Post Thumb

Lately, there has been much discussion about including child influencers in branded content – is it exploitative? Is it just good sense? What are its obvious advantages? And how should the process be navigated responsibly? The discussion is very different than those that try to pin down the best way of using (grown-up) influencers – that are about finding a balance between brand speak, consumer relevance and cultural connect, not about whether such a practice should exist to begin with.

The unsurety about child influencers arises because children aren’t agents of their own. They can’t participate in the process of negotiating contracts by themselves. Nor do they entirely understand the implications of such contracts. So, brands always face the risk of seeming exploitative through collaboration with them.

How then should children be included in branded content, if at all? In the commercialised world that we live in, it would be highly impractical to suggest that brands give up on featuring children altogether.

To help answer this question, we have studied four examples of branded communication – two with child influencers and two storytelling-driven pieces featuring children. Although, we should highlight right away, the first two are better off classified as influencer endorsement than branded content.

Onto our assessment.

Child as the influencer

Our first example comes from child artist Myra Singh’s endorsement of Ooshies toys, where she interestedly guides viewers through the range available:

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Myra Singh (@myrasinghofficial)

Despite being managed by her parents, she comes off as an independent entity capable of giving out valuable recommendations by herself. Her parents don’t feature on-screen to contextualise her world as a child. She also makes no reference to the adult world. For instance, she says nothing about how her viewers should ask their parents to buy the toys for them. She speaks as if the children are capable of acquiring them by themselves.

This approach implies that children exist in a world of their own that stands apart from the world of adults, even though its existence is reliant on the latter.

There is even a sense of autonomy in how Myra imitates the lingo and engagement style of a professional content creator. She greets her viewers saying ‘welcome back to my channel, this is your girl Myra Singh’ and asks them to watch till the end to find out what the surprise toy is.

Usually, children imitate adults out of admiration or for play. But neither holds true here. Myra adopts these communication codes to accurately play the role of content creator, so she can be identified as one of the individuals who form part of the community.

Our second example comes from child artist Aakriti Sharma’s endorsement of Saffola Oodles:

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Aakriti Sharma (@aakritisharma.official)

She has performed a short skit with her mother, where she dreams being told off for eating junk food but wakes up to be presented with a bowl of healthy yet tasty Saffola Oodles by her mother.

Unlike Myra’s endorsement, Aakriti’s mother serves as an on-screen character to contextualise her life as a child and create relatability for children whose eating habits are regulated by their parents. But Aakriti is still the lead of the storyline and the video is about her opinion of the product – even if she doesn’t play an independent entity. The endorsement is a representation of her world, what she likes and dislikes and how that is meant to serve as a reference point for kids her age.

In both examples, the performance of the two child influencers is oriented towards nudging their audience to make a purchase. It is not about exhibiting talent or playing a scripted part from a screenplay but about playing a social media influencer. The only difference lies in the conceptualisation – one influencer features as a completely independent entity and the other one is reinforced in her status as a child by the presence of her mother guiding her through healthier choices.

Child as the performer

We will take the next two examples together – one comes from SBI Life Insurance and the other comes from Surf Excel. Both are examples of human-interest storytelling that feature children as their primary characters.

The illustration from SBI Life Insurance was created for Mother's Day this year:

It is about a young school-going girl who observes her mother juggle the multiple roles of a working parent and then tries to imitate those actions during playtime. Since she sees her mother lead office meetings, prepare lunch and monitor her school lessons, all one after another, she pretends to do the same while sitting around her stuffed toys and passing them instructions.

Surf Excel's story is about a young boy who gathers his friends to brighten his presswala's Diwali:

The boy and his friends drop flat onto the rangoli designs at home to transfer the colours and patterns onto their clothes, turning themselves into portable rangoli for the presswala and others working on the festive occasion like him.

Both branded illustrations are different from the examples of the child influencers in two key ways.

First, they are story-led and not personality led. The child actors serve as key characters, but in the end, it is the story that is the hero. This is unlike influencer marketing where the child is the hero and the material is woven around them.

Second, both brands have only cast the child actors as performers in their story. They haven't made them hold up products, highlight their benefits and play endorsers like child influencers do. They have approached them as characters in a story and given them a chance to exhibit their talent but not used that to make a direct sale.

Wrapping up – Influencer or performer, what difference does it make?

It is all to do with our cultural understanding of children and childhood. We see childhood as a state of innocence, as a time when children must be protected from the harsh realities of the world. When they must be shielded from its pressures of performance, competition and the resulting social judgement.

The only exception to this understanding comes in the case of talent exhibition. It is considered acceptable to expose children to public platforms if it means that they will receive an early chance to cultivate their talent. And by doing so, get the head start they need to achieve success within their field.

However, when brands use child influencers to promote their products, it is not about the exhibition of talent. It is about employing the child’s skills to earn the brand money, just as it holds true for any professional who works in marketing. Contractually asking a child to sell gives them the notional status of an adult and breaks the social divide that exists between children and adults – that’s where the discomfort of the onlooker comes from.

It is important for brands to understand this difference, because right or wrong, it influences their public perception.