Blocked in UK,Complan & Horlicks feed on kids’ exam fears here

Peddle memory chargers,brains,make bizarre claims citing dodgy ‘studies’

Written by Archna Shukla | New Delhi | Published:March 16, 2012 2:04 am

“Yeh history,geography badi bewafa,raat ko rato kal safaa.”

“Yeh zaalim maths ke formulae,ghar mein yaad rahe exam mein bhule.”

These are two ditties from a milk supplement advertisement currently playing on television. Companies marketing products pegged to season have now latched on to the one that holds households in grip around this time of the year: the exam season. What they are counting on is the nervousness and anxiety of intended consumers to sell their wares — based on dodgy “studies.”

A Horlicks commercial on these lines,‘Taller,Stronger,Sharper’,which has been running on Indian television for years,incidentally had to be withdrawn in the UK after the advertising standards authority objected.

After raising the bogey of history,geography and maths,an advertisement has a voice-over asking parents: “Do your children forget things they learn for their exams?” The reason,it says,“could be incomplete nutrition”. To fill the gap,the advertisement adds,what is needed is “Complan memory”. “Make your children drink it at least twice a day. It has five brain chargers that will charge your children’s brain and improve their ability to retain what they learn.”

“It is such a crafty move,” says Bejon Mishra,former member of the Food Safety Authority of India and the founder of non-profit organisation Healthyyou. “You sell your product playing on your target audiences’ insecurities and anxities and instill a sense of guilt.”

Heinz India,the company that owns the Complan brand,did not respond to phone calls and email sent by The Indian Express.

However,Complan isn’t the only one playing on the fear of exams. With a tagline ‘Exams ka bhoot bhagao’,a Horlicks ad features “ghosts” reminding children of exams. The voice in the background directs children to drink two cups of Horlicks every day to be “exam ready”.

It adds that Horlicks “builds up attention,concentration and makes children stronger by making both the brain and the body ready for exams”.

In an email response to The Indian Express,Jayant Singh,Marketing Director,GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare (GSKCH),the company that owns the brand Horlicks,said: “The claims on our products are backed by extensive scientific evidence and research. Stringent tests and scientific reviews are conducted on the product prior to it being released commercially.”

He further cites a study on micronutrient fortified beverage conducted by the National Institute of Nutrition that works under the Indian Council of Medical Research. According to him,the study was reviewed and approved by the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Institute of Nutrition,Hyderabad.

Misra challenges the validity of such studies. “There are several issues. One,any fortified nutrient will have benefits over non-fortified food,so to say a product is better than others is stating half truth. Secondly,such studies are not representative and are commissioned on a small,closed set of subjects. Their results,therefore,cannot be universal.”

While he was a member of the Food Safety Authority of India,Misra says,he had suggested that the scientific committee of the authority be reconstituted to include people with a proper scientific background and that all studies on nutritional benefits of products be validated by it.

Misra also points out that “Horlicks or Complan will not be allowed to air such ads in any of the developed countires whatever be the basis of their study”.

In 2008,the Advertising Standards Authority of the UK had forced Horlicks to withdraw an ad on ‘Taller,Shaper,Stronger’ lines that claimed that a test done on 869 children had shown that the group among them that was fed Horlicks was better at all kinds of activities than the rest.

Horlicks’s official defence in the case was that the ad was not meant for the UK market and was aired by mistake. GlaxoSmithKline’s Singh doesn’t deny that the same ad now runs in India. “The ‘Taller,Stronger,Sharper’ claim on Horlicks is restricted to the Indian subcontinent. GSK has not authorised anyone to air this advertisement outside the Indian subcontinent,” he says,arguing that claims in ads are decided by the relevance for their geography.

The counterpart of the British authority in India,the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI),says it has not taken any action against the two brands because there has been no complaint. “There has been no complaint against the ads in question of the two brands,” says Allan Collaco,secretary general of ASCI.

Misra,who is a member of the Consumer Complaints Council of the ASCI,says therein lies a loophole. “Consumers rarely file any complaints. Most complaints that come to the ASCI are from rivals,but when rivals are partners in crime,how could there be any complaint?”

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