Indian ad agencies wake up to child exploitation

Recently, several advertising agencies have not only used ads but also interpersonal means to get the message across

People familiar with the & #BANNER1 & # best of international adverts would remember last year's brilliant Saatchi & Saatchi advert, which showed an eight-year-old girl as a puppet controlled by a ventriloquist - her abuser. The girl/puppet is left powerless by her abuser; unable to make friends; pay attention at school; or speak to her mother about what is happening. The advert ended with a message: "Children who are victims of abuse don't have their own voice: Be more careful alert and cautious."

It's likely that you haven't seen such a hard-hitting TVC on child abuse, produced by an Indian agency. But that doesn't mean that India is silent on this aspect; it's just that Indian advertising on the ill-effects of child exploitation, which includes the whole gamut of crimes against children, is being silently handled through below-the-line activities.

Mudra, for example, has kick-started its 'Child domestic work-awareness' media campaign through billboards, after conducting intensive research involving 2,000 children engaged in domestic work. Sukumar Menon, associate creative director, Mudra, says, "The communication attempts to heighten the fact that child domestic workers most often do the kind of work that adults ought to do. The campaign idea, 'domestic work isn't child's play', is dramatised by replacing the home setting where they do their chores, with toy houses - complete with a kitchen set, bathroom set, bedroom set etc that typically children play with." The agency has used bus shelters, bus panels and hoardings at prominent places, followed by a print campaign in select magazines.

The client, National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM), seems to be happy with the response that the campaign has generated. Says Anjali Shukla, programme coordinator, NDWM, "We have got a good response for the campaign. We received a number of phone calls from people asking us about the issue. Some people even dropped in at our office. Around 50 people approached us and wanted to volunteer."

Raj Kurup, regional creative director, Grey Worldwide, feels that ads aren't the only medium to convey the message. "A lot still needs to be done for child rights," he says. "We work with our client, Child Relief and You (CRY) to address the much larger picture of 'child rights'. It's not just about doing an ad or two, we also cover an entire range of below-the-line activities such as distributing flyers, brochures, badges and t-shirts. These apart, we also interact with village kids. After all, the message can be conveyed anywhere, not just through expensive means such as TV ads."

Concurs Mukesh Anand, associate creative director, social rural division, RK Swamy/ BBDO, "The issue of child exploitation needs to be treated with interpersonal means, thereby influencing policy makers, legal authorities and parents of such kids, rather than going in for mass media."

Leo Burnett is another agency that has taken an interest in this topic - albeit through the mass media. Says Russell Barett, creative director, Leo Burnett, "Our social division, Leo Hope, works with an NGO, Prerana. We have made TVCs and press ads on child trafficking. The communication works on the insight that the girl child from a village is often lured with false promises to big cities, where she becomes a victim of child crimes."

A creative professional, who declined to be identified, adds, "Mass media is certainly helpful for creating awareness. Ever since STAR Care, the division of STAR TV India that sponsors public service campaigns, has expressed an interest in airing these commercials for free, such issues will definitely come to light. Even if 20 people are made aware of the problem, that will be a huge step in the right direction. It's the tip of the iceberg, but we're getting there."

Funding apparently is a problem for such adverts. Shukla from NDWM says, "As far as we are concerned, most ad agencies have not been very enthusiastic when funds were low."
In fact, there are a few NGO workers who feel that the issue of child exploitation has not been given its due importance by ad agencies. Pravin Patkar, founder chairperson, Prerana, emphatically says, "There is no doubt that child exploitation has not been given as much importance as other issues. This could probably be due to a lack of funds with NGOs, which work for children issues. Barring a few, the ad agencies have grossly neglected this issue."

Anand of RK Swamy/ BBDO defends his turf. He says, "I think it depends on who wants to advertise these issues. The onus is not on ad agencies. I disagree that nothing has been done for child exploitation. We, along with our clients, the Indian government and UNICEF, have proactively done a lot against child trafficking; but it is more on the grass-root level rather than mass media, and therefore it has not been highlighted."

Yogita Verma, general manager of communications, CRY, agrees. She says, "Although we fund our own communications, we're lucky that we are given subsidised rates by the press and other media. Ad agencies also give us a discounted rate. In fact, agencies have been quite cooperative. After all, such work comes straight from the heart."

Menon of Mudra remarks, "The inherent problem with this issue is that child domestic work doesn't, under the law, qualify as child labour. So, all we can do is create awareness. More importantly, our campaign on child domestic work is probably the first time that such a cause is being talked about. I guess, it'll take some time, effort, ground level activities and yes, media presence for the cause to effect."

Anu Dixit, programme in charge, UNICEF, feels strongly about the plight of children. "I think people have not really addressed this issue as much as they should. Everyone knows child exploitation exists, but very few actually do something about it. Yes, this issue has been addressed less, in comparison to other public service issues."

Jude Fernandes, president, Mudra feels that child exploitation hasn't fully emerged out of the darkness as yet. He says, "There's much more money in those NGOs which handle issues such as AIDS. Major celebrities are involved in these campaigns. Even Polio has a lot of government funding. But child labour is considered a third world issue. There are NGOs working on it silently and their work is commendable. But since adequate funding is not obtained for child issues, they are not able to get the required exposure."

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