What's that smell?
|   Jun 12, 2015
What's that smell?

As a student of marketing/advertising, i've been awed by its powers of persuasion - the magic of creating messages that touch the heart and bring the tears. I've watched jaw dropping advertisements that have gone down history as works of arts - noted for their brilliance, their word-smithery, their delicately nuanced stories that, at the end of the day, made me form an allegiance with the product they were promoting. And i was carried by the wave (albeit briefly) -i sunk my teeth into research, into fine-tuning the artwork, into talking to 'real customers' about what they wanted out of a sanitary napkin or their lightbulbs. Here was work that touched lives, it enhanced people's day to day existence, it made them buy superior products that gave them superior experiences in life. 

Now, as a mother, advertisements just make me mad. I cringe each time 'children's health drink' ads appear on prime time TV, with cute cartoon characters doing their thing and a freebie thrown in with every purchase. I can see my daughter's eyes go round as saucers - her 3 year old brain has registered the jingle, the packaging, the characters - and the next time we're in a store, she makes a beeline for the packet with the highest sugar content in the store. Her tears well up as i say no - the health drink isn't really healthy and in fact, it will make her teeth fall out by the time she's 5. But try explaining the concept of 'future' to a 3-year old. I compromise, i buy her a little tetra pack instead and let her sip it in the car. Out of curiosity, i slurp the last dregs and the resulting sugar high lasts me a good couple of hours.

Admittedly, when the stalwarts of Bollywood promote a product, my suspicion wavers a little; i almost believe that instant noodles can actually be made of oats or just plain old golden wheat - and i will the image of sun-kissed fields of wheat into my mind. But not for long.

It angers me that the 'MSG' is printed in teeny weeny text in a fold of the pack, while the 'oats' text is bright and red and mentioned at least 10 times all over. It angers me that the 'sodium' content of most foods is printed as 'negligible' on the nutrition panel while fibre, vitamins, whatever have respectable numbers beside them. I'll decide how much sodium is negligible, thank you very much. It angers me that 'made of real fruits' actually means they've added a drop of pineapple essence to that 500ml tetra pack.

As an advertising intern, i remember sitting next to a bleary eyed illustrator, telling them to 'increase the font', 'make a red bubble' and add the standard disclaimer, not knowing that what i was working on was getting some unsuspecting mother to believe in the innate goodness of the product she was buying, but knowing that there was no way on God's earth she's going to be able to read the wee little text that, when tested on lab mice, this product had the potential of causing cancer, ulcers, brain damage or whatever. 

I now know that someday, the busy mother, in her hurry to get two kids out the door in the morning and having to go to work herself, would quickly pour her kids a hearty bowl of chocos (or sugar frosted sugar bombs) and sit smug when they finished every morsel in the bowl. In her mind, the little box of the daily recommended diet of vitamins, minerals and calcium would have all the 'ticks' and she'd go about her day guilt-free. And she'd do it everyday for the next 5 years, not knowing what hit her when she's rushing the little ones to the dentist for a filling, or when she's trying to get them to bed at 10 and they stare unblinkingly at her through a sugar and chemical-induced haze.

It angers me that a market has been created for that j&j 'baby smell' - you don't have a baby in the house till is smells like J&J talc. Anyone who has smelled their babies, clean and uncontaminated by products knows that there it doesn't hold a candle to what J&J can do to your child. And while we're on J&J, let me tell all the parents-to-be out here that motherhood looks NOTHING like what they show in those commercials. The soft-focused images are the result of sleep deprivation (maybe the cameraman had been up 4 nights getting the baby and mother to cooperate?). The 'smile' you see on those newborns? Gas, plain and simple. And it doesn't smell remotely pretty, let me assure you. So, here you have J&J - getting all women out there teary eyed about motherhood, which they believe is all peaches and cream, and they, in turn go convince their husbands that their clocks are ticking or whatever, and voila - they have a baby on their hands. 

And reality hits like a full diaper - but take heart, there's J&J to the rescue. You can still buy sweet smelling products; products that fill your home with the wonderful scent of babies and their cuteness and bathe your baby 10 times a day, because J&J says so. 

Think: how much bathing does a baby really need?? Do they play in the mud? Do they step off the bed and go walking while you're sleeping? Do they drive to work each day? So, basically, your product has effectively convinced me to bathe, powder, shampoo (the non existent hair on the baby's head), because you see, J&J is powered by experts. Experts who know your baby much better than you do. And their ads appear ad nauseum during your favourite soap, programming your vulnerable mind to think that: (1) you must have a baby (2) you must douse them with copious quantities of J&J products.

Think i'm overreacting? here's what you bathe your child with if you're using a J&J shampoo (and most others, i presume, this is not an attack on J&J per se):sodium laurjoamphoacetate, polysaturate, sodium laureth sulphate, cocamidopropyl betaine, benzyl alcohol, tetrasodium EDTA, cutely triethylmonium, quaternium-15, PPG-2-hydroxyethyl cocamide. Ok, there's lots more on the label but I'm tired of typing and my head's reeling from all the spellings. I wonder how it got so complicated bathing a baby?

Take heart, i'm almost at the end of my rant. 

I know how big marketing and advertising budgets can be, i know how companies get profitable, i know what it means to 'push' a product in the market, i know what it means to offer freebies to hook your customer and keep them baited for life. I know how a grain of truth from market research is exaggerated a million times over to look convincing. I know how few products are actually tested and approved for safety when they reach your hands. I know that 'approved by experts' means they got the neighbourhood quack to nod at the tube of toothpaste while he was trying, unsuccessfully perform an extraction. 

[I do realise that if i had even the remotest hope of getting back into advertising at some point in life, this article has potentially killed my chances.]

But all i'm saying is - parents, please see advertising for what it is, read the labels, know about BPA, sodium laureth sulphate, BHA, DEA, parabens. One might argue that some of the research is not conclusive on these products, but do you really want to wait 15 years and know that, yeah, that BPA stuff? I think thats where my cancer came from.

It costs a lot of money to put an advertisement on air (especially on primetime), in a magazine/newspaper - if a company is going all that way to sell its product to you, every single day, it has an agenda. Yes, all products aren't bad and we're surrounded by chemicals and what not, so how will a few more matter, how long can we live in a bubble, blah blah. But just see products for what they are. 

You can live without the J&J smell around the baby, i promise you.

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