ‘to’ and ‘what’ and sound out words like ‘bed’ and ‘zoo.’”
When kids who have not yet mastered basics try to read books with these words, they are likely to give up, and parents, she writes, “are likely to end up wondering whether [their] child is stupid, lazy or both,” never realising the real problem is the book.
It’s not a Pixar phenomenon. To use Chhota Bheem as an example, again, a sneak peek into one of the brand’s many books, Chhota Bheem: The Giant, turns up words like ‘accompanies,’ ‘cowardly,’ ‘gigantic’ and ‘earthquake’ – words far beyond the reading levels of most 5- and 6-year-olds, the lower end of the age range these books are marketed to on Flipkart.
It’s unlikely families will be able to escape this new aspect of modern child-rearing without withdrawing from society completely. Marketing around cartoon characters is here to stay. And sometimes, it’s even used for good: While the campaign ‘Honda Safe Riding With Chhota Bheem’ was ultimately a co-branded marketing exercise across 11 Indian cities, it at least carried a good message around road safety.
The only option, then, is to remain aware of how even the most lovable cartoon is designed to influence kid’s habits, Dr. Mirchandani says. He suggests parents read books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo and websites like Adbusters to help themselves – and their kids – withstand the very tangible influence of their favourite fictional characters.