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Children Were Used in Commercials in the 1980s and it Changed the Advertising Game

Not just chocolates and noodles, even cooking oil made full use of kids to break through the clutter.

File shot from video of a popular soft drink of the 1980s

File shot from video of a popular soft drink of the 1980s

All cooking oil brand advertising in the late ’80s looked the same – kitchen, dining table, admiring mother-in-law.

An agency had been briefed about the launch of a new sunflower oil. The name was decided – Sundrop. The company, ITC. The agency, FCB Ulka. The market was dominated by groundnut oil and sunflower was a relatively unknown species.

Hindustan Lever had just launched Flora, its brand of sunflower oil. While Flora was positioned as a ‘light oil’, it was felt that Sundrop needed to be positioned at the belly of the market, literally. Given the characteristics of the sunflower oil, it was felt that the brand could carry the tag ‘Healthy oil’. So while Saffola, which was made from safflower oil, was positioned as a pricey ‘Healthy oil for the unhealthy’, Sunflower had to figure out an interesting space to occupy.

How to break through the clutter and stand out? How to communicate the proposition ‘Healthy oil for the healthy’?

Cartwheeling kid

The creative team working on the brand hit on the idea of using a child as a short-code to spell health for the healthy. And then they literally made the kid stand on his head. The cartwheeling Sundrop kid, dressed in a yellow track suit, went on to tug at the heartstrings of mothers to make Sundrop the largest selling cooking oil brand within a few years of its launch in 1989.

A few years later, Dhara did an interesting take on kids and food. A little kid sits mournfully at a small town railway station.

A friendly old man dressed in khakis, probably the postman, spies him and walks past him nonchalantly. The boy, who knows the old man, is unable to contain himself and calls out to him.

When asked what he was up to, the boy replies, ‘Sab gussa karte hain. Mein ghar chod kar jaa raha hoon’ (Everyone scolds me. I am running away from home). The old man smiles and says that before he runs away he should consider one thing – his mother was making jalebis and by running away he would miss out on the tasty treat. The little kid sheepishly looks at the man and says that then he may postpone the running away to another day. We see the kid sitting on the bicycle as they head home.

The brand message flashes. The film directed by Namita Roy Ghosh and Subir Chatterjee of White Light films for Mudra Communications was rated as one of the best films of its decade.

The trustworthy postman dressed in khakhi uniform riding a bicycle has been an integral part of urban and rural landscape in India; I wonder if this cultural icon will ever be replaced by the local pizza delivery man?

The magic of the kid as kid worked for both these food brands. Indian advertising has been using kids in their narrative since the mid-’50s. Detergents used to show kids winning cups in competitions and running home in their spotless white school uniforms. Milk food drinks like Horlicks and Bournvita too used to show kids performing well, thanks to the goodness of these brands.

Complan took it to another level in the early ’80s when it featured a boy and a girl in its ad. Played by kid models who would become future film stars, Shahid Kapoor and Ayesha Takia, the ad had them singing ‘I am a Complan girl, I am a Complan boy … and we love our Complan mummy’. In a sense, it was the first of its kind where the girl child was the centre of the story line. She plays basketball, she helps her mother. But the brand could not get typecast as a girl brand, so they did have a son in the story who adds, ‘I am a Complan boy’. Experts say that along with Farex, which was positioned as a ‘weaning food’ for infants, Complan changed the way child nutrition was perceived and promoted in the country. Till Complan came on the scene and started speaking about child growth, Indian children were growing on their own and did not need any special additive. But Complan changed that narrative. If Ayesha Takia won hearts as the Complan girl, the all-time favorite little girl was probably the Rasna girl.

Played by Ankita Jhaveri, the Rasna girl created by Mudra Communications went on to capture the imagination of millions of Indians, old and young and made Rasna a huge success. In one of their early ads, Ankita is waiting for her dad to come home from work. The doorbell rings and she says to herself, ‘Pappa aa gaye’ (Dad has come). Her mother offers him coffee. But her father says no. She offers tea, he says no. ‘What will Mummy do?’ wonders the little girl. She then offers Rasna to her mom, who makes Rasna for the tired father. The brand had numerous takes on the girl and her love for Rasna, for her birthday and other occasions. In a sense, the brand targeted young mothers through their kids.

Numerous other brands began using children in their advertisments in the ’80s and ’90s.

Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles_Final cover_Page_1Kids come rushing home from school and yell ‘Bhook lagi hai, Mummy!’ (Mom, we are hungry). Mother tells them, ‘Two minutes’. And the brand Maggi 2-Minute Noodles was born with a bang. By targeting the right moment in a mother’s life – when she has to prepare something hot quickly for her kids – the brand went on to create a new category. It is difficult to change food habits, and we will see that in another chapter, but Maggi achieved a miracle through a combination of kid pester power, value for money and convenience of usage.

Categories like biscuits, chocolates and toffees had traditionally been featuring children to further their cause. Be it Cadbury chocolates with their ‘Sometimes Cadbury can say it better than words’ stories in the ’80s, or Melody which offered chocolate inside a caramel toffee, or even cream biscuits – the brands had their job cut out. Get into the house through the kids and you are safely in the kitchen and on the monthly shopping list.

While working on a confectionery brand in the ’80s, I was part of a serious discussion on the role of advertising and the best time to launch a kid-focused campaign. I said that the best time to reach a kid was when she was free, maybe during vacations, in summer or during any of the other breaks. The veteran marketer T Krishnakumar, who now heads Coca-Cola’s very large bottling business in India, destroyed my hypothesis by saying that the best time to launch a kid-focused product is when the kid is attending school. The argument went as follows: A child learns about a new product from the television or from a retailer. He then has to tell someone. When he goes to school the next day, he has ten or twenty eager listeners, eager to learn something new. If the kid is going to be the viral mechanism for the new product, it stands to logic that a kid does not see the ad for a new product – of interest to him – as an ad. He or she sees it as valuable information that could be traded in school.

Excerpted with permission of Pan Macmillan India from Nawabs, Nudes and Noodles-India Through 50 Years of Advertising by Ambi Parameswaran